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VR Porn Is Coming, With Or Without Silicon Valley

The relationship between porn and tech is like “a middle school prom,” says one actress-entrepreneur. Can VR porn make it any simpler?

VR Porn Is Coming, With Or Without Silicon Valley

Last month, during a panel discussion of top virtual reality executives at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, Palmer Luckey, the founder of Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, addressed a topic that the rest of the panel seemed determined to avoid: porn.

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“Rift is an open platform. We don’t control what software can run on it,” he said. “And that’s a big deal.”

Big indeed. Later that week, a Facebook spokesperson clarified Oculus’s openness to Fast Company: While Facebook hasn’t yet announced plans to restrict certain apps from working with the VR headset, the company will not permit porn on its VR app store. “Oculus only distributes developer content that meets their terms of service, which forbids pornographic content from being a part of the Oculus Store,” a Facebook representative wrote in an email.

Ela Darling, a co-partner at vrtube.xxx

Nevertheless, VR porn—both for the still-in-development Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR platform—is already for sale on dozens of websites. As the moment of virtual reality’s mainstreaming begins, entrepreneurs and industry veterans are experimenting with new ways of producing porn–with 180- or 360-degree views, lifelike 3-D models, and interactive sex toys. The form and the technology is still nascent; the content can be transporting, uncanny, or creepy. And typically it is, as usual, shot from the perspective of a man—or, in the case of the custom 3-D-camera rigs currently in use, from a few inches atop a man’s head.

But the porn producers of the future are here, buoyed by the hope that the technology won’t simply provide an escape from the current ad-driven business model–and the persistent threat of Internet piracy and amateur webcam porn sites–but that it could prove to be VR’s killer app, too. The initial interest in the medium coupled with the capacity for new business models, they say, could kickstart development for the VR industry generally, driving the technology forward, and birthing a new generation of entrepreneurs in the process.

And yet, porn’s relationship with high technology–two industries that have become symbolic of California and its gold rushes–has never been easy.

“I would liken it to a middle school prom,” says Ela Darling, an adult actress and a partner and creative director at vrtube.xxx, a startup that makes “holographic” erotic scenes for the Oculus Rift, in which users can approach a moving porn actor from multiple directions. “You’ve got the tech and you’ve got the adult, and they know that there are a lot of mutual benefits, but they don’t know how to interact with each other.”

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Darling’s foray into VR porn began after she connected with a couple of developers through Reddit. She was soon flown out to Baltimore. “I didn’t realize how new they were. I thought they had produced porn before, but I got there and I discovered they were two really young 20-year-old dudes,” says Darling, 28. One of the founders, James Ashfield, has a background in programming and is about to finish a degree in quantum physics. Still, the shoot went surprisingly well. “By the end of the summer, I was joint partners with them.”

Changing The Business Model

That sort of successful interaction isn’t common. Up until now, online piracy had stilled the porn industry’s interest in innovation. While the promise of quality VR content–and the difficulty of making it–has focused the attention of porn producers, and elicited the amateur interest of tech entrepreneurs, there remains a divide, says Darling. “Most people are either tech people who decided they wanted to make porn, or porn people who decided they wanted to make really cool high-tech porn, and I feel like neither side really gets it on their own.”

During a discussion at this year’s SXSW called “The Future of Porn is 3D Virtual Reality,” one male audience member lamented his own struggle trying to get the two industries to talk to each other. From his experience in L.A.’s startup community, he said, there’s seems to “still be a taboo to talk about tech and porn.”

Venture capital money—and many of the VR industry’s hopes—are going into games and cinematic experiences over porn, said Alec Helmy, founder and publisher of adult entertainment news site XBIZ. “The traditional methods of funding for startups tends to be unavailable to any type of adult entertainment business because it comes with a certain risk.” At startup incubators like Rothenberg Ventures’ River program for virtual and augmented reality projects, for example, none of the projects feature adult entertainment content.

“So far I don’t know of one tech venture capital firm that’s made an investment in VR porn startups,” says Ben Lang, cofounder and executive editor of the independent blog Road to VR. “I think venture capital firms see it the way brands do: They don’t necessarily want to be known as funding pornography or adult entertainment.”

One venture capital executive based in San Francisco told me that no 3-D or VR porn startups had ever approached him or his firm. But he imagined that if they were to consider an adult startup, some of their firm’s “traditional” investors–those with “family values”–might take issue with such an investment. He also said he’d be concerned with certain people not wanting to collaborate with them in the future if they had adult content in their portfolio.

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In addition to the risks porn poses to a brand’s image, Lang says that porn’s current business model might be seen as a financial risk. “Most of it is monetizing porn with ads—that’s like probably 95% of the market—and from a tech investor standpoint who wants some innovative project, that’s not necessarily a super-attractive thing,” he explains.

But that raises a promising prospect for futuristic porn ventures. Brian Schuster, CEO of Utherverse Digital Inc., which runs the adult Massive Multi-User Reality network Red Light Center–a kind of Second Life for sex–believes new kinds of adult entertainment and sexual interaction made possible by VR technologies will be so much more valuable than 2-D recorded content that they enable new business models beyond the typical ad-driven tube sites.

“The future is upon us,” Schuster announced auspiciously at SXSW. He believes that this is the time when porn and sex will be totally revolutionized, a moment his company Utherverse has been readily anticipating. “We’ve spent the last 10 years thinking about and preparing for virtual reality entertainment.”

