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Like a VRgin: How the Porn Industry is Taking Over Virtual Reality

Image courtesy [Ela Darling](http://www.cam4.biz/vr/#)

Image courtesy Ela Darling

The real test for any new technology is how quickly it gets picked up by the adult industry. As porn embraces virtual reality, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Talking about virtual reality is a bit like “dancing” about “architecture;” we lack the vocabulary to do it properly, and you have to experience it to understand. That quickly becomes evident when watching someone try it out for the first time. People are invariably blown away—they gasp, they laugh, and they usually can’t help reaching out their hands to touch things that aren’t really there.

“I’ve been introducing a lot of people to VR over the past few months, and that first experience is incredibly intense,” Ian Paul, Chief Information Officer of Naughty America, tells me as he sets up our demo in a San Francisco hotel room. “But when you’re throwing hardcore pornography at them on top of that, it can sometimes feel like a bit of sensory overload,” he laughs.

Paul never quite imagined he’d end up as a world ambassador for virtual reality porn. In his slick-yet-conservative dark business suit, he looks much more like an IBM executive, which is exactly what he was before being lured away to become Naughty America’s CIO six years ago.

Alice Bonasio and Ian Paul (photo by [Tom Atkinson](http://www.r3digital.co.uk/))

Alice Bonasio and Ian Paul (photo by Tom Atkinson)

Then again, when I first started writing about VR I wasn’t exactly thinking about pornography either. Life sure takes some interesting turns, and sometimes all you can do is merrily plunge down the rabbit hole—which is how I found myself in that hotel room, wearing Samsung’s Gear VR headset and watching my first fully immersive virtual sex scene.

As the foreplay unfolded between two female protagonists, I effectively embodied one of them, since the stereoscopic camera gear had been mounted on her head. The other performer maintained constant eye contact with that camera to create the illusion of first-person engagement.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the two girls are soon joined by a guy, and let’s just say that they all get really friendly. During the action my gaze was free to wander around the room; I could look at the floor, a picture on the wall or the shelf bulging with creative-looking dildos to my left. Or I could look down at the model’s body—which effectively stood in for my own—and take in what is being vigorously done to it. It’s all very close-up and personal.

Things get curiouser and curiouser as we switch to the male point of view. Staring at my newly acquired—and rather large—penis sent me into fits of freaked-out giggling. It’s very hard to convey just how weird—and real—that experience feels. Given that those making virtual reality tech have only started scratching the surface of what the technology can do, that’s both frightening and exciting.

GENDER BENDER

Image courtesy Naughty America

Image courtesy Naughty America

Randy’s Roadstop is the series that Naughty America recently released to lay its claim to the growing adult VR space. As the name suggests, in these episodes you effectively become Randy (the main character). The female POV demo I tried earlier hasn’t been commercially released, but it’s part of the company’s efforts to nail the female market. “Nobody’s figured out how to crack that yet, because what stimulates men and women is entirely different,” says Paul.

The videos got mixed reactions, so they’re busy tweaking the format building feedback from women into the product. One example of how that works is how they decided to give the first-person characters a voice.

“It’s the first time we’ve experimented with the person that you ‘play’ actually speaking, because we thought it would break immersion,” Paul continues. “But with the female POV it felt problematic for some people to have the character silent; it can make you start wondering whether she’s enjoying herself.”

The first thing Tom blurts is that he “always wanted a pair of tits.”

As I finish my demo I get the impression everyone did enjoy themselves, but I’m after a second opinion. So our photographer gets drafted in to try the female angle. As he looks down at himself with the goggles on, the first thing Tom blurts is that he “always wanted a pair of tits”. When the action intensifies he goes a bit silent though, and just as things get close to the ‘business end’ he suddenly tears off the gear. That’s a common reaction Paul sees from men in that position; they can’t quite take it in.

