Virtual reality is the next big thing in the pornography industry, but will it be able to progress beyond novelty?
Midway through ‘The Entire History of You’, the final episode of the first season of Charlie Booker’s speculative sci-fi show Black Mirror, a dinner table conversation turns to masturbation. In this episode’s near-future world, implants are available that allow people to replay old memories, either viewed in private on contact lenses that all users wear, or projected onto any screen. One man at the dinner, Jonas, talks about masturbating to footage of previous sexual experiences he has had. Later, the couple at the centre of the story, Liam and Ffion, engage in extremely passionless sex while both replaying footage of a previous steamy night from earlier in their relationship. It’s a creepy episode, one that suggests the potential pitfalls of virtual sex. This episode was released in 2011; now, five years later, it’s entirely possible to strap on a headset and experience a sex scene as though you were a part of it.
Virtual reality has long been a part of sci-fi mythos, and sex has always been part of the appeal. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation occasionally implied that the Holodeck, the ultimate pop-cultural example of virtual reality, was being used to simulate sexual encounters. Now that VR headsets are becoming more ubiquitous, with multiple devices available on the market, VR pornography has started to emerge as a potential selling-point. Technology has often gained ground thanks to the porn industry — Blu-Ray beat HD-DVD partially because of the porn industry’s support, as did VHS over Beta — and the Internet has thrived on it. But with free sites like PornHub and RedTube now dictating the porn habits of many users, the industry is seeking new, mutually-beneficial relationships.
Virtual reality pornography, like most virtual reality filmmaking that has been released or experimented with thus far, typically involves inhabiting a virtual body and observing the action from a first-person — usually male — perspective. After putting on your headset and loading up the video, a typical virtual reality porn scenario will involve watching as a woman pleasures the body you’re meant to be occupying: look down and you’ll see another man’s penis, but the perspective is meant to make you feel like it’s your own. You can look around wherever you want as the scene plays out, but because everything is pre-filmed you have no control over your virtual body; you can’t touch your partner, nor can you get up and leave the scene without taking your headset off. Still, it’s more control than you usually have over a pornography scenario — it’s not true virtual sex, but the aim is to make the user feel like they’re actually a part of the scene depicted.
Naughty America CIO Ian Paul believes that virtual reality porn, which his company specializes in, will succeed by being “more intimate than 2D porn”. The company has seen a tremendous growth rate in subscription numbers for their VR service, and he believes that this trend will continue. Naughty America is one of the few major pornography studios creating VR pornography, and seems, at present, to be the most professionally managed (the unfortunately named ‘WankzVR’ did not respond to our interview request).
“One of the first things that people can't get over is how much it feels like the performer is looking into their eyes and specifically interacting with them”, Paul says. “We've also figured how to make it seem like the performer is actually kissing you at certain points in the video. On some occasions when I am giving demos, people take the headset off and quickly excuse themselves, sometimes leaving their phone or personal belongings behind. It can be overwhelming, but in a good way.”
Pornography is still a private subject for most people. I had an extremely hard time finding people willing to speak to me for this article, and most videos and discussions I could find online about VR pornography discussed it more as a novelty and a joke than as a legitimate source of pleasure or titillation.
Among the four VR porn users I managed to speak with, none of them admitted to heavy use, nor much of a desire to keep using it beyond the first few trials of the concept. “I watched three scenes within two days of receiving my Samsung Gear VR” said D (31), who wished to remain anonymous. When he posted about getting his Gear on social media, “the most common joke was about watching porn on it”. While Ian Paul claims that VR pornography is more immersive than regular pornography, D had the opposite reaction to it. “I felt a greater sense of immersion playing VR poker with the same avatar at nearly every seat at the table then I did with the live porn, even with one of the videos I watched featuring a girl that I am a fan of”.
