The porn industry is already innovating in virtual reality, which could be a good sign for VR more broadly. Art Direction: Dianna McDougall; Sources: iStock, Naughty America
There’s a near-naked woman pole dancing in a conference room on Madison Avenue.
It would probably violate some kind of co-working space rule if she were there in the flesh. Instead, the woman, clad in a white thong, is in the room via augmented reality and has appeared on a tablet screen like some sort of reverse Pokémon Go game. Instead of cartoon monsters, there are nude dancers, and instead of tossing a virtual ball to make those monsters disappear, you drag and drop from the screen to make naked models appear, life-size, in front of you.
“I like being your private dancer,” the woman says, gyrating, jiggling and spinning around on top of a small conference table.
The woman is an adult film actress, and her three-dimensional dance is part of a slate of augmented-reality and virtual-reality erotica created by Naughty America, a publisher and producer of adult content whose website is most certainly not safe for work. If you take the experience a step further and access Naughty America’s content using a VR headset, the conference room will melt away entirely. The viewer, reclining on a white leather couch, can drop actors and actresses of their choice into a virtual penthouse suite surrounding them and can move around the room to watch their new companions strip and dance.
“People will buy the Oculus Go or another headset to watch porn but eventually, they will want to watch something else, and that opens the door.” Xavi Clos, head of VR product, CM Productions
Naughty America makes porn, but the subscription-based company says it views itself primarily as a tech company pushing the boundaries of virtual- and augmented-reality entertainment. The company has produced X-rated AR and VR experiences since 2015, including 3D adult experiences and live-action VR porn, and it’s far from the only company banking on the business proposition of making technologically advanced adult content. BaDoink VR, another adult content company that produces live-action VR porn, sends subscribers Google Cardboard headsets to turn their mobile screens into VR viewing goggles. In February, it began selling Facebook’s Oculus Go headsets preloaded with the company’s content.
For people who like the idea of watching porn in virtual reality, the bullishness with which Naughty America and BaDoink have approached the medium is great news. But the porn industry’s investment in virtual reality may also serve to benefit the VR industry more broadly. If history is any guide, porn has been nothing but good for tech companies, encouraging consumers to adopt new hardware and even coming up with innovative business models and methods on new platforms. After all, what better way to introduce shiny, expensive tech to the masses than by enticing them with X-rated content?
“People will buy the Oculus Go or another headset to watch porn but eventually, they will want to watch something else, and that opens the door,” said Xavi Clos, the head of VR product at BaDoink VR’s parent company, CM Productions. “This is called porn helping the VR manufacturers and helping the VR ecosystem to grow.”
Jonathan Coopersmith, a technology professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, has written at length about the connection between pornography and technology adoption. In an academic article published in the journal Icon, Coopersmith posited that porn “would be publicly praised as an industry that has successfully and quickly developed, adopted and diffused technologies” if not for its salacious and morally controversial subject matter.
Take the VCR, one of the more enduring examples of porn’s effect on the adoption of new tech hardware. The cost of producing and distributing porn on videotape became a viable and relatively low-cost option for the industry compared with the cost of making and distributing an X-rated feature film, and because there’s always a demand for porn, the chance to make money was high.
“What the VCR did for the first time was allow you to watch pornography from the privacy of your own living room, your own home, whereas before, if you wanted to see a pornographic film, you had to go out to a movie theater in a seedy part of town,” Coopersmith told us.
As a result, the porn industry made a vast library of adult videotapes that people could rent or purchase and view, but only, of course, if they invested in a pricey piece of hardware to view it. They did, and that investment from early adopters allowed hardware makers to continue building VCRs, paving the way for more adoption, encouraging other content companies to make their shows and movies available on videotape and driving down the price. That, in turn, encouraged more adoption, and so on.
“As the market grows, the prices are going to come down, especially as there’s a desire to reach a broader and broader audience,” Coopersmith said.
VCR adoption rates grew alongside the porn industry’s investment in the category. Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Data: The Erotic Engine, by Patchen Barss
A similar dynamic can be seen with the adoption of both the Blu-ray player and the internet. Porn producers rightly believed people would pay a premium for higher-resolution porn, and they invested in Blu-ray technology to make it. (Some producers tried distributing their porn on HD-DVDs for similar reasons; ultimately, though, Blu-ray won out.)
On the internet, the sheer availability of porn, due in part to the ease with which virtually anyone could produce and upload adult content, resulted in a massive testing ground for new commerce methods, business models and digital practices that have in turn benefited the digital economy more broadly, according to academics. A Dutch porn company developed the first working internet-based video streaming system in 1994 to deliver porn to its customers, journalist Patchen Barss wrote in The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication, From Gutenberg to Google.
