Home > WORLD NEWS > Biometrics, real-time data poised to change dating

Biometrics, real-time data poised to change dating

 Photo: Steven Boyle,  The Chronicle

There is nothing new about the elusiveness of love.

For millennia, people have written stories, sonnets and songs about the fundamental struggle of finding the perfect mate. Today, technology companies are writing code to help you do just that.

In the Bay Area, innovators like to envision a future in which technology will streamline, simplify and democratize love in its many phases — from dating to sex to marriage and, yes, even heartbreak.

Struggling to stay connected in a long-distance relationship? Virtual reality and apps can be used to simulate sex and intimacy — and allow separated lovers to remotely control sex toys and other devices designed to transmit pleasure or affection.

Can’t get over an ex? Facebook last year introduced a function that allows people getting over romantic relationships to control how much they do or don’t see of their ex, while allowing them to remain “friends” on the social network. Facebook dubbed the feature “take a break.”

Having trouble finding someone new who shares your interests? Increasingly, niche dating apps cater to almost any characteristic you could think of — age, height, religion, occupation, things you like, things you hate, sexuality, race, and so on. Dating apps also integrate with Facebook, allowing users to meet friends of friends who are single.

Selectivity helps, said Alex Rosen, managing director at IDG Ventures, which invested in the League, a dating service from San Francisco that verifies that its users, primarily professionals, are who they say they are. “Instead of someone having 50 matches, they have five, and they’ll likely end up dating one of those five seriously. Do you want to go through the entire Netflix library, or see the five shows they recommend?”

More than 40 million Americans are looking for love online. They’re swiping left and right on dating apps and filling out increasingly detailed profiles on websites and using their phone’s GPS to tell them who at the gym or the bar or their favorite lunch spot is looking for someone, too.

Online dating has become so mainstream that 1 in 5 adults from ages 25 to 34 have used it to find potential lovers, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Even so, 23 percent of the people it surveyed thought those who use online dating sites are “desperate.”

Amid stronger competition, the overall direction of the industry is hazy at best.


Some online-dating leaders suggest that it lies in more real-time data, knowing exactly who is around you at all times, or making communication more visual with photos, GIFs and quick, Snapchat-like videos.

Others hope to harness biometrics and science to come up with chemical profiles for exactly the kind of person you’re most likely to be attracted to.

Still others still believe that as sexuality and gender identity become more fluid — and more accepted as such — people will cease dividing potential partners by gender and sexuality, and instead seek others based on personality profile.

Some tech companies are even moving toward a strategy that may seem like a throwback: Getting people to put down their devices and meet in person.

“You won’t get a sense of that real chemistry until you’re meeting face-to-face,” said Mandy Ginsberg, CEO of the Americas division of Match Group, a conglomerate that includes Tinder, OkCupid and PlentyofFish. “You would never say, ‘I’d like to spend four months messaging someone.’”

In January, Match released its “missed connections” feature, which allows users to see potential companions they’ve crossed paths with based on location data that they choose to share.

“It gives you the ability to reach out to someone and say, ‘Hey, we shop at the same Whole Foods, we live in the same area and we like the same things.’ It gets back to figuring out ways that people can get a better sense of who you really are in the real world,” Ginsberg said.

Lesbian dating app Her started hosting in-person events last year in San Francisco and 20 other cities around the world. Those include burlesque nights, soccer tournaments, camping trips and speed dating-like meet-ups.

“We think our users genuinely want to meet other people face-to-face, in a way that feels organic and comfortable, but don’t always know how,” said Robyn Exton, CEO of Her. “So we’ve started running events to create those spaces, and help them talk to each other.”

Last month, dating app Coffee Meets Bagel, which is from San Francisco, introduced two services based on collaborations with Spotify and Yelp. One service, Mixtape, aggregates the songs that two Coffee Meets Bagel users have in common. The other, DateSpots, is designed to help people find the ideal locale for a first date by tapping Yelp’s database for restaurants or bars that fit their preferences.

EHarmony CEO Grant Langston wants to help demystify the process of matching-making. In the future, Langston says, eHarmony could ask users to provide biological data as well as eHarmony’s standard questionnaire. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

EHarmony CEO Grant Langston wants to help demystify the process of matching-making. In the future, Langston says, eHarmony could ask users to provide biological data as well as eHarmony’s standard questionnaire.

Dating tools like Tinder and OkCupid rarely reveal much about their algorithms — for fear of tipping off the competition — but eHarmony CEO Grant Langston said the company’s future may lie in demystifying its process and incorporating more advanced scientific tools.

“We gave users a dashboard to help them understand why you and this other person should talk,” said Langston, whose company charges about $60 for a month’s subscription. “It gives the user more control. They can say, ‘I’m very synced up with this person in terms of energy and ambition,’ and they can decide if they think those things are big values for them.”

In the future, Langston said, biological data could conceivably supplement the standard, lengthy personality questionnaire that comes with an eHarmony account.

“I can see a day where people take a swab of their cheek to get a DNA-level analysis of what they would be attracted to,” he said. “There’s a biological component to all of this that is largely unexplored and it would make this business very different.”

Genetic matchmaking remains nascent, but a few companies have already launched products that claim to use DNA to aid romance.

Genepartner, a Swiss company, offers a $249 DNA compatibility test that it bills as a “complementary service for matchmakers and online dating sites.”

Canadian startup DNA Romance will release a more comprehensive matchmaking service on Valentine’s Day, based on biological compatibility by using the results of already-available DNA tests, such as that offered by Mountain View genetics startup 23andMe.

Offering services that go beyond the current swipe-left, swipe-right trend may be a boon to the industry, too, as investors seem reticent to bankroll dating startups in an already crowded space.

The industry has not attracted more than $100 million in venture funding in any single year since 2010, when dating apps began migrating to phones and becoming more commonplace, according to data from CB Insights. Online dating attracts less money than startups in other mobile-driven markets like food delivery and messaging.

“When Match was making their apps, they were spending huge amounts of money,” said David Evans, an industry consultant. “These days, you can get out of the gate so quickly. I like to say a dating site launches every day.”

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