Porn and virtual reality: a changing industry

Traditional pornography is at a crossroads

VR porn

"The lack of eye contact makes [the performer] appear distant for a sexual encounter – but there is also something sexy about that," says male porn performer Xander Corvus, "in the way a glory hole is sexy."

Virtual reality is changing pornography. It's changing the way we watch it, and the way it's made.

Porn has always been a driver for technology. From Blu-Ray to VHS, Super 8 projectors to pay-per-view cable, porn has often been as a surefire way of taking new technology into the mainstream.

In 2016, pornography is at another one of those moments. Profits are dwindling thanks to readily available free content across the web. Larger production companies are scrambling for the next big thing, and many have grasped onto it in virtual reality.

With the launch of the Oculus Rift and the advent of affordable headsets like the Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard and countless others, VR is readily available for the masses, while the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR will be in homes by the end of the year.

It's pretty obvious, then, how we'll be watching VR porn – but how is it changing the experience for the people involved in making it?

"I'm always bummed out when I look at my call sheet and I see [regular] point-of-view," says Corvus. "I'm all for VR. If anything it's relaxing, like a porno spa day for me. I much prefer virtual reality. Traditional POV shoots are annoying, because it's even more of a tease and annoyance for me.

"I mean, I get to be more hands on, but I have to think about so much more, like not bumping the camera man who is breathing down my neck."

The experience of performing within virtual reality can be entirely different to filming traditional 2D video, perhaps even distracting.

VR Bangers

"It's harder shooting VR," says Daniel Abramovich, co-founder and CEO of VR Bangers.

"For the male actor that is behind the camera, they're used to being free and doing whatever they need to do in the movie. Here they basically just stand and can't move to do anything to move the camera."

"It's really hard for them to shoot. It's completely different, as they can't move at all."

That might be so, but VR is also bringing performers closer to their viewers. Charlie Heart, who performs live VR shows for webcam site CamSoda, says she jumps at the chance to do anything with virtual reality. Heart isn't using point-of-view, but uses the VR camera to create a more intimate setting.

"I love the interactive part of it," she says. "With 2D I don't have to worry about my angles as much – I don't have to suck it in," she jokes. "But I love the idea that with VR, it's like [users] are sitting in a chair in front of me. If I'm doing a little striptease, there's satisfaction like they're there with me."

VRTube.xxx also uses virtual reality cameras in a similar way to intensify the immersion. "When you're immersed in VR, it takes over everything," says Ela Darling, Co-Founder of VRTube.xxx and a VR performer.

Ela Darling

"I feel like I'm connecting on a deeper level with the users. The actual stuff I do is pretty much the same, but in terms of the rapport that I'm building, I feel that's accelerated. It's fantastic.

"I know from their perspective they're in this headset and they're surrounded by my bedroom. It's a 360-degree 3D capture, so they see my bedroom – they're in my actual home."

The process of filming VR content is much the same for Darling as a performer. She stars in 3D camera-shot videos from her own room, unlike most porn stars. For Darling, VR pornography has meant she can offer something different to the larger porn companies that usually keep a tight hold on the industry.

She helped to co-found VRTube.xxx in 2014, and beat many of the other big providers to virtual reality tech. "It's my company and I'm kind of the pioneer of VR porn, so this has been incredibly empowering for me," she says.

Larger companies are focusing on virtual reality content filmed from a first-person perspective, but understand that it can be an entirely different experience for the performers.

Naughty America, an adult film provider which started in 2001, is perhaps the most prolific VR porn provider right now.

CIO Ian Paul explained that while its actors are seasoned professionals, virtual reality has meant teaching them about depth. "Depth is something that's really apparent in VR videos. Once we taught that to them, we just said to them treat this like a standard POV shoot."

Is the technology working yet?

Ela Darling wants to open up virtual reality pornography to a wider market of content producers. Access to virtual reality filming equipment is currently limited, and restricts lone performers from taking part.

If you want to make content in VR you'll need a suitable camera rig – usually expensive – space to house it, the know-how to use it, the skills to edit the footage, and then a way to distribute it.

You also need to ensure that the content will work across the Gear VR platform, as well as with the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard.

To help others, Darling has created a virtual reality camera she aims to sell for $300 or less. "That's a very low rate to pay for this," she says. "It's the price of a regular webcam if you're looking for a really good one."

VRTube xxx

Darling is working with webcam porn site Cam4, which already has a diverse performer base, and together they're beginning to make her camera available to performers for testing.

"If you have the will to do this and a few hundred bucks, you can start doing it as soon as we launch," says Darling, who aims to launch her camera in the next two months.

Whether it's provided by large companies such as Naughty America or Darling's smaller outfit, the equipment and skills required to film in virtual reality will eventually become easier to acquire, and will allow producers to get involved in VR with a relatively small outlay.

"It took us about a year to figure out how to shoot virtual reality," Abramovich at VR Bangers explains. "In [VR] porn, it's a little bit different to when you're shooting regular landscape films or any video, because the people are so close to you."

VR Bangers was the first website in the world that allowed users to stream VR pornographic content, until Pornhub started doing the same a few weeks ago. If you have a Google Cardboard you can watch the videos without installing specialist software, although a lot of the content is still restricted to 480p videos that aren't incredibly immersive.

VR Bangers

Most of VR Bangers' main competitors, including Naughty America, require you to download hefty video files to your device.

"We have to deal with the reality of convenience," says Ian Paul of Naughty America. "No one wants to have to don all of this gear and make it a really serious thing. They want to get it done and move on with their lives."

Paul also believes the stigma for customers may be a stumbling block.

