Christie Stevens is on her knees, gazing up at Isiah Maxwell, her mouth agape. Her breasts bounce with every bob of her head, and her platinum blonde hair cascades down her pale back, grazing the top of her sacrum tattoo.
“My husband,” she says, grasping Maxwell’s large manhood with both hands and looking directly into his brown eyes, “would never do this.”
A dozen or so men stand around watching this scene in various states of discomfort. Three are journalists, and this is the best day of their lives. Two are tech entrepreneurs, tentatively exploring the pornography industry as a means of financing their VR start-up. The rest are adult-industry insiders, and this is just another day on the job.
Today’s shoot, hosted by the adult-video company BaDoink, looks fairly standard as porn shoots go. Stevens wanders around the sparsely furnished modern five-story Beverly Hills mansion in thigh-high stockings and a sheer bra, her makeup artist providing the occasional touch-up. The 30-year-old, five-foot-two actress works on her lines; in this film, she plays a bored housewife who sexually accosts an unsuspecting door-to-door vacuum salesman.
But the shoot marks a turning point for porn and for technology at large; it’s being filmed for virtual reality, the hardware for which hit shelves en masse in 2016. Stevens has been working in porn for five years and has performed in upward of 250 productions. But this is the first she’s done for virtual reality. And while she doesn’t yet know what’s in store for her today, the premise for you, the consumer, is clear: Stevens isn’t fucking Maxwell. She’s fucking you.
Plenty of point-of-view scenes have been shot in modern pornography. In most of them, a male actor films a woman as they have sex. The man’s face rarely appears, so the footage approximates what the viewer would see if he were having sex with the woman himself.
VR porn not only breaks the fourth wall but demolishes it. You’re no longer observing the fantasy; you’re inside it.
Virtual-reality porn takes this concept to a new level by not only breaking the fourth wall but demolishing it altogether. When you strap on a virtual-reality headset, your physical world disappears. Instead of watching a computer screen, you’re transported to the room the actress is in. Your hands aren’t encumbered by a keyboard or a mouse. You’re no longer simply observing the fantasy; you’re inside it.
This new level of erotic escapism, many experts believe, heralds the future of porn and, by extension, the future of technology itself.
Pornography has a storied history as technology’s inadvertent harbinger. According to tech experts and porn insiders, when a new device makes porn more accessible, that pornographic content helps usher the device onto the market.
“People who are willing to pay for porn popularize the technology,” says Jonathan Coopersmith, a technology historian at Texas A&M University. “That drives down the price.”
This wisdom comes from the commonsense notion that people are biologically predisposed to look at erotic images. To get a sense of just how far back this hard-wiring goes, we can turn to our trusty Neanderthal predecessors. Their cave renderings can be interpreted in only one way, says Bryant Paul, a faculty affiliate at the Kinsey Institute. They were “just vulvas,” he says. Cavemen were “getting off on that.”
The practice of sketching women’s naked bodies carried on for millennia, as evidenced by a quick lap around any fine arts museum. Then, in 1839, the first practical photographic process—the daguerreotype—was invented. Within seven years, Victorian pornographers had created the world’s first adult-themed photograph. That pattern repeated with the invention of the motion picture camera in 1889; seven years later, the first pornographic film was shot: Le Coucher de la Mariée, featuring cabaret performer Louise Willy doing a striptease in her bedroom.
When the VHS and home entertainment center hit U.S. shelves in 1977, porn watching was again upended as people realized they could screen adult films at home. By the end of the decade, adult videos accounted for more than half of all prerecorded tapes sold in the U.S.
“The introduction of the VCR and playback,” says Frederick Lane, author of Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age, “was the most fundamental shift in the consumption of pornography in human history.”
It is unsurprising, then, that when the internet arrived for the masses in the 1990s, all hell broke loose. Like their forefathers, consumers almost immediately put the new technology to use to watch people having sex. Pornographers, meanwhile, had content that was easily repurposed: Preexisting footage could be cut, edited and sold to websites.
Internet porn quickly became the first industry to profit from online sales. According to a report by the National Research Council, in 2001 the online adult industry in the U.S. generated about $1 billion; by 2013, all porn sites had more visitors than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined.
Then, in 2016, came virtual reality.
Virtual reality as we have come to know it began in 2012 when 19-year-old Palmer Luckey launched a Kickstarter for what would become the world’s first consumer-friendly, commercially successful VR headset: Oculus Rift. Luckey created Oculus with gamers in mind, but after his device was shown at 2012’s E3 conference, he was flooded with offers from major tech investors. His Kickstarter raised $2.4 million. In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg bought Luckey’s company, Oculus VR, for $2 billion.
Modern virtual-reality content is little more than 180- and 360-degree images repurposed; the same technology is used by Google Maps. In addition to Oculus and Google, the top players bringing these images to consumers via new viewing devices are Sony, Samsung and HTC Vive. Adult-entertainment companies investing heavily in VR pornographic content include BaDoink, Naughty America, VirtualRealPorn, Czech VR and VR Bangers.
These companies—and some of the guests at today’s shoot—face two primary hurdles: figuring out what kind of VR content consumers want and determining how best to shoot that content.
Sam Burton owns Holotrope VR, which he co-founded to develop new techniques for shooting VR. He comes from a film and television background, but his start-up operates in relatively unknown territory, so money isn’t yet pouring in from risk-averse mainstream businesses.
