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June 01, 2016

Tracing the Evolution of VR Porn

This article originally ran in the June 2016 issue of AVN magazine. Click here for a link to the digital edition, which contains more articles about virtual reality in adult. Technology has advanced to the point where, with a set of special goggles and a cellphone, you can be in a roomful of girls fucking. It’s called “virtual reality.” We live in a three-dimensional world—height, width, depth—but our media generally doesn’t. When we read a book, the words don’t hover above the page. When we watch television, it’s not as if we’re looking at the action through a window. Ditto for movies, although with the debut of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, 3D film has undergone a revival, thanks to technical advances like digital projection. In fact, the only “3D” mass medium is one that no one thinks about any longer: music in stereo. But in fact, 3D media have a long history. Although photography was invented in the early 1800s, it didn’t take long for photographers to place two cameras side-by-side to record images in 3D. Many famous scenes and portraits from the 19th century are actually one half of a “stereo pair,” and in 1947, the David White Company brought the Stereo Realist camera to market and sold more than 400,000 of them. Several other camera manufacturers like Kodak and Wollensak quickly followed suit. Three short 3D movies were first exhibited at the Astor Theater in New York City in 1915, and the genre became popular in the early 1950s with such hits as Creature From the Black Lagoon, House of Wax and Kiss Me Kate. Even adult got into the act, one of the earliest sexy 3D movies being The Stewardesses (1969), and in the mid-’70s, about a dozen hardcore 3D movies in anaglyph (red-blue) format were released. But porn abandoned the genre until it was resurrected by Mark Franks’ Vidmax Productions in the late 1990s. Vidmax produced about two dozen adult features, straight and gay, in what’s called sequential-field 3D, which required electronic goggles to be seen on regular TVs. But with the renewed mainstream interest in 3D movies in the late ’90s came the development of 3D TVs, in part because the technology had advanced far enough to make them, and Blu-ray players advanced enough to play the 3D movies Hollywood was producing. But that same technology also produced another type of 3D process: virtual reality—not to be confused with the two Virtual Reality Stimulator 3D movies marketed by Juicy Entertainment in 2010, which were anaglyph 3D. The origins of virtual reality are difficult to trace, but of course, the idea of it had appeared in science-fiction decades before the first VR viewer was invented. In fact, VR was the focus of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s novel Pygmalion’s Spectacles, which according to Britain’s Virtual Reality Society, featured “the idea of a pair of goggles that let the wearer experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste and touch.” The society’s article then goes on to credit cinematographer Morton Hellig’s development in the mid-’50s of the Sensorama, patented in 1962, which “featured stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, smell generators and a vibrating chair” so that users could fully experience the six vignette films he created for the machine, including Belly Dancer, A Date With Sabrina—Sabrina, famous for her 41-inch breasts, was a popular British sex symbol at the time, and referenced in much ‘50s British comedy—and I’m a Coca-Cola Bottle—revealing that, as often is the case, sex and technological advances are intimately entwined. The VR Society also reports on Hellig’s Telesphere Mask from 1960, the first head-mounted display (HMD) which allowed the user to see 3D films with no interactivity, but that was quickly eclipsed by two engineers from the Philco Corporation (a popular mid-century TV brand) who, in 1961, developed the Headsight, another HMD that had a tiny video screen for each eye which allowed the user to see virtual reality via a pair of closed-circuit TV cameras. Finally, in 1968, Prof. Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull invented the first HMD that was connected to a computer, dubbing it the “Sword of Damocles” because the thing was so heavy, it had to be suspended from the ceiling—and its “computer generated graphics were very primitive wireframe rooms and objects.” As the 21st century was approaching, two electronic gaming companies, Sega and Nintendo, had tried to incorporate VR into their systems, but both were market failures, though general public interest in VR began to grow. Wired magazine reports that in 1989, tech geek Kevin Kelly was introduced to a primitive form of virtual reality by inventor Jaron Lanier, where the pair donned goggles that allowed them to appear as avatars in a virtual world, and even allowed them to manipulate virtual objects using a pair of electronic gloves. In 1990, Kelly, along with Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand and Grateful Dead manager Jon Mcintyre, “organized the first public hands-on exhibit (called Cyberthon), which premiered two dozen experimental VR systems from the US military, universities, and Silicon Valley.” Now, of course, VR is all over the place, and all the tech publications—and plenty of mainstream ones—are writing about it, and well they should, since VR technology seems to be changing on almost a daily basis. They usually start with Oculus, whose 2012 Kickstarter for its Oculus Rift goggles, which finally found their way into consumers’ hands in March of 2016, made worldwide news, though a few other VR headsets preceded it to market. Those include HTC’s Vive, which plugs into a computer to deliver content; Samsung’s Gear VR, which utilizes content downloaded to a Samsung smartphone ... and Google Cardboard which, sure enough, is made of cardboard with plastic lenses—and therefore incredibly