"No one is going to go out and buy a headset just for porn. It's a little embarrassing to have a device in your house that everyone knows is just for porn," he says. "But if you buy it for your PlayStation or your phone, no one is going to question that."

Both Oculus and Samsung have said VR porn won't be available on their systems. Google hasn't officially commented on whether it supports Cardboard being used for VR pornography, but the content policy for Google Play Store doesn't allow apps that "contain or promote sexually explicit content". Of course, you don't need an app to play porn on your phone.

Google Cardboard

Nate Mitchell, vice president of product at Oculus, has said: "We're actively barring, prohibiting adult entertainment content from being in the store, period. If you're on the Oculus platform, there's none of that content.

"We have a zero tolerance policy for that. The Rift's hardware SDK is open, but as for content that we're offering to people, and anything that's on what we would consider to be the Oculus platform, we don't offer, we prohibit it."

Since then, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has clarified that the company has no plans to block porn content from the Rift – it just won't offer up adult entertainment apps within its main store.

Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift is one of the main drivers in the virtual reality space.

Though its streams work with any VR viewer, CamSoda points its users toward Google Cardboard as the cheapest headset available. Daron Lundeen, president of CamSoda, says he's never received an official communication from Google about the content his company produces.

"Google has never asked me not to do anything, and never said do anything," Lundeen says. "I don't think we're doing anything bad. I can see why Google wouldn't want to put a brand on it, but everybody is legal and consenting. This is definitely adult, but it's not like we're doing anything bad."

"I think the market may shift to the open platform that allows consumers to do what they like," says Paul at Naughty America.

"I would suggest to Samsung and Oculus that they need to open up their platforms. I think at the end of the day Samsung and the like will have to come up with some sort of solution to recognise this is a human need, and they can't moralise with their policies against this human need."

Paul compares the process that virtual reality adult content is currently going through to the advent of pay-per-view content on cable services in the US. "The customers will eventually vote with their dollars and go with the manufacturer who doesn't restrict them in that way," he says.

How virtual reality porn goes live

CamSoda's content differs from other adult VR offerings in one key way: it's live.

"With [non-live] virtual reality, you feel like that person is right on top of you, but you can't interact with them," says Lundeen. "I feel like I'm transported, but I'm not in any sort of control. Live changes that because you are part of the show."

For its streams CamSoda films performers in a room with a VR rig, stitching together shots from six cameras into one 360-degree video.

Using tokens, which act as tips, viewers can choose from a list of acts they'd like the performers to do.

CamSoda
CamSoda uses a VR rig that looks much like this with six cameras attached.

If the performer wishes, audience members can type in specific requests, which are moderated by someone on-set who relays them to the performers. The performers say what goes on the list, and can choose whether or not to do a certain act.

CamSoda's tips bring to mind micropayments used in services like Twitch, where viewers can pay streamers to attempt certain in-game tricks. Of course, pornography is an entirely different type of entertainment than gaming, so it's important for the entire adult industry to prevent payment options like this from veering into realm of digital prostitution.

Rather than a POV experience, CamSoda puts multiple users at once into the same room as the performers they're watching. Users can move their view around the room and zoom in to see what's happening around them.

"If you've never been in an orgy, which most people haven't, it's an opportunity to actually experience what an orgy is like," Lundeen says.

Tough love

Because of the nature of many users interacting at once "it can be kind of complicated," he adds.

"VR is a new aspect that brings porn and webcamming to where it's even more personal, and the sensation is just… it's overwhelming," performer Charlie Heart says.

"There's that reinforcement right away. Guys get to interact with their favorite porn stars as if they are really there. It's not watching a movie anymore. So many of the guys say it's so real, and that's what we love about it too."

While the degree of interaction is greater than with a pre-recorded piece, Lundeen says it's not full immersion yet, partly because you're not supposed to strap Google Cardboard to your face (a restriction of the headset CamSoda doesn't condone breaking), and you can't use voice chat.

The company is developing an app to improve communication, so viewers don't have to use a second device to input their requests, as well as a voice-to-text solution.

Like others we interviewed, Lundeen is convinced virtual reality porn is going to take off – but unlike pre-recorded content which can be easily monetized, live streams are less profitable because it's a one-off experience. CamSoda does, however, record its streams to recoup some of its expenses.

CamSoda
A scene from a CamSoda stream

Lundeen says performers make more from traditional 2D streams than from VR because there's a larger audience, so CamSoda pays its performers upfront for VR shoots so that they aren't losing money and will be more willing to shoot for the medium.

Eventually, CamSoda plans to offer simultaneous 2D and VR streams, so that performers can make the same money they're used to and the site can invest in its VR hardware.

And even though there's less money to be made in VR at the moment, Heart says she's enthusiastic about filming for virtual reality streams. "Anything with VR, I'm there," she says. "I find it intriguing."

"It's going to be big"

For Lundeen, the cost of making VR live streams, while "definitely a challenge" is "absolutely" worth it, even if it's not a profit-earning endeavor for his company at the moment. "VR is big," he says. "And it's going to be even bigger. This is the early stages. Everyone is figuring out where it's going."

"People think we're crazy for investing as heavily as we have in live, but we believe strongly that live can be the future," he adds. "It's about relationships. As you integrate VR and AR into this, it becomes not this seedy thing. You can really explore your own sexuality, and as a couple [if you're in a relationship], you can explore it in a really unique way.

"That's what you get live. Pre-recorded, there's aspects of it, but it's not quite the same. Live… you're talking to another human being. People become way sexier when you get to know them. It's not somebody else's fantasy."