“I know that, for myself and other men I talked to, it was really eye-opening. It makes you a bit more sensitive to the experience from a woman’s perspective. To have a man on you, actually entering you, it’s like, wow, this is intense, especially given the fact that the perspective makes the performers really tower over you.”

This sense of experiencing something from someone else’s perspective is probably the most powerful thing about VR, and filmmakers are keen to explore that. Chris Milk, who was commissioned by the UN to make a project highlighting the plight of Syrian refugees, called it “the ultimate empathy machine” in his TED talk.

Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have conducted a variety of experiments that show how virtual reality can be used to make us more empathetic and directly change our attitudes toward disability, age, ethnicity and yes, gender. But while that’s all very interesting and noble, what stands out after seeing men instantly reassess their deeply ingrained attitudes toward sex after just a few minutes spent in VR is that it could make them much better lovers.

PLAYING WITH YOURSELF

Ian Paul (photo by [Tom Atkinson](http://www.r3digital.co.uk/))

Ian Paul (photo by Tom Atkinson)

Librarian turned porn entrepreneur Ela Darling is a rising star in the VR adult industry, making what she describes as “Pretty Porn for Smart People.” She agrees that virtual reality can make people feel more empathy for the people involved, and also have a more considerate approach to sex in their private lives.

“Men might believe that half-hearted attempts to make a woman have an orgasm will lead her to the throes of ecstasy,” she tells me, “but if you live in a female body, you see all the reasons why it’s not authentically pleasing.”

Virtual reality can create incredibly intimate experiences, where some of the shock and awe of hardcore sex can feel overwhelming. Paul suspects this might lead to some toning down, at least at first. “But it also opens up opportunities to do much more interesting things that perhaps haven’t been possible before,” he says.

Some of those opportunities are in teledildonics, which are devices that can be programmed to react with content and provide stimuli at specific times. Naughty America and VirtualRealPorn are already working with companies like Kiiroo to incorporate smart toys into their films, and PornHub recently launched its TwerkingButt, which promises “the ultimate experience in online passion,” Pornhub Vice President Corey Price told me, by combining a VR headset and a device that “sensually gyrates to the motion of videos.” Yet this isn’t just about plugging a vibrator into your smartphone.

Advanced teledildonics will make the virtual feel a whole lot more real, and technology is advancing quickly, according to Nonny de la Peña, who has the funny honor of being known as the “Godmother of VR” . She earned the nickname at Sundance last year when, during an interview, she was continuously interrupted by various people who had pieces in the show paying their respect and telling her how she had got them hooked on the medium. The Endgadget reporter noted the Corleone-like vibe and coined the phrase, which stuck.

“We’re already getting into second generation models, but there will be countless devices ranging from game controllers to haptic suits that track your entire body in a virtual environment, so I think you’ll see pretty much anything you can imagine becoming productized over the next few years,“ she says.

I think as a society we need to accept that people not only look at this content, but that it’s a valid way to explore your sexuality.

Ian Paul
Chief Information Officer, Naughty America

Darling is also excited about the possibilities: “The idea of being able to touch a device in my bedroom and stimulate the sexual senses of someone across the world is thrilling to me, especially if I can touch one device at home and reach thousands of viewers all experiencing a simulation of my touch at the same time. I could jerk off thousands of guys with one stroke! That’s incredible,” she laughs.

In the future these devices will probably sense your physical data, such as heart-rate or the direction of your gaze, and adapt accordingly to personalize and optimize that experience, Paul predicts.

Imagine being in a virtual room with many different characters/avatars, and all you need to do is look at each one before the device you’re wearing determines, based on your physical reaction, which one turns you on the most. Then that’s the one that walks towards you. It might seem like science fiction, but although we’re not quite there yet, it wouldn’t require that much of a leap in technology to make that sort of experience entirely possible.

In order to do that, the system would need to collect data about your likes and dislikes, perhaps building an adult version of the predictive search and recommendations systems used by companies like Netflix and Google. If systems were able to collect granular data about what you like and adapt those experiences to suit you, it could be incredibly powerful, but collecting that kind of data brings its own problematic issues.