cheap. It too uses a smartphone to deliver the image, but it doesn’t care which phone is used. (And lest anyone scoff at using a cheap viewer like Google Cardboard, consider the case to Teegan Lexcen, a baby born with just one lung and half a heart. Pediatric surgeons used video of a model of Teegan’s existing heart to create VR 3D, and using Google Cardboard, a surgeon in Miami operated successfully on the infant, whose heart was wrongly positioned in her body, to make her one ventricle do the work of two.) “The Vive was the hit at CES; a four-hour long line to try this thing,” noted Ian Paul of Naughty America, one of the early producers of VR porn, which displayed its product to media in its hotel suite during the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. “The cool thing about that one, it has a camera on the outside so you can actually walk around your room, and if you get close to a wall, it will superimpose the wall as a grid into your field of view, kind of like the holodeck on Star Trek, when you touch it, so it enables you to have more interactive real-world virtual experiences. “As for the Samsung Gear, when you put your Samsung device into the viewer, you enter the Samsung world; it automatically boots up an app on your phone; you can’t control that, so you’re into a Samsung world, and once you’re in the world, you can look around at different applications that you can load,” he added, noting, “They don’t allow any adult applications into this world, so what you end up having to do is create a directory on your phone, side-load the content onto your phone—either go into your browser, log into our website, download it ‘save as’ or download to your PC, and then transfer it over with a USB cable. It’s kind of annoying.” Paul expressed his dismay that so far, Apple has been completely behind the times in getting behind VR, and that Sony, which is getting into it, is equally against adult content. “I would like to see Sony and other companies acknowledge, just like cable companies have acknowledged, that there is desire for adult content and they should partner with some safe, trusted brands that have very defined brand guidelines,” he offered. “We’re not talking about a tube site where everything is a free-for-all, but a company like Naughty America, which has very defined brand guidelines about how women are treated and what is acceptable in the videos. I think a partnership like that would be great, and especially since we’re a recurring subscription model, we can easily cut them in on the revenue on a month-to-month basis. We can have affiliate programs and everything. Adult is the master of the affiliate program.” Naughty America’s VR is 180 degrees—in other words, half a sphere—and there’s been some controversy over whether 180 degrees, 220 or even 270 is “true VR,” given that some producers like HoloFilm Productions have shot scenes in full 360 degrees. The advantages on non-360 are smaller file sizes which can speed downloads; the difficulty in creating 360-degree content, since that means that non-working talent, director or crew can’t be shown; and the fact that few users will necessarily want to turn their bodies fully around so they can see what’s happening behind them—unless, as Paul notes, they’re watching gay male content. (Why that’s so is left as an exercise for the reader.) “Honestly, it’s up to the preference of the person, but for me, it’s up to the scene that we’ve shot,” commented HoloFilm president Anna Lee when asked about the issue. “If you’re going to shoot a huge scene with a bunch of wonderful, beautiful women around you, you’re going to want to do it in 360. But also understand that the viewer can only watch that sitting up and rotating. If you’re going to do a POV, 180 is sufficient for that, but honestly, it really depends on the nature of the scene and what you want the viewer to do and how the viewer’s going to enjoy the entertainment. So I think, with our company, we offer all three formats—180, 220 and 360—and we let the viewer decide which one works best for them.” Considering that the first commercial use of VR was gaming, using animated or rotoscoped “avatars” in computer-created worlds, one of the big advances in VR that was showcased at this year’s AVN Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) was the proliferation of scenes featuring actual females rather than animated characters—and we asked HoloFilm’s Lee whether that was VR’s future? “Yes, 100 percent,” she said, though adding, “I actually see a combination of the two happening, where we have photo-realistic 3D renderings of the girls that you can manipulate and make your own interactions with, so last year was all about working with animation and motion capture; this year is about live women and men, and I hope to see the both of them merge in the future.” Lee said that HoloFilm is also working on a VR system that will allow users to recline, yet still see action occurring as if they were sitting up. “We’ve shot some of those scenes that have yet to be released,” she said. “I shot a scene last night with Cherie DeVille, and two nights before with Anikka Albrite, where you can lie down and the girl will be on top of you, so that’s going to be very good stuff.” We also asked Lee what’s in HoloFilm’s immediate future: “We are just going to keep producing awesome content and getting better and better and better. Every shoot, we improve our skills; every shoot, we improve our posts. More and more beautiful women want to work with us, so you’re just going to see more amazing content coming out of us.” HoloFilm has also launched an affiliate program, which can be joined from their website, HoloCashVR.com. Also on hand at AEE was VR Bangers, which recently made national news when it announced that it would be partnering with several hotel casinos in Las Vegas to deliver VR directly to guests’ rooms, using the new AuraVisor headset, described as “a self-contained Android device running a modified version of