It was particularly important that early adopters of the internet spent at least some of their time consuming porn, Coopersmith wrote in the Routledge academic journal History of Technology, because users accessing the internet for the purpose of porn and sex “frequent the internet more heavily, operate at a more advanced level and otherwise demand more” advanced tech than people accessing the internet for other purposes.
There’s another reason why new tech and pornography have worked in a complementary manner, too: Historically, they appeal to the same market.
“A lot of the early adopters of new technology tend to be young men in their 20s who are also the demographic for the porn industry,” Coopersmith told Adweek.
The adoption and eventual diffusion of new tech rarely arrives with a bang, but instead ticks up year over year. The same can be said for virtual reality, which has been around since the mid-20th century for various commercial and military purposes and has been available to at least some consumers since the early 1990s. The magazine Computer Gaming World optimistically predicted in 1992 that VR tech would become available and relatively affordable for the general public “in the next year and a half,” but bogged down by exorbitant prices and complex technological requirements, consumer VR has for years experienced something of a failure to launch.
Analysts and industry watchers, though, seem to think consumer-facing VR has made enough progress that adoption is poised to accelerate. More manufacturers are building better and cheaper VR headsets, making the tech more accessible. Meanwhile, curious and optimistic publishers of all kinds are experimenting with creating and publishing VR and mixed-reality content, including video games, news content and even advertisements. The International Data Corporation estimates that around 65 million VR and AR headsets will be sold in 2022, compared with the estimated 9 million sold in 2018.
“If you want true innovation and creativity and disruption in the adult world, hire and empower and fund diversity. … Enable those creators to create, and you’ll be amazed at the innovation and disruption you’ll see.” Cindy Gallop, founder, MakeLoveNotPorn
Jitesh Ubrani, a senior research analyst who tracks trends in mobile devices for the International Data Corporation, said “easier-to-use devices at lower price points” will help fuel the industry in coming years, and that the increased usability of the headsets, along with the amount and quality of content available on those headsets, will also help encourage more widespread adoption.
“Combine that with a growing lineup of content from game-makers, Hollywood studios, and even vocational training institutions, and we see a brighter future for the adoption of virtual reality,” Ubrani said in a report about the state of the industry.
If the lineup of content matters, any increase in the quantity and quality of VR content, including porn, should be a reason for headset makers to celebrate. That’s not to say they’ll admit it. Big tech has increasingly kept the adult content industry at arm’s length, preventing adult content producers from being included in app stores or even from using mainstream digital tools like video streaming, payment processing and email services. Tumblr users were dismayed to learn last year that the blogging service would ban adult content by the end of 2018. Even Starbucks said in November it would prevent people in its stores from accessing porn on its free Wi-Fi.
The dynamic is similar with VR headsets. Adult content apps are forbidden from most mainstream app libraries like the Oculus Store or Google Play over adult content restrictions, and headset makers do not generally tout that content as a selling point. Google and Samsung did not respond to requests for comment about their headsets being used to consume adult content.
“We do not distribute adult content through the Oculus Store,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “As is the case with many devices, people can access content through sources outside of our Store, in which case that content may not follow our guidelines.”
As a general rule, Coopersmith said, device-makers and other equipment makers like to keep some of the potential uses of their products quiet.
“It’s bad PR to be associated with porn,” he said.
Some of the established players in the industry, though, aren’t particularly concerned. Users looking for porn can usually find it. And it doesn’t much matter to a device-maker if someone is buying a VR headset to watch porn or do something else on it. A unit sold is a unit sold.
“The most-used video application on the headset is the video player,” Clos said. “[Device-makers] are smart enough to know that they can sell the headset for whatever reason and they will still make money.”
Virtual-reality porn is expected to be big business. In 2015, the firm Piper Jaffray estimated that VR adult content would grow to a $1 billion business by 2025, and there are several adult content companies looking to get in on the action, mostly via subscription services.
“If you look down the road, we’ll eventually get Westworld.” Andreas Hronopoulos, CEO, Naughty America
That’s not to say the transition from standard video to VR will be an easy one for adult content producers. If there’s anything adult content producers have discovered in recent years, it’s that good virtual-reality porn can be hard, and expensive, to make.
Naughty America CEO Andreas Hronopoulos told Adweek he believes the investment in creating adult content in virtual and mixed reality is worth it but acknowledged it’s more expensive to create VR and mixed-reality porn than it is in other formats.
“Twenty years ago, the joke was that if anyone had a three-chip camera, you could make money in adult content … but that’s not the case today,” Hronopoulos said. “The barrier of entry for getting into products for adults, the products we are creating, is much higher.”
For Hronopoulos’ company, making good adult content has meant lots of testing and trying out new products and content formats. Not everything has gone well. The first time Naughty America released its slate of drag-and-drop performers in augmented and virtual reality, the models didn’t elicit the intended effect.
