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Why VR could be the next big thing in porn

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It's all about perspective

Ela Darling, of VRTube.XXX
Ela Darling, of VRTube.XXX
Wilferd Guenthoer

With the pending release of Oculus Rift, Morpheus, and other VR headsets, virtual reality is about to become actual reality. But while Oculus talks up 3D gaming as the device’s main purpose, other developers are exploring a whole different application for virtual reality headsets: a totally immersive pornographic experience. A handful of sites are now devoted to producing hardcore content for virtual reality headsets, and though they’re still perfecting the medium, there are signs that this genre could significantly change the adult industry — and, potentially, how we consume and experience porn and XXX media.

Should VR porn live up to its promise, it might eventually transform the way we create and consume porn. But what makes virtual reality more likely to find success where other futuristic seeming sex products (like the now defunct Real Touch (NSFW)) have failed?

Should VR porn live up to its promise, it might eventually transform the way we create and consume pornThough sex-focused technology like teledildonics may monopolize the press’s attention, it’s mainstream technologies with a secret sexual side that serve to transform the way we experience sex; VR resembles other technologies that have helped to transform adult media and sexuality in years past. VCRs allowed porn consumers to enjoy their fantasies in the privacy of their own home; the internet allowed them to access those fantasies without leaving the house; smartphones allowed for the exchange of naughty pictures. Virtual reality headsets are another mainstream device positioned to upend our experience of sexuality: VR allows us to experience our sexual fantasies in a heightened, immersive manner.

One of the biggest evangelists for the genre is VRTube.XXX, a new site fronted by librarian turned porn performer Ela Darling. A self described "ladies’ porn star" who’s as likely to be found in a queer, feminist porn production as she is a more mainstream LA porn work, Darling is the opposite of Brian Shuster, who recently championed VR porn at SXSW — and she hopes her attitude towards adult content plus her team’s mastery of cutting-edge technology, will help her transform her industry.

VRTube.XXX grew out of a chance online meeting, when Darling connected with her co-founders in a Reddit thread about VR porn. After a year of development, the site launched earlier this month. Viewers are provided with a virtual bedroom, into which they can download packs of holographic sexual partners — along with a wide variety of scenarios. Currently, VRTube.XXX only offers access to female holograms, but the team plans to expand include holograms of a variety of genders to appeal to users of a number of orientations. Other sites, like Virtual Real Porn, are already exploring heterosexual scenes shot from a female perspective, suggesting the VR porn market may be more eager to court a broader market than the one targeted by traditional porn.

Shooting for VR requires a different setup

XXX virtual reality faces a number of challenges. Content producers are still figuring out the best way to create a virtual experience that’s as intimate as it is hyperreal. VRTube.XXX tried multiple camera set ups before settling on a stereoscopic Kinect camera. Though a 360-degree head mount loaded with 12 GoPro cameras seemed like an appealing option, the 3D effect was lost when the camera came in for a close up; a serious issue in a medium that relies on close-ups.

Samsung Gear VR Headset

Shooting for VR requires a substantially different setup than more traditional content beyond the type and number of cameras. The lens is a literal stand-in for the viewer, so angles are more important. Anything too arty or cinematic risks feeling disorienting; simpler, more straight-forward shots work far better. User feedback suggests that most sites are still perfecting the art of the virtual erotic experience. Given how nascent VR porn is, though, that’s only to be expected.

User feedback suggests most sites are still perfecting the art of the virtual erotic experience There’s also the consideration of file size: on VRTube.XXX, the free demo pack runs a whopping 3.8G, an unwieldy size in an industry relies heavily on streaming video. Compression is nearly as big a concern as the creation of content itself: VR porn won’t be able to upend the industry if no one’s willing to wait for the files to download.

That being said, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the technology for porn. For Darling, the appeal boils down to a very simple concept: immersion. With non-VR video, content is always presented within the borders of a screen, separating the viewer from the performers. Even 3D media, which attempts to break through the wall between consumer and content, is still bounded within its screen. But "with virtual reality, you’re wearing a headset that’s completely immersive," Darling says. "You can look around, you can see the environment that you’re in, you can see what’s around you. And it’s that immersion is the biggest factor" in VR porn’s appeal.

In a sense, VR porn is a natural extension of the popular POV genre, in which viewers experience erotic acts shot from the perspective of one of the participants. Both VR and POV offer viewers the ability to experience sex as a part of the scene, not merely through a camera. If the attraction of porn is getting the chance to experience sex with a fantasy partner, then virtual reality headsets offer a way to take that fantasy to the next level of realism.

In a sense, VR porn is a natural extension of the popular POV genreLess clear is whether VR porn will pioneer a new form of highly interactive porn experience. Darling, for one, isn’t convinced that this is the medium’s strength. "If you could create an interactive narrative that really worked, that would be awesome, but there are a lot of pitfalls there," she says. A misstep in narrative might jolt the viewer into uncanny valley territory; too much focus on interactivity runs the risk of lessening the feeling of immersion, arguably the medium’s bigger strength. More importantly, interactive porn already exists as a genre, it’s just not very popular — certainly not as popular as the POV porn that’s served as the precursor to many immersive VR sex experiences.

And what of the "sexual singularity" promised at SXSW? Haptics-enabled VR, which could allow users to feel their virtual companion in addition to seeing and hearing them, is still far in the future; virtual sex experiences that rival flesh and blood ones are even further still. And with women like Darling leading the charge, even that future may not be quite the one envisioned by Brian Shuster. Instead, it may offer an entirely different kind of pornography, in both content and form.

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