Paul believes that we first need to collectively decide whether it’s OK to consume pornography. “I think as a society we need to accept that people not only look at this content, but that it’s a valid way to explore your sexuality, and that it’s not a problem to look at something and enjoy it in a virtual sense,” he says.

This would be particularly empowering for women, he believes, many of whom still feel pornography is taboo. “We know that about 30% of women watch pornography, but very few will buy it,” Paul says. “So the conundrum is: how do you monetize? It’s not an economic issue at all, it’s more a psychological barrier, where the act of buying is adding friction so they’re less likely to consume that content.

“With this level of intimacy, aspects like storyline become much more important,” he continues. “Subtle things, like how close someone is standing to you, start to make a big difference. Where with the Internet we’ve seen a rise in amateur porn, I believe VR will favor professional production values such as camera placing, lighting and scripting. I think there will also be a space for female filmmakers to produce more artistic and thoughtful content that will appeal to both men and women.”

“People make lots of false assumptions about what women want in porn,” adds Darling. “Some believe that porn for women must be romantic and story-driven with less hardcore imagery. I think that’s false. Women’s taste in porn is as diverse as that of men. The difference is that women want porn that is believable and made well, so production quality is important, as are natural, genuine orgasms. Women know what makes a woman feel good and what doesn’t.”

COMING TOGETHER

Image courtesy AliceX

Image courtesy AliceX

That also brings in the possibility of real social interactions mediated through virtual reality, which is something that AliceX is betting on. It pairs up users with live webcam models so that you interact directly with them on a pay-per-minute basis. Their CEO, Fabian Grey, tells me that users have been pleased with the service so far: “VR users are three times more likely to come back within the next couple of days and are spending four times more coins than non VR users,” he says.

Yet trying out AliceX brought home just how easy it is to be heavy-handed with the medium, as the experience can feel intimidating rather than pleasurable. Perhaps until people get a little more used to it, Adult VR might lend itself more to a voyeuristic experience rather than direct interaction. “Right now VR is very singular,” agrees Corey Price from Pornhub. “But when the technology advances I think it will become a much more social experience, and when it gets there, completely immersive environments in VR will be huge.”

Porn is big business of course, but monetizing VR is a challenge that the major players have yet to figure out. Pornhub partnered with BaDoink to offer free content (giving away 10,000 VR headsets to mark the occasion) and started serving adverts against those videos in its proprietary player. “These are adverts for mainstream companies like Amazon and Dell, and I wonder if they’re aware of that,” Paul muses. The idea of adverts intruding in such an immersive experience does seem a bit odd, like the digital equivalent of someone barging into your bedroom during an intimate moment, tapping you on the shoulder and asking you whether you might like to buy this vacuum all your friends seem to like.

There’s no medium that hasn’t made [porn] a big thing, because it’s what humans want to do.

Ebbe Altberg
CEO, Linden Lab

That said, the size of the opportunity is staggering. “VR is growing faster than any format we’ve ever tracked,” says Paul. “Mobile had a fairly steep adoption curve from around 2006 onwards, but this is much steeper. We’re seeing exponential growth.” Based on Gaming Industry predictions that project 2.5 billion VR headsets being sold by 2022 he estimates—given the demographic involved in this uptake—that by the end of the year 10-20 million users will be watching adult content in VR.

“It’s no longer a nascent idea,” agrees Price. “We’re going to start seeing a lot more adult content, in every niche style, available in VR.”

What’s driving that growth is the fact that so many industries are backing the new technology—not only mobile, but major technology players like Google and Facebook, as well as the games industry. It’s coming from all sides, and Paul reckons that we will see a tipping point with the rollout of 5G speeds for mobile networks (expected no sooner than 2020, according to CNET), which will allow people to stream high-resolution VR content to their devices without having to download large files.

