Virtual Reality (VR) technology is currently subject to massive hype and is forecast to have great potential in areas such as movies, gaming, sports, education and health. Something that eludes the radar of most, however, is the fact that VR is already well established in the porn industry, where its 360-degree viewing experience and ability to simulate virtual environments is used to greatly enhance immersion – with the goal of making you feel like you are almost there yourself. That the world of porn has embraced VR so readily is no surprise. In fact, the porn industry has always been an early adopter of new, groundbreaking technologies and has many times been instrumental in propelling them from niche to mainstream. In this article, we take a closer look at the historic relationship between pornography and emerging technologies and use this as a springboard to examining how VR porn can become the driver for the next erotic revolution.
VR AND THE PORN INDUSTRY
Although its breakthrough into the world of consumer electronics is recent, Virtual Reality technology has been evolving since the last half of the 20th century. Few probably remember The Sword of Damocles from 1968, designed by computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland as the first real attempt to construct a VR headset. In spite of Sutherland’s early attempts, the technology and graphics remained primitive and the dream of VR stagnated during the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years, the VR experience has improved significantly, which means that the intense hype currently surrounding the technology seems much better reflected in its actual capabilities and possibilities. Since the US entrepreneur Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR, in 2010 designed the first Oculus Rift VR headset, a growing number of major IT companies have become engaged in the development of VR technology. In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR in the conviction that VR would become a fixture in people’s future everyday lives. Sony announced Project Morpheus as a VR headset for the gaming console PlayStation 4, while the IT giant Google launched Google Cardboard as an inexpensive headset into which the user could insert a smartphone showing a VR universe. In April 2016, HTC launched its own VR headset, HTC Vive, which includes controllers to track the user’s movements and copy these to virtual reality. Most recently, in November 2016, YouTube introduced its own VR video format.
That a growing number of IT companies are joining the race to develop VR systems indicates a strong expectation that VR will be a significant growth market in the decade to come. In this regard, the consulting firm Deloitte Global in its so-called TMT Predictions from early 2016 estimated that VR would soon become a ‘billion-dollar niche’ with hardware sales for around USD 700 million and VR content for around USD 300 million within that year. Even though VR technology was primarily a gaming technology until recently, the technology is also associated with expectations that VR will revolutionise fields like sports and movies as well as health and education. This has been verbalised by Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg in connection to the acquisition of Oculus VR (to The Guardian):
“Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home”.
The porn industry has been quick to join the hype over VR technology, and one of the first VR companies in the porn industry, Virtual Reality Porn, was created as early as January 2014. Today, they offer VR porn for all mainstream VR systems. The popular platform PornHub has also recently added its own VR porn category. In the last few years, VR porn has gained so much popularity that according to Google Trends, Google searches for VR porn have increased 10,000 percent since 2014, while the Japanese sex festival The Adult VR Fest 01 had to be cancelled because so many excited fans showed up that the festival’s safety couldn’t be guaranteed.
What is the reason for this great interest in VR porn? What does VR do to our experience of pornography? Virtual Reality offers both the visual immersion in a 100 percent digitally created virtual universe and the possibility of the depiction of real events and existing physical environments, recorded on video using multiple cameras. The user steps into this virtual universe by way of a head-mounted display that shows a digital image in three dimensions, which the user can get the experience of freely looking around in, as sensors in the headset monitor the user’s head movements and change the image shown to the user accordingly. More advanced VR headsets also give the user the opportunity for moving around in the virtual environment by clicking on different spots in the virtual universe, providing the opportunity to choose the perspective for viewing the experience. At the same time, some headsets also provide a virtual sound experience where the sounds the user hears in the virtual world change with the user’s head movements, further strengthening the simulation and experience.
Most VR porn movies are characterised by taking the already popular POV-style porn (point of view, with films shot over the shoulder of one of the participants) to another step with movies shot from a first-person perspective: You are no longer just a voyeur, but a participant, and your co-star talks directly to you. If seen from the male point of view, the penis seen in the movie becomes your own, projected from your own body when you look down. With this opportunity to meld completely with one of the porn movie’s characters, a fundamental transformation of the erotic experience is achieved, replacing the sensation of simply looking on from the outside with the experience of taking part in the actual sexual activity. In this way, VR porn creates a stronger feeling of presence than traditional pornography and contributes to giving the user a stronger and more intimate relation to the character that they in VR see themselves have sex with. Most current VR porn movies (like traditional porn movies) are shot from a male perspective. To most women, VR porn is probably less interesting if they experience having a six-pack and a large penis when looking down their bodies. As VR porn breaks through to the mainstream, we will likely see a greater inclusion of the female perspective. If this happens, VR has the potential to create an intensified, interactive experience where both men and women can meld entirely with one of the porn movie’s characters and have the experience of being part of the fun.
