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Image credit: Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

Virtual reality and pornography: An X-rated debate

Two Engadget editors go tit for tat about the technological kingmaker.
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Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

The true test of virtual reality is upon us. As the consumer version of the Oculus Rift rolls into homes across the globe, the world is watching intently to see if this is truly virtual reality's moment. But what will be its killer application? Will our basest desires drive adoption as they have with previous mediums? Or has porn been dethroned as a technological kingmaker? Executive Editor Christopher Trout and Managing Editor Terrence O'Brien argue the finer points of VR porn.

Terrence O'Brien

Here's the uncomfortable truth that most people refuse to swallow: If virtual reality is going to take off, it's going to be on the wings of pornography. It's not going to be clever PlayStation games or films from major movie studios that make VR mainstream. It's going to be companies like Kink.com, Naughty America and Pornhub that convince every household they need a VR headset. That is, as long as the manufacturers are smart enough to stay out of the way. HTC or Oculus don't need to embrace the porn industry necessarily, but they need to not actively try and defeat it. Just look at what happened to poor Betamax when Sony decided it wanted nothing to do with pornography. The industry embraced VHS and the rest is history.

Obviously, there were other factors at play, but the fact that the format embraced by the porn industry ended up winning the war is no coincidence -- it has a history of picking the winner. It wasn't that long ago that the industry coalesced around Blu-ray, partially thanks to it's larger capacity. I'm sure you don't need to be reminded how that turned out: HD-DVD became a historical footnote and Blu-ray was crowned the standard for high-def media. At least for as long as physical media remained relevant.

Christopher Trout

Let's talk about those "other factors." First, off, the evidence supporting porn's influence on tech is shaky at best, but as we all know, people love to watch other people fuck and the porn industry has always been an early adopter. Still, assuming everything you say is true, porn isn't what it used to be.

Now, when the war over Betmax and VHS was going strong, the porn industry was still in its nascent stages. It was new and provocative. It was part of the cultural zeitgeist. Jackie Kennedy even famously admitted to seeing Deep Throat, probably the biggest adult film of all time. It was released just three years before Betamax.

The industry had its boom. And it's been through its bust. Porn today looks nothing like it did in the days of physical media. When DVDs were the gold standard, people were still buying porn and they cared about the quality. Those were also the days when people bought CDs and either cared about the sound of their music, or were just buying what the labels were selling. As we've learned in the internet age, quality isn't at the top of people's minds. If we can get it for cheap or free, we're down. That goes double for porn. VR is too expensive to produce to give away for free.

Cheap, even free, porn is in abundant supply today. Porn's studio system, like much of establishment media, finds itself competing with amateurs. Production value and creativity have suffered as a result. There is no "Deep Throat" for the online generation, and in order for consumers to buy into what could be a very expensive and high-friction experience, they're going to have to see something new and spectacular. Something mind-blowing. That's what VR is supposed to be. It's supposed to transport you. No one wants to be transported into a generic, cheaply made POV video. And that's most of what's being produced right now.

Terrence

This is true, that the industry has changed. But what hasn't changed is its ability to propel the adoption of new technology. Sure, porn helped push the adoption of Blu-ray as a media standard, but it's also behind what ultimately relegated Blu-ray to a niche product: streaming video. It wasn't Netflix or Skype that first brought on-demand and live streaming video into people's homes; it was porn. It was the industry responsible for a large percentage of all streaming video in the early days, which is part of why it was targeted by lawsuits from Acacia Research in 2003. Some of the first plug-in free video? Delivered by porn sites. And all of this goes double for live streaming video. Camgirls and other sex-industry performers were pioneers in the field of live streaming and live chat. That expensive teleconferencing system in your office uses technology that was pioneered by pornographers.

But it goes beyond video. Much of the internet is powered by technology that may not have been invented by the porn industry, but was pushed forward by it. In the early '90s the idea of using your credit card to buy something online was pretty far-fetched. It was Electronic Card Systems that really pioneered online transactions in the mid '90s. And ECS's first big partners weren't Amazon or Pets.com; they were porn sites. People felt more comfortable, more anonymous buying their porn on the internet, and so online payments took off -- not powered by our desire to read books or buy second-hand shoes, but by our desire to watch naked strangers touch themselves and each other.

Some even argue that the adoption of broadband was spurred in large part by the public's desire to consume porn. In 2003, Nielsen credited adult content and file-sharing services (at the time, largely music) as the driving force behind broadband adoption in Europe.

Christopher

That was 2003, just years before the porn industry hit the skids. Streaming media and piracy had a profoundly negative effect on adult entertainment's establishment in the mid-2000s, and it's never been the same. The big Hollywood studio-style business, trading in big names and big budgets, was rapidly replaced by amateur shaky-cam clips and churn-and-burn gonzo productions. Then the Great Recession hit. I felt the effects on the porn industry first-hand when I lost my job at a small studio that wasn't ready for rapid economic and technological change. The same thing played out across the industry. Some studios handled it better than others, but the establishment was largely overthrown.

What we lost in that transition is the money and expertise to produce high-quality media. I don't doubt that broadband adoption may have been spurred on by porn, but it also changed the medium itself. The internet has proved that people will get off no matter how grainy, shaky or short the clip as long as they don't have to pay for it. That sort of thing doesn't have a place in VR.

I've seen more VR porn than most, and I can tell you there's not much out there. What little there is, isn't very good. Skewed perspectives and shoestring budgets result in low-res, 180-degree X-rated house-of-mirrors experiences. And those pornographic freak shows are coming from big names like Naughty America and Virtual Real Porn. With porn's biggest players today, video services like Pornhub and YouPorn, trading in free and pirated clips, you have to ask yourself where the game-changing content is going to come from. VR production is still too complicated and expensive for amateurs and fast-and-dirty content farms.

VR porn won't take off until the means of production are democratized. And that likely won't happen until the technology has had its make-it-or-break-it moment. If you ask me, VR is the chicken here. Porn may or may not be the egg, but it's not worth betting the farm on.

Terrence

The porn industry will never again reach the absurd heights it did from the mid-'90s to the mid-aughts, when budgets for high-profile adult films measured in the hundreds of thousands or, occasionally, the millions. But this shift toward shaky-cams and POV porn is actually the kind of content perfectly suited for VR. Pornography these days isn't about big budgets or elaborate fantasies; it's about living vicariously through another. And that experience becomes all the more immersive and stimulating through a VR headset.

VR films are more complicated and expensive to produce than simply giving an actor a camcorder to hold while he has sex. But it's not prohibitively expensive for any reasonably profitable porn studio. A few GoPros, a 360-degree mount and software to stitch it all together can be had for a couple of thousand dollars.

But why even bother laying out that much money?

For a few hundred bucks a gonzo pornographer could pick up something basic like a 360fly or a Samsung Gear 360. And, as you so rightly point out, the internet has proved that people will get off no matter how grainy, shaky or short the clip is. And that extends to VR.

Christopher

I think you're underestimating the amount of skill and effort that go into producing VR. And what a boner killer a poor VR experience can be. It's one thing to have a shaky cam of a perfectly normal-looking human body, but bad VR production can make your homemade sex tape look like a freak show expose.

All of that aside, VR and the open internet are two very different things. The latter has, in recent years, been referred to as a basic human right; the former is an expensive, restrictive toy. If you want to compare the two, we're going to end up going down a privilege-and-access rabbit hole, and that's an entirely different argument. In any case, I've dedicated my weekend to finding the one man-on-man VR porn experience that won't make me feel like I've been transported into the Village People's new Ripley's Believe it or Not Las Vegas revue.

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