Last month, Sheel Mohnot and Amruta Godbole got married. This was no ordinary wedding, though. It was hosted on Decentraland, a virtual platform, and sponsored by Taco Bell.
I tried to attend. As a reporter covering virtual spaces and a fellow Indian-American, I was intrigued. Weddings are very important in Indian culture, and I wanted to see how that would play out digitally.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the initial sign-in, and my screen kept crashing. It was so glitchy that I had to give up trying to watch the ceremony just a few minutes in. In fairness, that might have been just me. Others were able to watch the entire experience, including Mohnot’s grandmother in India.
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Still, it left me wondering: Why would people opt to have a metaverse wedding? And will these sorts of ceremonies—especially sponsored ones—stick around, or will they fade away if virtual reality doesn’t live up to the hype?
“It’s crazy and definitely not what we had in mind,” Mohnot says. But the couple say they wanted to do something different from the usual. And beyond the novelty, Mohnot and Godbole’s motivations were straightforward: they got a free wedding out of the bargain. Mohnot is a big fan of Taco Bell, so they entered a competition for the company to pay for the technical aspects of a virtual wedding—the avatars, the production, and more. They won. In return, it plastered its brand everywhere.
For Taco Bell, it was not only a marketing opportunity but an outgrowth of what its fans wanted. The chapel at the company’s Taco Bell Cantina restaurant in Las Vegas has married 800 couples so far. There were copycat virtual weddings, too. “Taco Bell saw fans of the brand interact in the metaverse and decided to meet them quite literally where they were,” a spokesperson said. That meant dancing hot sauce packets, a Taco Bell–themed dance floor, a turban for Mohnot, and the famous bell branding everywhere.
Sheel Mohnot and Amruta Godbole’s Taco Bell metaverse wedding reception. Courtesy Taco Bell
COURTESY OF TACO BELL
If you look past the splashy branding—a trade-off some couples are willing to make for corporate help building and customizing a digital platform—virtual weddings let you do things you can’t in normal ones. For example, Mohnot rode into the ceremony in avatar form atop an elephant for his baraat, a pre-wedding procession for the groom. It’s a fun touch that would be far harder to arrange for an in-person party, especially in San Francisco, where they live.
Making it count was less straightforward. They had to set up a simultaneous livestream of themselves on YouTube in order to meet a legal requirement for their real faces to be visible. That’s because some jurisdictions—including Utah, where their officiant was based—recognize remote weddings as legally binding only if the participants are viewable on video.
A lot of couples won’t be willing to jump through that many hoops. The pandemic created an urgent need for virtual weddings, but traditional in-person ceremonies have roared back in the last year. Roughly 2.5 million weddings were held in 2022, up from 1.3 million in 2020, according to a trade group called the Wedding Report.
So why get married in the metaverse? Some are attracted to the lower cost, according to Klaus Bandisch, who runs Just Maui Weddings in Hawaii. He says the company, which also organizes real-world weddings, is booked several months in advance with metaverse ceremonies.
“We have 120 people on standby and perform at least two metaverse weddings a week,” Bandisch says. “Typically, my vow renewal package is almost $1,000, and if the couple wants avatars, we charge $300 each [person].”
That’s very affordable compared with the standard wedding held in the US, which cost an average of $30,000 in 2022, according to wedding publication The Knot.
And of course, a virtual wedding is cheaper still if it’s being sponsored by a brand. Mohnot and Godbole are far from the only pair to discover this. The platform Virbela hosted a virtual ceremony for two employees, Dave and Traci Gagnon, in 2021. Another couple had their vow renewal ceremony sponsored by Rose Law Group, a law firm with an office in the metaverse. And a third couple in India lined up a series of sponsorships for their metaverse wedding, including Coca-Cola.
Metaverse weddings also allow loved ones to participate without having to go anywhere. For Traci Gagnon, a particularly emotional part of her virtual wedding was having a dear friend, who had terminal cancer and was unable to travel, walk her down the aisle. “She was dancing all night long,” she says. “It was so fun and beautiful.”
One clear downside of metaverse weddings, though, is their lack of, well … realness. Weddings can be deeply sensory experiences: the smell of flowers, the sound of music, the hugs and kisses, the laughter and tears. Much of that is impossible to replicate in a virtual environment. As a result, a metaverse wedding can feel less like a wedding and more like an interactive video game.
But the couples I spoke to say that simply having loved ones “there” outweighed this drawback. Traci Gagnon spoke at length about feeling a sense of connection with her guests, despite the fact that they weren’t sharing the same physical space.
Even the distracting parts of VR were endearing to Godbole and Mohnot. “A kid would run across the screen [during the ceremony] and it was fine,” Godbole says. “It was more interactive than a normal wedding, where you are sitting silently and nothing is happening. In this case you could be expressing your own emotions through your avatar at the same time and not interrupt anything.”
The one remaining obstacle many couples and families might contend with before considering a metaverse wedding is the emotional aspect. Do you really feel married after your virtual avatars share vows and kiss?
Mohnot and Godbole said they were surprised by the intensity of their emotions after their virtual ceremony. “I thought this was going to be some fun, random thing to add to our list of unique experiences,” Godbole says. “But this was a lot more real than I expected it to be.”