Since the early days of tech, adult entertainment has quietly innovated the digital world. It was the first to process payments online, and to stream and live stream video. It even helped establish some of the staple lighting techniques used in fashion photography. Most recently, it’s become one of the quickest emerging outlets for virtual reality. But this time, it’s different. For it to advance, the adult and startup industries must intersect, which poses a challenge for both sides, despite their symbolic strongholds on California business.

For one, porn is still considered taboo in the tech world, and venture capital firms are worried about the PR that comes with investing in it. This stigmatization is nothing new for sex workers; for example, banks often close their accounts because they’re seen as “high risk” clients, making it difficult to do ordinary things like lease apartments. For adult entertainment companies, on the other hand, it’s difficult to keep up with the millions in funding awarded to unadulterated VR developers across the globe.

But despite the hurdles, the pioneers are pushing it forward. They’re creating new, cost-efficient production technology and reinventing monetization models. It’s a defiance and disruption of the industry, and really, it’s easy to see why: “no visual technology has ever been so perfectly suited to sexual applications as VR,” WIRED writes, where immersion and intimacy are the two key words in nearly all of its applications.

We spoke with some of the key players in VR porn to learn more about this quickly evolving corner of adult entertainment.

PULLING OUT OF THE INDUSTRY

“The entire experience is different in VR. You feel like you are in the room with this person, talking to this person, and fucking this person,” says Ela Darling, a former librarian turned AVN-award-winning pornstar, industry activist, and VR porn pioneer. “You have to play that up and make yourself seem like a personable character—not just a fucking thing on a screen.”

Darling initially entered the VR space in 2014, after she came across a Reddit post made by a friend of a young developer, James Ashfield, who was struggling to recruit models for a shoot. Months later, she flew out to Baltimore, where the duo became equal business partners in VRTube.xxx. Today, the site is credited as the first to offer adult content in 180 and 360-degree 3D captures, holographic VR, and live VR cam streaming. “It was the perfect match, and we were the first to hit the market in a lot of ways,” she says. “The porn industry tends to move fast, and since it’s just the two of us we’re able to pivot from idea to idea very quickly,” a key quality when working with such rapidly evolving technology. (Since the original publication of this article in April 2016, Darling has launched CAM4VR, an adult site featuring live VR performances).

If we look at VR as a medium, its rate of development is staggering. A handful of companies are already creating content for commercial and advertising purposes, alongside its obvious ties to gaming and entertainment. But while it’s not yet a proven platform, there are few things holding it back. The first is that not nearly enough potential users have access to headsets. Sure, you can purchase the hand-held, smartphone-powered Google Cardboard for $20 or less, HTC’s Vive for a pricey $799, or Samsung’s GearVR for $100, but these, arguably, do very little to show the true capabilities of VR. Cardboard, for example, has an approximate latency—the time it takes between turning your head and showing the picture that matches that rotation—of 75ms of higher. This is considered to be very high and is known to cause nausea. The GearVR achieves about 20ms, but it can only be powered using Samsung smartphones and VR apps, which, for countless reasons, limits the image resolution and overall quality.

“For pre-recorded VR porn, however, most current platforms require the user to download the video files along with a player to view them.”

But all of this could change when the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is released this spring. Unlike its predecessors, the Rift achieves incredibly low latency at a considerably high resolution. Even more, the main difference is an improved field of view, or how far into your peripheral vision the virtual world will be visible—a critical factor for immersion. Already, Oculus has partnered with companies such as Dell and Asus to offer high-performance PCs optimized for Rift and developed support for Xbox One games. But there’s a drawback: it’s priced at $599, a seemingly high number for turning on its first generation of users. And though it’s said that this price is worth the level of quality, its most anticipated competitor is Playstation, which recently undercut the Rift at $399 with a launch scheduled for October.

Specifically for adult VR content, playback is also an issue, but in more ways than just hardware. Years ago, porn was often downloaded using P2P clients such as LimeWire, which was far from ideal: you had to wait for a download to complete—then pray that you didn’t just welcome a virus to your hard drive. Today, the most popular way to safely watch porn is through online streaming services, such as PornHub or YouPorn. For pre-recorded VR porn, however, most current platforms require the user to download the video files along with a player to view them (the process is the same for mobile headsets, but instead you’re downloading an app). Not only does this consume a ton of storage space, especially on mobile devices, but it seems like a step backward compared to the usability of streaming platforms. This could make it difficult to convert the average porn user from video to VR, although some companies are already working on a solution.

TURNING ON AN AUDIENCE

VR Innovation is a software development company that gives website owners the ability to host streamable 180 and 360-degree videos on PCs and mobile devices. One of its platforms, ViRP, targets adult entertainment and is the first to offer the playback of 3D, VR adult videos in web browsers with head-tracking (ViRP has since been discontinued and the company’s official VR Player has launched). “The adult entertainment industry will be the front runners in producing VR video content in the near future,” says one of the lead developers of ViRP, who asked to not be named. “It already has the largest catalog of VR video content, more so than any other industry, and we expect this trend to continue.”

So what sets adult VR content apart? According to the ViRP developer, it’s currently the only industry truly monetizing VR video. “Everything else tends to be event-based, like a special production or something for advertising purposes. But there aren’t a lot of video companies putting their resources into VR video outside of the adult industry. That will probably change in 2017, but for 2016, this will likely be the landscape.”

“Right now, the market isn’t strong enough to support a model webcamming in only VR.

For most adult VR sites, the monetization structure is subscription-based, while live VR cams are typically pay-by-the-minute. VRTube, however, takes a different approach. Rather than requiring users to commit to a monthly subscription, it offers a VOD (video on demand) option to purchase scenes a la carte. “It’s still such an experimental medium, and there’s too much of a chance to alienate customers with a subscription requirement,” says Darling. “I’ve seen some sites lose a lot of people because they put out a scene or two that just really wasn’t their cup of tea.”