Tess (29), who has viewed VR pornography on the HTC Vive (the most advanced piece of consumer VR technology currently available), has no desire to go back after a single experience, unless there is a major breakthrough in how it’s made. “The perspectives felt off”, she said. “I wanted to move my face further away from the woman’s butt at the beginning but I wasn't able to. I got out of the whole thing when she suddenly came into ‘frame’ and loomed over me like a giant woman.” Another interviewee, Joe (36), also described the women in the videos as ‘giants’, which seems to be a common complaint online. “It's very much a novelty for me at this point, and not at all part of my regular consumption”, Joe said. “I think there may be very occasional use, and I’ll probably keep showing it to friends who are interested in the technology, but there needs to be a lot of improvement for it to become something that would be for regular consumption”.
Another issue, Tess noted, was that in VR there’s no easy way to fast-forward through the parts of the video that don’t work for or appeal to you. In its current format, VR pornography feels like an all-or-nothing prospect, where you need to fully commit to the scene you’re engaging with. This is, perhaps, not in line with modern pornography viewing habits. The world average viewing time for pornographic content online is 3 minutes and 16 seconds, but immersing yourself in VR (not to mention setting it up) takes far longer. Beyond this, most of the pornography each participant reported watching was fairly ‘vanilla’. As Joe put it: “Most follow the format of being from the point of view of a guy, with a woman dancing or moving in front of him, followed by a blowjob and then either sex with her on top, or in a doggy-style position”.
Ben (22), felt that the fixed perspective of a guy sitting or lying down “doesn’t make for very exciting porn scenes”, especially since the man in each film, whose perspective you’re occupying, is often fairly uninvolved in the whole process. This is a limitation of how VR pornography is currently shot, an issue that directors and studios are still figuring out how to deal with. “There is a lot more risk of incorrectly filming the scene when you position the camera as a third-party observer away from the two actors in the scene”, says Naughty America’s Ian Paul. “You can't look through the VR camera rig like you can a traditional camera so it requires us to predefine the distances between the camera and the actor.”
“Almost every part of it is worse than just regular porn,” Ben says. “I can't even imagine trying to masturbate with a headset strapped to my face. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it was distressing, but there were some issues with field of view and perspective in these videos that make them kind of unpleasant. It's really unnerving when [a porn star's] face is just over your head, and you look up to see the top of her head deformed and stretched out”.
Ultimately, this seems to be the greatest issue VR pornography is facing — it doesn’t actually feel real or immersive, despite the first-person perspective. With standard pornography, there’s a degree of separation: you’re watching people on a screen, and generally taking pleasure from their situation, or their expression of the sensations they’re experiencing (or, in some cases, pretending to experience). A pornography user may imagine themselves in the scene, and derive pleasure from this. As it turns out, imagination is a more powerful tool than simply being inserted into the scene, especially when control is taken from you beyond the ability to tilt your head and look at the wall as ‘your’ scene partner straddles you.
But while VR may be struggling at the moment to win customers over with pornography, there’s still potential for these devices to offer meaningful, or at least stimulating, sexual experiences. Naughty America is currently looking into ways to help couples enjoy sexual VR experiences together. “We are working with partners to integrate smart sex toys where by both the man and woman can both watch the same video and have their respective toys react individually”, Paul says. “Fun, sexual experiences like that will certainly promote a healthy sex life between a couple.” This could certainly prove valuable for couples in long-distance relationships, who are, in some cases, already using VR to bridge the gap between each other, or for couples who are separated by travel commitments. “Beyond VR porn, there will soon be many things to do in VR with a remote partner like going to concerts and sports events or playing video games together”, Paul says.
Virtual reality technology is ultimately still evolving, and there will be a rush in the opening years not only to offer different VR experiences, but to proclaim VR as the ultimate outlet for certain activities. In its current state, virtual reality might not represent the market shake-up that some corners of the pornography industry are after. The fact that a lot of this content is already popping up on free streaming sites may mean that pornography producers will need to innovate further to make headway in the market.
Pornography remains a social taboo even though it drives a lot of internet use. Despite all the jokes it’s likely to remain a serious motivator for people to try VR, but whether it keeps them coming back may depend on how the technology and filming techniques evolve over the next few years.
Edited by Tessa Evans