Online dating is firmly entrenched as a viable option for meeting potential partners, but it has plenty of drawbacks. Try as they might, profiles, match quotients, and algorithms can’t do nearly what even a few minutes of face-to-face conversation can.

Weopia wants to close that gap by allowing users to go on virtual dates. That gives people the opportunity to chat and talk informally, but without the pressure of a real date, before actually meeting in person.

Each person creates an avatar, and the two avatars go on a date together in the virtual world Weopia has created. If World of Warcraft and eHarmony fell in love (presumably after finding each other on and had a baby, it’d be a lot like Weopia.

What makes Weopia different from emailing or IMing before a first date is how it guides you through the virtual date, helping you to get to know each other. There are videos, conversation ideas, and questions to talk about, all of which you can experience together using voice and text chat (all done via Skype). If a date’s going well, you can talk and discuss plans for a real-life, offline date. If it’s going poorly, one click ends the date–no “calls from the hospital” necessary.

The experience is also designed to be much more immersive, more of a Second Life atmosphere than an IM chat – there’s more involvement, more interaction, and a more real experience for the users. Daters on Weopia can bond via activities like riding hovercrafts and watching sunsets.

Dates are only $5, which is a lot cheaper than a crappy date would be otherwise. The application is a free download for your computer, and each date has a unique password that you’d exchange beforehand. There’s no refund if the date’s a bummer (or she’s not into football, God forbid), but Weopia argues you’d be losing a lot more than $5 on a bad date in the real world.

Weopia is a great complement to other dating sites like PlentyofFish or eHarmony, positioning it as a low-pressure middle ground between the profile sites, and in-person dates.

It might work, too. A group of Harvard and MIT researchers recently studied virtual and online dating, and found that “participants’ reactions are more positive towards individuals whom they have Virtual Dated than towards those whose profiles they have seen and that these effects carry forward through an initial face-to-face meeting in a speed date.” They found, in fact, that those who had virtual dates were twice as likely to have more than one offline date.

Weopia does face a lot of the same limitations as other online sites, though. Online conversation, no matter the venue, is different from offline conversation–it’s hard to get a sense of, say, someone’s sense of humor via text chat. It’s also easy to fake a profile or avatar, and the simplicity of leaving a date might turn Weopia into a Web version of MTV’s “Next!” It also raises the question of whether or not Second Life and WoW might themselves become legitimate places to meet and date online. With such huge audiences, they might actually be the perfect venue for meeting and dating people similar to yourself.

For now, online dating’s a great way to meet people, but a terrible way to get to know someone. Maybe Weopia can help. If you’re interested, just hit this link and click “Try now” to get put on your very own, free virtual date.