The latest twist in digital dating? Live video chats.
Getting past the static photos and wordy profiles so characteristic of dating websites and even some mobile dating apps, the addition of live video chat gets right to the chemistry of in-person interaction, say companies offering the service.
Although video itself isn't new, the ability to incorporate it into mobile dating definitely is, says Nick Bicanic, of Los Angeles, creator of Flikdate, which bills itself as "the fastest date in the world."
"Video communication is coming into its own," he says. "Technically speaking, it was not possible as recently as two years ago. The power wasn't there. Now, we're at the very beginning, but it's about to come into its heyday. This next year will be a really interesting time for us."
Bicanic and a handful of entrepreneurs are behind some of the start-ups emerging with a focus on live video for dating. Among those in this growing field are Dating.fm, Flikdate, Video Date and two newbies launched last fall -- View N Me and Instamour. Those behind the idea say it's a time and money saver, because daters can connect from wherever they are, avoiding travel time to meet someone and keeping cash in their pockets.
"Skype started the whole genre change and FaceTime took it into mobile," says Marc Lesnick, founder of iDate, a dating industry conference and trade show. "FaceTime already proves that the model works."
Instamour founder Jason Sherman of Philadelphia says competition is increasing because "people are into the real-time aspect of face-to-face meeting on an app before spending the time and money and commitment to meet in person."
"Got a minute? Have a date. Real-time video dating from your phone," touts Flikdate's website.
But some argue users won't flock to the video chat because their all-important first impression could be marred by bad lighting or poor camera angles that create an unflattering image.
That's why the website View N Me, which is preparing its app, offers tips for looking your best on video, says co-founder Lindsey Lachman of New York.
The business models vary, but free to the user is a common thread for the video experience. Some charge a fee for certain amounts of chat time. Some rely on advertising or memberships. View N Me, for example used to charge $20 for a one-month basic membership that allows users to view messages, request dates, join speed dating sessions and participate in one-on-one video chats. The site has since become free.
Safety is a particular concern, and companies deal with it in different ways. Marcel Cafferata of San Jose, Calif., founder of Video Date, says it does not use phone numbers or e-mails, and messages delete after 24 hours.
At Date.fm, the focus is on simplicity: Date.fm asks "really basic questions, and finds you potential matches. It then shows you pictures with each user's age and general location, and you like or dislike them. If a person you liked also likes you, you'll get a push notification that you've got a match! Now, you can tap on the chat tab and start a private conversation. Once you've gotten to know someone, you can video chat from within the app."
But is it a real date? Even those in the business don't agree.
"Nowadays, people think first dates are text messages," Cafferata says. "First date or not, I think it's a way to break the ice and show a person on the other side a personality and give them clarity about 'Is this a person I want to meet in public?' "
Bicanic, who launched his app in 2012, says the 90-second video chat forms the basis of a connection.
"Video is an important part of a date," he says. "It's an important first step, but it's not a date.
Lachman says it's kind of a "pre-date."
"It gives you a way to really screen potential matches and make sure there is something there," she says. "For lack of a better way to put it, we are a cheap date."