"Porn killed Betamax." Among the tech cognoscenti, this is often an article of faith, suggesting that A/V format wars are won and lost not on dull technical details such as price (VHS machines had a cheaper retail) and recording time (VHS tapes were longer), but in the sticky back rooms and cash registers of America’s adults-only mom and pop shops. Despite its dubious veracity, it’s an easy way to inject some salacious frisson into an otherwise dry business story. And so it’s been repeated: HD-DVD versus Blu-Ray? Depends where the porn goes. (More likely: shifting alliances among giant content providers.) Will people buy 3D TVs? They will if there’s porn. Tech is secretly id-driven, this argument whispers, and so whenever the new, new thing arrives, pundits look to the pornography industry as a barometer of potential success.
The latest tech innovation facing both pornmongers and eager early adopters is 4K. As the name implies, 4K is video with a resolution far, far beyond the standard of HD video — a 4K video has about four times as many pixels as a 1080p HD video. Generally speaking, this means vastly crisper, clearer, and more lifelike visuals. In porn, this means movies that highlight every single detail of performers’ bodies, allowing viewers to get extremely up close and personal with the naughty bits featured in their favorite XXX films.
For some, 4K seems like a dream...
For some, 4K seems like a dream, allowing even closer access to the bodies of fantasy men and women. For others, it seems like a nightmare, highlighting all the flaws and failings of reality and ruining the fantasy. You won’t have to wait too long to discover which side you’re on: last month saw the birth of Huccio.com, a site billed as the first to offer 4K erotic content. When Huccio rolls out their full site on December 1st, paying members will be able to download 4K erotic videos (the technology is still too new for streaming to be feasible). Huccio’s Toni Tsai promises that it’ll be content "with the quality of 35mm film" — quite a step up from what’s currently available online.
At present, Huccio is the only adult site to include 4K movies, but others are already preparing to follow suit. Pink Visual — a tech-savvy company with the tagline "we innovate, you masturbate" — is currently researching what sort of infrastructure they’ll need to produce a quality 4K product.
...for others, it seems like a nightmare
For Pink Visual, the choice to shoot 4K is an obvious one. As its tagline suggests, it’s known within the adult industry for its commitment to cutting-edge technology. Pink Visual was one of the first companies to produce a porn site specifically geared for the iPad, and one of the few to dive into the world of 3D. So 4K seems like a natural next step. "If [users] can get 4K on YouTube, they should definitely get it in porn," Lela Chavis from Pink Visual told me. As a company run by geeks, and one that creates content catering to geeks, they’re excited by the thought of porn that’s even clearer than HD. And though they realize there might be a limited audience for the endeavor, they’re willing to take the risk: "We’d rather try it and see how it goes rather than ignore it and miss out on such a fun opportunity."
But not everyone is willing to spend thousands of dollars on a camera to experiment with the fanciest new technology. Joanna Angel of Burning Angel, an indie porn site specializing in pierced and tattooed models, has no plans to shoot in 4K anytime soon. "I’m quite happy with the quality we have available at the moment, and I won’t switch this up unless I absolutely have to," she told me. For an internet company with a bootstrapping budget, spending a lot of cash on a camera that produces content best viewed on a type of TV owned by virtually no one, and then spending time to relearn how to shoot and edit, just isn’t good business sense.
"Eventually I bit the bullet and got our first HD camera, but I really saw no difference in the quality."
Joanna’s thoughts on 4K are shaped by her experiences shooting HD porn. In the late 2000s, when big companies like Vivid and Digital Playground started shooting in HD, Joanna held off. "Eventually I bit the bullet and got our first HD camera, but I really saw no difference in the quality. In fact, I thought it got a little worse. We had to light things differently, girls had to do their makeup differently, and it took some time before we got it right." With the added expense, the frustrating learning curve, and the uncertain payoff, switching to 4K is a pretty difficult sell — and for now, Joanna counts herself among those who aren’t yet buying.
For the time being, most adult content producers seem content to wait and see what happens before rushing to adopt 4K. Industry networking site XBIZ.net ran a poll to see how its members were feeling about the future of 4K; more than 40 percent of respondents felt that the technology was unlikely to have much impact on the business, with 36 percent replying that it was still too early to tell. (An optimistic 18 percent held out hope that 4K would revitalize the industry.) Though many of these industry members might ultimately make the switch to 4K — particularly if the technology becomes cheap enough, and the distribution widely available — it seems clear that few are holding out hope that it’ll dramatically reshape the way they do business, or the money they’re able to bring in.
Will slightly higher definition open any wallets?
To understand this pessimism, just take a look at the way most people consume their porn. These days, the most popular destinations for adult content aren’t pay sites like Burning Angel or Pink Visual. They’re free sites like PornHub, which offer up a selection of user-uploaded (and often pirated) content. The ultimate question isn’t whether 4K resolution makes adult content more appealing than SD or HD — it’s whether 4K makes it appealing enough to compete with free porn. Despite having to wade through grainy, poorly organized videos on PornHub and its sister sites, consumers have largely chosen free streaming porn over paying for DVDs. Will 4K's higher definition buck that trend, and get viewers to open their wallets again?
Pink Visual thinks it will. Despite the challenges they’ve faced in competing with free porn, the company has still managed to draw an audience, and they suspect that betting on 4K will ultimately reap rewards. "There are countless people across the world who will pay for top-notch quality porn," Lela shared. "Obviously it’s something that they don’t go around talking about, but nonetheless, people are out there who want great quality."
Others are far less confident — and far less willing to take the risk. "At the end of the day we all want the best possible quality for our product at a price we can afford," Joanna told me; for now, the price part is winning out over the quality. If 4K becomes a standard feature in adult content, it will be because 4K has become standard everywhere else first — and the technology and skill to edit and master 4K footage has become easy and accessible enough to make the transition to 4K painless. In spite of its reputation as a technological trendsetter, porn’s probably going to be following the crowd on this one. With less money to be made in the porn game, there’s less money to spend experimenting with tech — which means the adult industry may not be taking the lead on innovation again anytime soon.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, sex educator, and editor of Fleshbot, billed as the web's foremost blog about sexuality and adult entertainment. Her writing has appeared everywhere from Cosmopolitan to Hustler.
Update: Clarified the alleged role of pornography in VHS's and Blu-ray's success.