Virtual Reality is well-established in the cultural consciousness thanks to generations of sci-fi but it's taken ages for the technology to get traction IRL. Thanks to recent leaps in affordability and portability, content producers are taking the intimate immersive tech to its only natural conclusion: using it to look at people doing sex. Now what once sounded like a '90s nerd fantasy or deep web specialty interest may change the way all kinds of consumers interact with their media, and themselves.
The popularity of Oculus Rift is still rocketing, Sony and HTC are going hard on their own VR headsets, and since most of us carry tiny video machines in our pockets, options like Google Cardboard make the bar for entry to Virtual Realities surprisingly low. With investors like Google and Microsoft taking the platform seriously it's harder to write it off as a fad, but what we'll actually use VR for in the future is unclear even to early adopters. This is a big reason the porn industry's interest in it is interesting.
I'm like a beautiful stallion!
Porn has been known to make or break media platforms. When porn producers backed VHS over Betamax, it stuck. Ditto with Blu-ray. Even the advent of cable TV had smut-makers to thank for its pay-worthy content. No matter how you feel about it politically, porn is a massive and innovative industry. When adult media companies start to invest time and energy in a certain new medium, it's a bid of confidence. And when a traditional porn company dedicates all of its production to the new platform, it's worth taking note. As of now, dozens of companies are producing VR content on a regular basis, and several have been for years—Barcelona's BaDoink has gone fully VR.
Reporters tried out this racy new content at this year's CES and the AVN Expo, to generally positive results. Among the normally optimistic but cautious tech talk there were mentions about how "visceral" and "crazy realistic" it is, how it's the "obvious future" of the industry, and that "porn will never be the same." Most popular were the first-person POV videos, where you take on the view and body of an actual porn star for the duration of a scene. For many, the feeling of inhabiting another person's body in a hyper-real, intimate, explicit and human-scale scene was startling... then intriguing. Not only is the content just plain bigger than on a standard computer screen, you get the sensation of having a new porn-ready body (abs, boobs, whatever you choose) as it's put to professional use.
Man, I'd look good with boobs.
The VR porn out there now is both traditional and high-tech. HoloGirlsVR offers 180 degree Point of View options with real actors and companies like Holodexxx are offering 360 degree environments and customizable CG characters. Big names like Naughty America and Kink are trialling production for both traditional, alternative, and kink content. There is enough being made that VR-specific content aggregators like VRSmash and SexLikeReal have sprung up online, and cater to multiple different viewing systems, and all kinds of viewers.
In them, the field of view is often limited, and in live-acted videos your movements don't affect the action. But in the case of a sitting or prone viewer, this doesn't seem distracting. Unlike in other VR applications, moving around to explore really isn't the point with porn. Which isn't to say exploration is unlikely. Because the only limit on who you can "be" is set by the content available, some viewers believe experiencing the POV of people of other genders or sexual orientations could have a humanizing effect you don't get in standard porn. The intimacy of the view could even allow for more comfort in personal exploration in general.
Ladies watch porn too, go on brush ya browser off.
But will "normal" people buy a fancy headset just for porn? And does this mean the future of porn will be interactive? Not necessarily, on either count. Many big hitters in the tech world believe that passive media are on the rise in general, and that interactive gaming and entertainment will soon be eclipsed by individual viewing experiences. William Rhys Dekle, senior director at Microsoft Game Studios has said "I think that in the next 10 years, the major changes we will see will be different forms of passive entertainment." Many professional futurists, like author Neil Stephenson (also a proponent of VR), share this view. Trends in the popularity of professional gaming as entertainment certainly support it.
Other forward-looking tech folks think VR will be the thing to replace personal computing, or even smartphones. These claims are harder to sell, but sea change or not VR is estimated to be a $120 billion industry by 2020, and at least $20 billion is projected to come from porn.
So visionaries want our lives wrapped in VR, and VR porn wants us wrapped in new selves. Which wouldn't necessarily be bad. As Will Fulton at Digital Trends noted, "In addition to opening up whole new avenues of kink, the ability to viscerally inhabit bodies unlike our own has compelling implications for how VR experiences could be used to cultivate empathy." But not everyone is so optimistic. Like other types of porn, the VR version can be seen as an extremely isolating way of experiencing intimacy—literally cutting you off from the world around you, and can function to reinforce unrealistic norms around bodies and sex. At this stage it's unclear whether or not a VR environment will intensify any of these existing concerns.
Sleek, inviting, sssexy.
The tech issues are simpler. The interface itself is still pretty encumbered. You wear a bulky blinding headset, use headphones, have to run a couple programs, stay clear of the corresponding wires, and download rather than stream your content. If the Kinect had issues getting buy-in because people didn't want to look silly, will people be likely to don weird headgear just for an immersive erotic thrill? And speaking of that "immersive" experience, how will the sensory isolation relate to the desire for privacy? While it might be easier to hide what you're currently looking at, it might be easier to get walked in on once you're plugged in and going to town. Weirder looking sex toys exist, but as it stands streamlining will be helpful.
Visionaries want our lives wrapped in VR, and VR porn wants us wrapped in new selves.
Other technologies currently in development may make this kind of viewing experience even more compelling. Projects like Ultrahaptics are working on bringing haptic feedback and tactile sensation to VR. While it's still in the works, results are suggesting that simulated physical sensations to compliment interactive visuals might not be too far off. Immersive porn you "act" in and can feel? That could get pretty intense.
How long until there's VR porn of people using VR porn?
If the concerns around isolation and self-consciousness are justified, the real/virtual blend of Augmented Reality might be the real goal, rather than full Virtual Reality. The use of total environments in VR makes for a compelling escape, but projecting content into real life and surroundings can give viewers a greater sense of believability and control. Plus AR tech is well on its way. Anyone with Snapchat has seen trivial augmentation in action, Pokemon Go is gameifying it in a handheld capacity, and brands like Microsoft are exploring its potential with serious tools like the HoloLens. While reviled, Google Glass already proved how much visual input we can fit into tiny wearables. Could the future of porn be a blended experience bringing actors and scenes into "real" personal spaces? Maybe AR would make shared viewing feasible?
As the high-tech sex entertainment industry develops, it'll be interesting to consider where the questions of good design come in. Is VR an intimacy tool that responds to the needs of users, or does its complexity detract from its value? Are we more likely to see VR (or AR) adopted through better wearables, or implants, or other environmental design... like the TV room in Farenheit 451?
Are you turned off by the idea, or is this a step towards that jetpack/flying car/hoverboard/hot android you dream of?
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This post is part of the Core77 Sex-tacular, our editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technology and design are shaping the future of intimacy and sex.