Google’s mobile OS. It has a 5-inch 1080p display and a 100-degree field of view.” However, the Sherman Oaks-based company also streams VR on its website, in 4K resolution and 360-degree image, optimized for the Oculus Rift, and is offering its products through AdultCentro. “Basically, you don’t have to download anything to your mobile device or tablet; you pretty much just go onto our website, sign up to our membership, put your mobile device inside our headset and you start watching our virtual reality porn through your phone, tablet or desktop; pretty much any device out there,” explained VR Bangers’ Daniel Abramovich. The company said it would be releasing one VR scene each week, with at least 18 already available. Another major exhibitor at AEE was AliceX, an Eastern Europe-based company that live-streams its VR 24 hours per day on two channels, and hopes to partner with other studios around the world so subscribers have a wide choice of content, both performers and settings. “Currently, we use a loft kind of setting with a series of amateur models,” explained AliceX’s Lee Bond. “We usually have a comfortable chair and a desk where the camera is and that they are. What you see is the girl sitting on this kind of chair, like a Roman-style lounge chair is what we’re using currently. ... The goal is to have the ability to switch out the environment based on the desire of the client. So for instance, we could have an immersive beach where the cam model would be like, ‘Do you want to spend some time with me on the beach?’ and she steps off screen, puts on a bikini, and we switch out the environment instantly and when she gets back, all of a sudden you’re sitting on a beach with a beautiful woman. Obviously, the core demographic is going to be a lot of gamers because they’re going to buying the Oculus Rift for desktop; they’re the ones with the phones and already interested in the product, so nothing’s stopping us from having a model who does cosplay in a setting like a castle—our dev guys already have a ‘castle on the moon’ type of thing ready—or a forest or whatever goes on, so we’re working on multiple things.” Bond noted that he gets a lot of ideas for content from the posters on the Reddit VR boards. Another live-streaming VR site is CamSoda.com, which also works with any currently available viewing device and features 360 degree scenes from its six-camera rig—and is even a bit philosophical about it. “With [non-live] virtual reality, you feel like that person is right on top of you, but you can’t interact with them,” CamSoda president Daron Lundeen told TechRadar.com. “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.” On its site, CamSoda uses tokens which users can buy and use as “tips” for the performers to get them to engage in any one of the sex acts on CamSoda’s approved list, though if the performer lets them, the user can request specific non-listed acts through an on-set moderator—but on- or off-list, the performer is completely in charge of what he or she will or won’t do. Though CamSoda has found live streaming to be less profitable than pre-recorded content, it does record its sessions for future sale—and reportedly pays its performers pretty well for allowing them to do that. The company is also planning to launch a gay VR channel in the near future. But while most of the newer VR material features actual humans, another AEE exhibitor, Holodexxx, has gone in a different direction, taking its cues from the gaming industry. “We’re looking at doing something that’s more true VR where you’re going to be able to interact with the models as opposed to just watching video in a 360 platform,” said Holodexxx’s Chris Abell. “So it’s different in the sense that you’re actually going to be in a world with one of these models where they’re going to react to your movements; they’re going to talk to you, they’re going to feel you, which is different from 360 video where you’re just a voyeur watching as opposed to being a part of the action. You’ll have the opportunity to tell these models exactly what you want from them.” One of the company’s first models was popular XXX performer Lexi Belle, whom they flew to their home base in Toronto and used her image to create a photo-realistic avatar. “What you’re able to do with her is basically put her into various positions and augment everything from her body to hair color,” Abell explained. “You’re basically going to buy a model and then it’ll come with a range of actions and positions and things you can do with her—or him—and afterwards you can buy add-ons, so it’s going to be additional audio packs, additional positions, animations, clothing—there’s going to be an endless supply of what you can purchase from our store, which is online, and it all gets downloaded to your home computer.” Also exhibiting at AEE was a relatively new company, VR Sexperience, whose products went online for the first time last November. The booth was manned by the company’s main engineer, Magik Jurewicz, who was reluctant to talk about the company’s proprietary technology other than to say that, “It’s a camera system that actually re-creates the immersive environment that you need to experience the virtual environment which your iPhone or your Android device or any device, present or future, will deliver. ... We had competitors actually come in with their engineer, that flew in their engineer just to see my booth, and trying to re-create the technology so I was really proud of my little baby.” The Montreal-based company has about 30 VR scenes online now, using mostly Canadian actresses, which according to Jurewicz can either be downloaded to a phone for viewing or streamed right from the computer using an Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or similar HMD. All of the companies above are, of course, primarily catering to viewers interested either in VR featuring solo girl, girl/girl, boy/girl or combinations of those, but what’s available for transgender fans? Well, take heart, because