In addition to Schuster, Utherverse’s 25 million registered users are already eagerly awaiting this shift as their experiences of networked erotics on the site will be radically enhanced by the advent of VR. Schuster hopes the new tech will attract even more users to the site, which is already extremely profitable. While the 3-D browser can be downloaded for free, monthly subscriptions are $20-30 and animated avatars can be customized with wigs and accessories for a price.

“The bottom line,” Helmy said at SXSW, “is porn is really on the cusp of disruption.”

How To Create An Erotic Hologram

For her startup’s first VR scene, Ela Darling sat nude on a bed in a variety of provocative poses; rather than the typical one or two-camera setup, she faced an array of cameras and a Kinect. Her resulting hologram, seen from inside an Oculus, in stereoscopic 3-D with full 180-degree head-tracking, isn’t gimmicky, she insists.

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In the already-recorded sequences, some technical limitations are obvious. The edges of the women’s bodies are slightly pixelated, but the overall effect is titillating. (While the content is made for Oculus Rift headsets running 0.5.0.1-beta or higher, there’s a free demo and player you can download that will run on your Mac or PC.)

Ela Darling as seen inside an Oculus Riftvrtube.xxx

“It gives you immersion that you aren’t getting from 2-D porn. When you watch porn on your computer screen, there’s a frame around it. Or when you go to a movie theatre, there’s the borders of the movie screen, and when you look to your left or your right there are people there. It takes you out of the experience a little bit. With this, it’s completely immersive.”

For $4.99 you can choose between three different women respectively soloing or a fourth option of two women getting it on. The previews include Darling, thin and blond, rubbing herself in ecstasy; another performer, Arabelle Raphaelle, shaking her full breasts back and forth; and a third actress, Lotus Lain, kneeling away from the cameras, grabbing at her behind and coyly looking over her shoulder. There’s also an option to request a customized holographic scene, starting at a base price of $500.

The adult industry has high hopes that that kind of immersion will mean a renaissance for porn, ushering in high-quality, high-tech content–perhaps coupled with “teledildonic” sex toy hardware–that people will actually be willing to pay for. Some proponents of VR porn might point to the early days of the World Wide Web, when naughty GIFs arguably helped generate revenue and steal attention, providing capital that was reinvested back into upgrading bandwidth and improving web hosting.

Schuster, the Utherverse CEO, looks to the past for encouragement that an early consumer base will emerge for adult VR: He built his fortune on an early search engine dedicated solely to porn, and later, pop-up ads.

In the early days of online porn, he explains, “when you’d click on a thumbnail and you had to wait 60 or 90 seconds for it load, the web appealed to a small segment of people. And just that small segment of the population was enough to create massive profits.” Last year, Schuster poured $50 million of his fortune into building a new Oculus Rift-compatible version of Red Light Center.

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While it’s too early to tell, Darling is optimistic that vrtube.xxx’s pay-to-download model hints at a new kind of sustainable revenue stream for the entire adult industry. “I think people are not willing to pay for 2-D porn because we are just inundated with it,” she says. “But with the Oculus stuff, people are a lot more willing to pay for it because they want to see the medium succeed.”

In the world of 2-D porn, she points out, almost every fetish or preference has already been produced, pirated, and can be found online. “I can almost certainly find a blond girl licking the feet of someone 15 years older,” she says. But if someone has a desire to see sploshing or balloon popping in 3-D—or more outlandish VR scenes—they are going to have to fund its production by opening up their wallet. “People are willing to pay for this [3-D content] because they want to see the content that they enjoy.”

Inside Utherverse’s Red Light Center

Dozens of large and small media companies are aggressively and publicly pursuing VR porn: Schuster’s company Utherverse Inc., with its Second Life-like Red Light Center, and SugarVOD, which runs on a pay-per-minute download-on-demand business model. Veiviev, a U.K.-based company attached to a mainstream 3-D-scanning business, has sold thousands of virtual models for the Rift–what it calls “artificial liaisons”–for about $7 a pop. More traditional porn studios like Hustler “are interested in VR,” Helmy wrote in an email, “but they have yet to put forth resources toward R&D.” (None other than Hustler publisher Larry Flynt has declared print dead and stressed the need to diversify his enterprise, but the company did not respond to a request for comment.)

Lang predicts that the tube sites that dominate the online porn industry right now will soon begin to support this kind of content too. “We just recently saw YouTube and Facebook introduce 360 [-degree] video support and, down the road, there’s going to be virtual reality support,” he said. “If you look at the model of a lot of these porn sites out there, they are just replicating the features that you see on a YouTube player, so as 360 video becomes common on YouTube and Facebook, that’s going to kickstart this, and we’ll see porn companies wanting to not only get into 360 video but virtual reality too.” In Lang’s vision of the future, even VR porn would rely on ad-driven websites.

The market will drastically change, he said, as soon as this technology is commercially available and on people’s radar. “There’s going to be an explosion in consumers that are looking for experiences and some of them are going to be looking for porn experiences.”

“It’s a funny space,” Lang ruminates, “because when people first understand the concept of VR, this is one of the first things that pops into their heads. How could this be used for that?”

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Darling is one of a growing number of people who are pondering that question every day. “It’s a very freshman place to be in terms of tech. There’s nowhere to go but up,” she says. The challenge right now, she says, is “finding developers that have what it takes to meet all these different needs and fleshing everything out” in VR. “If you are streaming 360-video you are going to have very different needs than if you are capturing multiple infrared cameras all at the same time.”

Still, in spite of some of the hurdles, Darling is confident that the industry will grow much bigger, and for an obvious reason. “People are really, really going to enjoy jerking off with this stuff.”