Couples say 'I do' - with online guests watching

The dim lighting and camera angle bring to mind a bank robbery more than a solemn exchange of love vows.

But Cheng Yang's East Coast friends knew it was no cop show when they watched their friend, via the Internet, get married last month at a city-hall chapel 3,000 miles away.

The grainy video footage, preserved for posterity on a CD-ROM, is the latest example that new ideas continue to flourish in Silicon Valley - failing dotcoms and tanking technology stocks aside.

This idea, courtesy of local government, has launched a service that puts weddings online. Applicants for a marriage license in San Mateo County can now have their ceremony, if performed at the city-hall chapel, transmitted over the Internet at no extra cost.

Mr. Yang and his fiancee already thought they were doing the fashionable thing by marrying on Valentine's Day. But when offered an opportunity to say their vows online, a romance that had begun in China became a high-tech American experience.

"It was cool," says Yang, a computer-science student at Stanford University. "I just thought it was a good idea. We had a lot of people who were far away and who couldn't come."

Activities from the mundane to the kinky are finding their way onto the Internet these days, but weddings remain a relatively untapped market. Yet the concept is practical, economical, and private. "This is not for voyeurs," a San Mateo County official says.

The way it works is members on the guest list are sent a secret password that enables them to log on to the wedding. There are several screens of security checks to make sure only the invited can tune in. A fast Internet connection provides for the best audio and visual quality, but even old-fashioned, dial-up modems will work. The technique is called video streaming, and it requires certain software to work properly.

The audience for such services is probably small but growing, say experts. "Overall, these are people that don't want to hassle with a $4,000 wedding party," explains San Mateo County Clerk Warren Slocum, whose office is responsible for issuing marriage licenses and is pioneering the online-wedding service.

In several respects, the service makes sense. Since the county is in Silicon Valley, a high percentage of those coming in for a wedding license work in the technology field.

It also stands to reason that most of those deciding to get married at city hall want a small wedding, whether motivated by economics, privacy, or just an aversion to large crowds. This way, they can have their wedding cake and eat it too. Friends and relatives can be invited without having to make an appearance. County official Theresa Rabe recalls one couple using the service had a parent in Arkansas who couldn't travel.

The technology required for broadcasting a wedding is relatively simple, say county officials here, and so the economics are not daunting. The equipment itself represents a modest investment of a few thousand dollars.

The real expense comes from the time it takes the county's information-technology staff to oversee the online weddings. As a result, the county is only offering the online service at its chapel once a week at the moment, though the aim is to expand it to every day eventually.

The service is included in the fees for a license and the county cost of a wedding ceremony in its chapel. A small fee is expected eventually, but Mr. Slocum says he wants "to do it cheap."

Online weddings remain rare, though county officials here say Las Vegas is getting into the act. But other Web-assisted wedding services have exploded in recent years, from gift registries to websites helping plan ceremonies.

As for Yang, he seemed like an island of calm exchanging vows with his fiancee last month. Yet as they left the room, he turned and faced the camera. Waving and smiling broadly, he shrugged: "I don't know if it's working, but thanks for watching."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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