“The companies we normally work with aren’t really committing budgets,” he says. “The adult industry is starting to spend money. Not to boil it down to just dollars, but we are a start-up.”
So when Burton received BaDoink’s request to film today’s shoot, “it seemed like a good opportunity to bring in money for research and development, and to shoot in large volume,” he says.
And that’s how he found himself in this Beverly Hills home, doing his best to remain unobtrusive as Stevens walks around the house topless. To film her scene with Maxwell, Burton has brought two different camera setups. One includes multiple GoPro cameras configured in a 360-degree rig. The other involves two cameras with fish-eye lenses, the 180-degree angle of which is designed to mimic the human eye.
The experience of the consumer who will later watch this footage can only be described as entering—as promised—a new reality. After putting on the VR headset, users will see their own surroundings replaced by this all-white living room and beige couch. To their left will be a spectacular view of Los Angeles; to their right, the door through which Maxwell—playing the part of the vacuum salesman—has just entered. And in front of them will be Stevens standing on a plush carpet and writhing her way out of her shirt, then her skirt and stockings, and then slowly lowering herself onto her knees to commence fellatio.
The fullness of the immersion can’t be overstated. VR porn is so engulfing that when the headset comes off after 25 minutes (or five, depending), it takes a good 10 seconds to reacclimate to the world in which you actually live. The experience is jarring, and it offers the staggering realization that with the mass introduction of VR, consumers who wish to truly escape their lives can do so. One can’t help but imagine socially awkward men deciding that virtual-reality porn is easier—and just as satisfying—as having sex with a real woman, but without commitment or even social niceties.
Advances in VR are coming hard and fast, and Facebook is leading the charge. At its third annual Oculus Connect conference last year, the company unveiled a handful of new VR projects, including Oculus Avatars, a program that allows consumers to create personal avatars using customized face shapes, clothing and skin tones (think metallic gold, forest green and shimmery purple). Mike Howard, Oculus Avatars’ project manager, told conference attendees that there are “over a billion permutations of options” for designing your virtual self.
Extrapolating the avatar concept into the future—and into the realm of sex, which Facebook demurely avoided—means that soon we’ll have the option of becoming idealized (or completely fake) versions of ourselves. Couldn’t bag the hot cheerleader in high school? Make yourself the star football player in VR. Of course, that cheerleader probably isn’t who she says she is either—but does it matter?
Facebook isn’t the only VR pioneer, and some competitors are focusing exclusively on pornography. Among the most innovative is Amsterdam-based Kiiroo. After pioneering a line of sex toys that can be operated from thousands of miles away, Kiiroo developed a program that attempts to bridge the most frequently cited gap in VR: You can see and hear what’s going on, but you can’t feel it. By syncing a male masturbator to virtual porn scenes, the program, FeelPornStars, allows users to physically experience the scene in real time. For instance: As you watch Stevens perform fellatio on your headset, your masturbator would be moving along with her.
Not everyone is convinced VR porn will take off. If the setup is too time-consuming, says Bryant Paul, it may miss the mark for consumers who just want to get off quickly. “If you can make it as easy to use as my computer, great,” he says. “If you’re creating technology that makes it harder, I don’t think it’s going to work.”
As of the end of last year, VR hardware hadn’t sold as well as expected. In October, interactive-media research firm SuperData predicted that sales of VR headsets would hit 6.16 million in 2016. By November, that prediction had been downgraded to 4.12 million. The slow start is largely attributed to the high price of VR devices (a single headset can go for as much as $800), the fact that consumers and tech companies are still feeling out the best use for the technology and the lack of a must-have VR app.
But experts are still optimistic. Digi-Capital, which advises virtual-reality businesses, predicts that by 2020 revenue from VR content and headsets will reach $30 billion.
And for now, one truth is certain. “The thing that has been proven at this point,” says Burton, “is that people will pay for porn.”
Back in Beverly Hills, Christie Stevens is encountering some of the problems with shooting for VR that have yet to be ironed out. She and Maxwell have commenced the vaginal intercourse portion of the day, but she’s getting no help from him. Usually it’s the job of the male porn actor to help the female performer look good—angling her properly, making sure her back is arched and her breasts are on display—but here, the camera is strapped to Maxwell’s shoulder to provide the best possible point-of-view angle. His primary responsibilities are staying hard and not moving.
Stevens, then, is doing all the work. She faces forward and straddles him, inserting his penis into her vagina while maintaining eye contact with the camera. She then stands up, turns around and reinserts him while facing backward, before finally engaging in what can only be described as a sexual triceps dip: Facing forward again, Stevens places her feet astride Maxwell’s hips, her hands on the coffee table behind her, and slides onto his penis, all while maintaining an uncomfortable-looking crab position.
Editing isn’t possible yet in virtual reality, so Stevens continues these sexual acrobatics for a single 25-minute shot with no break. That means she can’t lube up, wipe sweat away or even rest her quaking muscles.
Was it difficult, I ask her afterward, to engage in such demanding physical labor? “I’m gonna be honest,” she says. “It was a lot of work.”
Was it harder to get turned on than it might have been if she was, say, on a bed with a participating partner? “It was fine,” she says.
After all, she adds, dabbing her glistening forehead, “It’s still sex.”