To further saturate the market, Darling and Ashfield are building out a new system to help others monetize their VR webcam content. Through software initially released in July 2015, performers can simultaneously cam in 2D, 3D, and VR during a traditional cam stream session. The performer is also able to record this content using an affordable new VR camera offered by VRTube, which can be sold and profited from in perpetuity.

“The camera costs $250 to make, but after we scale it up, it will cost even less. So for a performer who wants to get started in VR it’s a just $250 camera and that’s it.” says Darling. “Right now, the market isn’t strong enough to support a model webcamming in only VR. That’s why we created this system that allows for both options, which gives performers a much larger scope of monetization for their work.”

For bigger productions, however, where shoots typically operate on budgets of $3,000 to $5,000, the fallback camera setup is an array of GoPro lenses housed in a modified rig, according to Anna Lee, president of HoloGirls VR. Lee, who has worked on over 60 scenes in the past six months, explains that this is far from efficient because it’s impossible to adjust the lens settings after it’s placed in the housing on set; not to mention that GoPros have a knack for underperforming in low-light and shifting focus.

“We’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with different types of rigs, lens placements, and various configurations,” she says. As a result, production companies have begun constructing cameras using off the shelf parts, exclusively for their in-house teams. “We’re experimenting with a brand new rig and techniques that I can’t quite reveal yet.”

But perhaps the greatest challenge is for the performers themselves. Unlike much of the porn we watch today (yes, most of us do), VR is generally captured in one continuous shot. The reason for this is that cuts break the immersion of a scene, meaning each take must start from the beginning. And if you’ve ever worked in porn, you understand why this is problematic: because you can only shoot for as long as the actors can perform.

“You can’t reset and back up five minutes—it doesn’t work that way,” says Lee. “You’re also working within the physiology and the anatomy of people, so you have to take that into account as well.”

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Photo: Rae Threat – Model: Ela Darling

FACTORING THE IMPACT

There’s no doubt that adult entertainment outliers are innovating the VR industry while building a new market altogether. Each day this market is growing, as VR becomes more accessible and more porn companies begin to release content. In little time, it seems like VR porn will be everywhere: we will be able to fuck whoever we want, whenever we want, and however we want. On the surface, really, it sounds pretty remarkable. But as with every new invention, it’s important to consider how it affects the people who use it.

Alexander Rhoades is the founder of NoFap, a community-based porn recovery website. The intent of the site is to “offer all the tools our users need to connect with a supportive community of individuals determined to quit porn use and free themselves from compulsive sexual behaviors.” Many of its members are addicts who report symptoms of hormonal changes and sexual dysfunction due to heavy porn use. Often, this leads to damaged relationships with partners, the inability to be aroused in real life, and symptoms of depression and loneliness. Rhoades is in recovery himself—a process NoFap calls “rebooting”—and says his addiction began at just 11 years old when he accidentally encountered a pop-up ad showing a compilation of simulated rape porn.

“Our brains, at a higher level, know that it’s not real world sex, but at a primitive level, we get tricked by this.”

“I wasn’t seeking that out, but naturally, I was attracted to the images of the naked woman on the screen,” he says. “From there it turned into pretty classic Internet searches, like ‘boobies’ and things like that. At first, I would look at thumbnail images, and eventually began printing them on pieces of paper. It escalated from there, and by the time I was 19 or so, I was jerking it to grotesque HD porno 10 times a day.”

According to Rhoades, porn addiction is a silent epidemic that’s sweeping the world with the accessibility of internet porn. He believes it’s nondiscriminatory, meaning it affects average men and women without any prerequisite to addiction. However, it is important to note that NoFap is not an anti-masturbation or sex-negative website, and unlike other support groups, such as AA or NA, it does not argue that individuals should abstain for the rest of their lives. “We’re not trying to legislate the consumption of pornography, and were not lobbying or advocating for it—we’re trying to combat this through education rather than legislation,” says Rhoades.

“It’s easy to treat any emerging medium, especially when it comes to porn, as a scapegoat for our personal issues.”

So will the highly realistic qualities of VR increase the rate of porn addiction, and will the symptoms of addiction become more intense with more immersive pornography? Rhoades, who nevertheless acknowledges the adult entertainment industry’s influence on technology, believes it will.

“I think if you make it harder to differentiate between pornography and the real world, this addiction will escalate to levels we’ve never seen before—and real sex will never be comparable to what you can get from porn,” says Rhoades. “You’re going to be able to choose what your partner looks like, how they act, and you might even be able to do illegal things. It’s not only going to appeal to your senses, but the situations that occur are going to be very unlike real world sex. The problem with this is that our brains, at a higher level, know that it’s not real world sex, but at a primitive level, we get tricked by this. It’s going to morph our sexual identities, and it’s going to affect our lives in other ways.”

Darling, however, sees things differently. Rather than alienating its users, she believes VR porn could be used to improve the sexual health of people without access to intimacy, such as those suffering from mobility or mental disabilities.

“There are a lot of people who have never had the opportunity to experience a romantic relationship and this could finally provide that for them,” she says. “It’s easy to treat any emerging medium, especially when it comes to porn, as a scapegoat for our personal issues. And if people would rather use porn in their private life than engage with their partner, I think there’s a larger issue at hand, like the ways they’re engaging with their partner in the first place.”

  • Robin Noss

    What Donald Trump would say about that? !” I’m sure the whole this industry will change soon. Some websites will stay free, some paid, some of course combined like http://www.hipteenslive.com as far as they’re just making money.

  • Erik Stenbakken

    Thanks for including Rhoads’ perspective.