Even though VR can take you into a porn movie visually and aurally, it can’t make you experience tactile sensation. For this reason, several companies are working to take VR porn to the next level by integrating the visual experience with sex toys that give the user the feeling of touch. Japanese developers have combined the popular Oculus Rift VR headset with pressure pads on a mannequin’s breasts that sense when a user touches the breasts, after which the virtual character in the headset reacts in real time. Not to be outdone, the company Tenga has launched a sex body suit, which connects to a device that simulates sexual movement and through electrodes in the suits stimulates the user all over. In a similar vein, Kiiroo has launched a sex toy that works by coding VR porn movies shot from a first-person perspective in a way that adapts a sex toy’s movements to the images shown in VR. Even though such innovations may not be to everybody’s taste, this development expresses a faith in virtual reality as the future of pornography, blurring the boundaries between the virtual and the real, which meld together into a single techno-erotic sensation.
In his 2010 book The Erotic Engine, Canadian tech journalist Patchen Barrs writes about how several of our most important communication technologies have been boosted into the mainstream by the porn industry. The popularity of the printing press, Barrs argues, was driven by a demand for the Bible, closely followed by eroticism. The father of erotic literature, Pietro Aretino, Barrs writes, is thought to have helped make literacy common in Europe through his erotic stories. An urban myth also says that the porn industry in the 1970s and 1980s decided the format war between Betamax and VHS. It is a simplified myth, since there were several reasons why VHS came to dominate the home video market (see e.g. SCENARIO 2010:2 for the story of the format war between VHS and Betamax). Even so, it is documented by Barrs and others that porn viewers were among the first to begin buying videotapes, since it was a way to watch pornographic films in the privacy of one’s own home. The consumption of porn hence kept the technology alive until the prices fell and the technology became widespread. We have seen the same development of microfilm and the digital camera, while porn also is instrumental in the wider popularity of many online activities that we today take for granted, such as streaming video, webcams, online credit-card transactions, and e-commerce. As an example, the Dutch porn company Red Light District developed the first internet-based video-streaming system as early as 1994, which was later followed by CNN.com and others before it was widely popularised by YouTube in 2005. Without pornography, the internet wouldn’t be what it is today. Even the market for fundamental internet infrastructure – like broadband and routers – was driven by a demand for pornography in the early years, which created a need for faster and more stable connections.
In this way, the porn industry has often been an early adopter that has boosted new technology. In the same manner, VR porn is now expected to promote a general adoption of VR technology. This is expressed in an article from Market Watch, which estimates that within 10 years, pornography will be one of the largest VR markets. In a similar manner, finance analysts from the investment bank Piper Jaffray project that VR porn will grow exponentially into a billion-dollar industry towards 2025, with VR porn taking the third-biggest VR niche after video games (USD 1.4 billion) and National Football League (USD 1.23 billion). In relation to this, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster says that VR porn is expected to be the next big growth market in the United States, the way that the mobile phone industry was 15 years ago.
The relationship between porn movies and VR doesn’t just have the potential to draw VR out of the niche markets and into the mainstream – virtual reality can also contribute to giving the porn industry a financial boost by making people willing to pay for pornographic content again. According to IBISWorld Market Research, the sales of traditional porn movies have since 2010 stagnated with an annual growth for pornographic websites of just 0.3 percent, among other things because the porn industry struggles with both piracy and free, advertisement-based websites like PornHub that grow increasingly popular. In this context, many actors in the porn industry gamble that VR technology can persuade more people to again pay for high-quality pornographic content and hence give the industry a new, much-needed revenue stream.
THE FUTURE OF TECHNOPORN: WHERE WILL WE GO NEXT?
Dr Ian Pearson, a futurist and engineer, has recently predicted that towards 2030, we can expect to enjoy VR porn and VR sex in the same way that we today use traditional porn. But what happens when virtual sex becomes more satisfying than the real thing? VR movies don’t depend on real video recording; they can be constructed as artificial, digital worlds. This means that VR porn may fully break down the wall to erotic fantasy by offering the user the opportunity of sex with anybody, anywhere. VR porn can hence lead to a democratisation of sex, where exclusive sex lives aren’t limited to the lucky few: everybody will be able to have VR sex with the famous and beautiful, and everybody can step into an artificial avatar through which they can perform better sexually than they could in real life. It is hence not unthinkable that we in 15-20 years may prefer VR porn to old-fashioned sex with the husband or wife back home.
We may also see a diversification of sexual preferences. Imagine for instance a future where you can have virtual sex with an elven maid or a cartoon character. Or maybe your cat or Disney’s Simba. In virtual porn, anything can potentially be simulated. Already today, the limits of the technology are already being pushed. In 2014, the Japanese company Tenga developed a combination of VR goggles and sex toys for men that give the experience of having sex with an anime character. In this way, VR porn may in the future radically change our sexual norms, even to a degree that gives rise to ethical issues. Is it for example acceptable to have virtual sex with a virtual minor? You could also have VR sex with a simulation of your ex-girlfriend or a colleague – but are they okay with that? Because of the opportunities offered by VR porn, such questions will become important to consider.
An important feature of VR googles is that nobody else can see what you see. To the porn industry, this anonymity is an exciting development that can take pornography out of the darkness and into the public sphere, leading to a real mobilisation of pornography. Still, would we want to sit in a train or at work and watch porn, snug in our little sexual universe behind the cardboard goggles? It is hard to say, but one thing is certain: VR porn will radically disrupt some of the existing frameworks of our sex lives, just as it will lead to a shift in our sexual preferences and challenge our ethics and sexual norms.
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