Porn doesn't need a XXX hologram

CamSoda awakened Pepper’s Ghost, but live streaming might be the industry's only hope.  

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    In December, the internet exploded with news of a XXX hologram. CamSoda, a small adult-cam site was bringing a holographic cam girl to the 2017 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo. I had to see it for myself.

    Decades of work have gone into the pursuit of true, full-color video holograms as sophisticated as Princess Leia's cry for help in Star Wars. I didn't expect a porn conference to be the place where more than a half-century of scientific research would bear fruit. But two weeks after CES, I was on my way back to Las Vegas for porn's premier event. I was fully expecting an industry stuck in the past, but hoping for something more.

    When I arrived, AVN CEO Tony Rios greeted me and quickly assured me that despite what I might have heard, the show was bigger and better than ever. He took us up to the "Real World" suite, where a 2011 season of the MTV show was shot. As we walked the halls, Rios hinted at the party that had happened there the night before. The suite had an AVN-branded bowling lane and a giant, raised en-suite bath. I had the strange sensation of being on the defunct set of an MTV reality show now serving as the late-night playground for porn's biggest stars.

    Wild nights aside, Rios showed no signs of fatigue as he defended the industry and the event. Not only was he expecting a record 25,000 attendees, but the Hard Rock had also built an entire new wing specifically for AVN's adult-novelty exhibitors.

    That might come as a surprise for those who've followed porn's recent history. After the stock-market crash of 2008, reports of the industry's demise became commonplace. A mix of a weakened economy, the growth of free tube sites, and an ongoing battle with online piracy crippled the Hollywood-style studio system of the '70s, '80s and '90s.

    According to Rios, reports of porn's death were premature. All I had to do was hit the show floor to see that the industry had evolved. It was now more nimble, diverse and technologically advanced than ever.

    "We're going to continue to see huge growth in cams, and I'm excited to see what happens with VR," Rios said. "It's still in its infancy and, you know, a lot people think they know what's going to happen, but I've been around long enough—you just have to wait and see what actually bubbles up to the top."

    That "see what bubbles up" approach is why I was at AEE to begin with. The holographic cam girl is one of a series of often-bizarre experiments to come out of CamSoda's labs. CamSoda is a relatively new startup in an established and booming segment of adult entertainment focused on connecting users to entertainers through live video and chat. Like Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook, porn's new heavyweights aren't content creators first but social-networking platforms.

    And like their mainstream counterparts, CamSoda realizes iteration is key. In the space of a year, it introduced live 360-degree sex shows, an "iTunes for blow jobs" and, most recently, OhRoma, a VR peripheral that lets you smell your porn. In talking about the hologram and the company's more practical pursuit of 360-degree live video, CEO Daron Lundeen employs the Silicon Valley cliché, "fail fast, fail often."

    "We're the site that's gonna experiment," Lundeen told me. "If you got a new idea, a new technology that's out there, we want to grab it, and try it, and use it."

    Compared to other, more established cam sites, like AEE title sponsor MyFreeCams.com and Chaturbate, CamSoda's booth is relatively small, but no less kinetic. Women in plunging CamSoda-branded bathing suits line a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of tables. Some of the site's most successful models are here signing autographs and performing for audiences at home at the same time. To the right of the booth is a series of experiments from the CamSoda labs. The crown jewel, like some outsize precious stone, is an inverted, rotating glass pyramid that appears to have a tiny stripper trapped inside.

    This is the "hologram" that we'd been promised, but it isn't a hologram at all. As I'd suspected, CamSoda's "invention" is a take on a parlor trick called Pepper's Ghost that first appeared in 1862. It employs a series of angled glass panels to give the illusion of a full-color, 3D hologram. It's the same trick that's given life to dead celebrities like Elvis and Tupac and given increased visibility to living legends like Al Gore, Mariah Carey and even the prime minister of India.

    In order to make your own porno Pepper's Ghost, you'll need to shoot your subject from four different angles. Once you have the video, just position your glass pyramid on top of your iPhone and press play. Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

    Anyway, I'd come to Vegas to find the future of porn, and while I was pretty sure this wasn't it, I was ready for my demo. I was introduced to Alexis Monroe, who would be transformed into my own private hologram performer. She gave me a hug and quickly ran back to a small, makeshift studio outfitted with green fabric and a series of four cameras that would capture her movements in real-time and display them on the four sides of the rotating pyramid on the show floor.

    I was placed in front of a microphone, pointed directly at the display, with a vibrating saddle donning a fleshy silicone nub at my feet and a petite fuck machine thrusting into thin air just behind me. The microphone was meant to enable two-way communication but was useless due to the surrounding noise. I stood mostly still as I attempted small talk with Monroe, who writhed around a plastic folding chair. She was like a small, soft-core stripper version of the Wizard of Oz on mute. It was, by far, the most bizarre lap dance I've ever experienced.

    When pressed Lundeen admits that his holograms are more gimmick than true technological breakthrough—something fun to draw people in. He says the real attraction isn't the medium but the models, and that his real focus is on simultaneous 2D and 360-degree live video broadcasting. But, he says, the spirit of experimentation that drives CamSoda is exactly why porn has been at the forefront of so many technological trends.

    "I think that's where adult probably has a leg up on most other industries," Lundeen said. "We can put something like the hologram together very quickly without a whole lot of red tape."

    A quick sweep of the Hard Rock revealed an industry that emerged from a crisis more nimble and focused on the future than I expected. Surviving pioneers like Hustler, Evil Angel and Penthouse bumped up against cam sites like MyFreeCams.com and Chaturbate that were either nonexistent or in their infancy when the industry tanked. Rios points to the growth of virtual reality at the show as a sign of its vitality. VR exhibitors at AEE 2017 were up to more than 20, nearly double the number in 2016, he says. By contrast, CES, the world's biggest technology showcase, put its official VR exhibitor count at 70. It has seven times the number of attendees.

    But the most striking change on display at AEE wasn't inside a headset: It was everywhere, in the blue glow of a laptop screen. At the Hard Rock hotel, big-name stars like Joanna Angel and Nina Hartley were lost in a sea of fresh young talent. These women, coiffed with every color of neon and pastel hair, giggled into tiny desktop cameras, pursed brightly painted lips and pushed together barely covered breasts. They offered a new face of a business once stuck in a mirror image of mainstream media. Like tech giants Facebook and Twitter, the big names in porn are banking on live streaming video, and like the latest batch of social-media celebrities, there's no formula for a successful cam model.

    Before our interview ends, Lundeen tells me what's next for CamSoda labs. There's "the whole T. rex strategy," which, from what I can tell is a plush mascot that crashes events and cam sessions, and a new character called POV guy, equipped with cameras, battery packs and a cellphone for live video capture and real-time chat. But the least sexy of the three is the one that caught my attention: live, mobile broadcasting. This is the future of porn.

    Lundeen knows you have to give people what they want. What they want right now is a connection unencumbered by creative camera angles, cheesy scripts and big-budget sets.

    The people want live, frictionless tits. But what's new?

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