“Everybody looked at them and they said, ‘These are so fun! These are so cool!'” Hronopoulos said of the first go at Naughty America’s volumetric-captured dancers. “And I was like, ‘Fun? Cool? No! These are supposed to be naughty. They’re supposed to be hot. They’re supposed to be sexy.’ So we did a second phase.”
BaDoink’s first attempts at VR porn were “a disaster,” said Clos, who oversees VR content at BaDoink VR.
“The scale was not good. The audio was not good. The frame rate was not good,” Clos said. “In these last three, almost four years, we have had to build out an understanding of what the audience wants to experience.”
Both companies, though, have attracted enough paying customers over the years that they get useful feedback. What they’ve learned: Viewers, most of whom are male, want longer content (around 30 minutes). They want to feel like they are one of the performers. Often, they want to look in another performer’s eyes.
To accomplish that, BaDoink videos are recorded using a custom Go-Pro equipped with a custom fish-eye lens and two cameras intended to serve as the “eyes” of the viewer. Performers have had to adjust to the new methods.
VR porn is usually recorded from the perspective of one of the performers through a fish-eye lens. Photo courtesy of BaDoink
“If you go to a VR shooting, the guy is kind of leaning back with his neck, trying to avoid the camera in front of him,” Clos said. “It’s kind of funny, but it’s hard for them to do. They have to be not even breathing, barely. I don’t know how they do it.”
BaDoink and Naughty America declined to share how many people subscribe or view their content, but a spokesman for Pornhub said people made an average of around 110,000 VR-related porn searches every day and visited the VR porn category on the site around 134,400 times daily. That’s lower than in 2017, when people visited the VR category an average of 500,000 times a day after Pornhub first released the VR category on its site, but the company said that was probably due to the novelty of the new category.
Despite all of the innovation happening in the VR porn space, there are still limits. A major one is that much of the VR porn being created is aimed primarily at straight men and is filmed from the perspective of a male porn actor. Naughty America does offer male performers in its AR and VR experience, but both Hronopoulos and Clos acknowledged that a lot of their content is for men interested in women. (On Pornhub, men were 154 percent more likely to view VR-related porn than women were, according to data Pornhub provided.)
“It’s not that we don’t want to do it,” Clos said about making virtual-reality porn for people with different sexual interests. “But other audiences are not as used to paying for porn. At the end of the day, we are a company, and we want to make money.”
Cindy Gallop, a former advertising executive and founder of the social sex startup MakeLoveNotPorn, said she wasn’t surprised the mainstream porn industry, which has faced economic pressures since the advent of the internet, has invested in the kind of male-centric content it has. And she’s less than impressed with the VR adult content currently on the market.
“When you are enormously squeezed for money and when everybody is really worried about how to make it, that does not open up the room for individual creative vision or creativity when it comes to the deployment of new technology,” Gallop, who has spoken at length about sex, porn and society, told Adweek.
On the content side, Gallop’s suggestion for porn producers is simple.
“If you want true innovation and creativity and disruption in the adult world, hire and empower and fund diversity, and by diversity I mean everything—gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age,” Gallop said. “Enable those creators to create, and you’ll be amazed at the innovation and disruption you’ll see.”
After about 30 seconds of spinning in the WeWork office, the dancing woman begins the same performance on a loop. “I like being your private dancer,” the woman repeats, going through the same dance moves and wiggling as before.
Hronopoulos said the 30-second videos are the perfect length because they can be viewed from different angles. For a viewer sitting still, though, the volumetric captures were impressive, but the looping audio and visuals were noticeable. It’s indicative of the experimental and still nascent nature of the augmented- and virtual-reality content coming into the market.
Porn companies, though, are optimistic the tech they’re working with will continue to improve. For all of the VR industry’s fits and starts, it’s a matter of when, not whether, virtual reality becomes mainstream, they said. Investing early helps encourage the continued mainstreaming of new tech while signaling their company’s forward thinking. Plus, there’s a chance to make money every step of the way.
It’s not just advances in virtual reality about which porn companies are excited. The ability to shoot in even higher definition and deliver better content on VR is a priority in the immediate future. For Hronopoulos, it’s about increasing the quality of the holograms, along with building up the company’s menu of virtual-reality content.
Down the road, there’s interest in developing interactive pornographic experiences. Clos said BaDoink is keeping an eye on possible partnerships with sex-toy manufacturers that, in tandem with a VR headset, could create multisensory, immersive porn. Even further in the future, might those exorbitantly expensive sex robots that are still in very early development become the adult industry’s next frontier? Some porn executives hope so.
“If you look down the road, we’ll eventually get Westworld,” Hronopoulos said, referring to the HBO show about robots that are indistinguishable from humans. “Naughty America looks forward to being there for that, helping people find their fantasy. It’s only going to get better from here.”