Millions of VR headsets are expected to be sold this year—an incredible 200 million by 2020—so the experience will soon cease to be such a novelty. Quality content for those platforms, however, is still relatively thin on the ground, and it remains to be seen how big a chunk of the market the adult industry will claim for its own.

Oculus VR Founder Palmer Luckey has gone back and forth on adult VR content. Paul is actually sympathetic to Oculus’s position. “You don’t want people to start thinking of it as a masturbation assisting tool, that’s not good for business. If the technology is really going to take off you need multiple use cases that integrate into our day-to-day lives. So we need gaming, we need social sharing, and we also need pornography. It’s all part of the human experience,” he says.

Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, agrees that it’s easy for some types of content to quickly become dominant on certain platforms, and then go on to define them. His company, which for the past 13 years has successfully run the online virtual world Second Life, is keen not to let that happen with its virtual reality platform Project Sansar, which is due to launch in the summer.

“I’m anti-censorship, pro-freedom, we just have to figure out a way to best compartmentalize it, and play it carefully. There’s no doubt that will be one aspect of it though. There’s no medium that hasn’t made this a big thing, because it’s what humans want to do. They’ll shape any medium to suit that purpose, from writing, to painting to VR. They will find their way, it’s just human nature,” concludes Altberg.

BETTER THAN THE REAL THING

Image courtesy Naughty America

Image courtesy Naughty America

Professor Jeremy Bailenson agrees. As the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, he is one of the world’s leading authorities on VR, and in his book Infinite Reality he points out that “Throughout history, virtual depictions of attractive people—whether in stories, painting, sculpture, audio, etc. have always been good business for their creators.”

For over a decade Bailenson has conducted experiments that test how humans use these virtual environments and how this affects their behavior, both online and offline. Many of those experiments were done in Second Life, including one where 80 students monitored the frequency of sexual encounters on the platform, which was described as “startlingly high.”

“For a lot of people, Second Life has been a very useful way to explore their own identity,” explains Altberg. “I have this shell in the physical world, but a lot of people are not comfortable with it, so in the virtual space you have an opportunity to explore another side of yourself, which could turn out to be the real side. I know of many people who discovered themselves through that process and helped them come around to who they are in the physical world.”

That begs the question: will virtual sex ever be better than the real thing? If we have technology that’s able to anticipate our every desire and stimulate us accordingly at our convenience, will we still have the desire and patience to interact with real people?

“I’m very interested in how the technology could help you learn to become a better lover with your partner in real life, almost like a personal trainer,” muses Paul. But he thinks they’re very different propositions that will remain separate for the time being.

Grey, AliceX CEO, agrees that the human touch and experiences that stimulate all your senses will be hard to replicate. But “people will be able to get virtual experiences that are either not possible in real life or very hard to attain,” he predicts.

Bailenson paints a much more dystopian picture. In a scenario that mixes Black Mirror and Weird Science, he describes a future where we’d be able to reconstruct someone’s personality based on the wealth of information collected through their digital interactions over the course of a lifetime spent online. “When you combine advances in teledildonics with the idea that you might be able to, in future, ‘archive’ certain people and animate those models with devices designed for sexual pleasure, the potential for addiction becomes scary,” he says.

He paraphrases comedian and social commentator Dennis Miller in saying that “the day a teenage boy can buy an avatar that looks like a supermodel for $19.95, virtual reality is going to make crack look like a cup of weak, instant, decaffeinated coffee.”

Darling believes we’ll get there eventually. First, however, we have to get artificial intelligence that passes the Turing Test (where you effectively cannot tell whether you’re interacting with a person or a machine). “I don’t see that happening in the foreseeable future, but I hope I live to see the day it comes,” She says, perhaps not even realizing how it sounds.


Alice Bonasio covers games and technology and is writing a book on how virtual reality will shake up our relationships. She has four passports, two dogs names after Sherlock Holmes characters, and a healthy obsession with LEGO. She can currently be found feverishly ranting about Brexit @AliceBonasio.


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