one of the world’s largest transgender-friendly companies, Grooby Productions, is about to move into the VR field—but it’s been slow going. “I’m a child of the ’70s and virtual reality was only something that we’d see in sci-fi,” said Grooby owner Steven Grooby in February. “When I got to try the latest VR headsets a few months ago, I was absolutely blown away by the technology advancements and how immersive and seamless it was to use. Virtual reality should be for experiencing something that we wouldn’t in our own ‘reality’ of life, and for most people, they’re never going to meet and have sexual contact with the hottest transsexual stars—but GroobyVR will be the next best thing.” Grooby himself was in L.A. in early May to finalize plans for the launch of GroobyVR, and he’s enlisted multi-award-winning photographer Blacula as his go-to shooter for the content—and since Grooby has connections with trans communities all over the world (see his interview in AVN’s April 2016 issue), finding performers for those upcoming VR scenes should be a piece of cake. “I believe only Grooby has the brand awareness and the access to transgender models and studios worldwide to bring the best VR to the consumer,” he stated. “We’re testing current technology right now, with an aim to have finished content online in the near future and we’re interested in hearing from anybody that would want to work with us on this either in a technological, production or performing capacity.” But GroobyVR won’t be the only access to transgender VR, as at least one transgender performer, award-winning Kelly Klaymour, is also striking out into VR territory on her own with KlaymourVR.com. Klaymour appears to have just four VR scenes currently available on her site, with action including a POV BJ, a trans with cis-girl scene, a shower scene and a foot fetish one, and the site offers subscribers one-on-one interaction with the star. “This technology is so exciting and hot, I’m thrilled to be among the first in bringing transsexual porn up to speed,” Klaymour said. “The viewer will be able to get right in on the action, with exciting POV and voyeuristic scenarios with a complete 180-degree field of view.” But Klaymour isn’t the only actress who’s mounting her own VR productions; there’s also porn starlet Ela Darling, who’s been live-camming VR (which she calls “holographic 3D porn”) for just over a year. As AVN reported in March of 2015, Darling first became involved in VR after having been invited by quantum physicist James Ashfield to shoot a VR scene in Maryland. The concept and the process so intrigued Darling that the pair formed a partnership which became VRTube.xxx, and for most of the last year, Darling has been doing live streaming VR shows from her apartment, and has enlisted other actresses to do the same. VRTubeLive officially launched on July 28, 2015, with Darling and other beauties streaming solo performances for early owners of the Oculus Rift HMD, but the site now works with all of the major viewing devices including Gear VR, Vive and even Google Cardboard—and Darling is only too happy to take requests from fans as to what they’d like to see her and her pals do on-camera. Most recently, VRTube has partnered with live cam show provider CAM4 to offer VR scenes to its viewers. “Together, we have created a best-in-class VR experience that will be fully integrated into CAM4.com, making VR cams accessible for all,” said CAM4 spokesman Derek Devlin in early May. “We are committed to empowering performers to monetize across all mediums and VR is just one of the exciting new platforms we are developing to support our broadcasters. This unique service offers our users an experience that far surpasses what was possible with any 2D analog live streaming. It’s a new era for live cams and we are excited to be at the forefront of this emerging technology.” Darling was equally excited: “Live VR cams are the most engaging and powerful experience yet made for virtual reality,” she said. “The most attractive aspects of live cams are intimacy, immediacy, and presence. VR amplifies these aspects to create a performance that goes beyond what was previously attainable and soon to be available from CAM4.com. People can have a much more personal cam viewing experience than with traditional cam shows.” CAM4VR will support all of the currently available viewing devices and will feature 360-degree action. Massive tube site PornHub has also gotten in on the ground floor of adult VR, launching its own virtual reality channel in March, in conjunction with VR producer BaDoinkVR—and giving away 10,000 sets of Google Cardboard viewers to get its subscribers started. “I can definitely see Pornhub’s VR porn content becoming very popular,” wrote reviewer Raymond Wong for Mashable.com, though he had a bit of trouble getting it right, and noted that one needs a subscription to unlock 1080p 360-degree quality. However, the site accepts just about all types of headsets and viewers, and currently has more than three dozen scenes available, with free-to-view 30-second trailers. But as for seeing anything beyond men fucking women ... “We expect to have a diverse selection of content for our fans to choose from,” PornHub VP Corey told TechRadar.com in late March. “It will not be entirely towards straight men. There will be videos for women and gay men in the very near future.” Another early entrant into VR porn was Kink—and let’s face it: When you’re based in what used to be the San Francisco Armory, you’re not exactly hurting for interesting backgrounds to a VR shoot. The company jumped into the VR field last year in a big way, announcing that KinkVR.com would go live on “Black Friday” (Nov. 27), with the public being given free access to its earliest productions, directed by their go-to VR creator Fivestar: a girl/girl scene and, this being Kink after all, a trans dominatrix scene. The company also promised to make all of its VR scenes available for free through New Year’s Day. KinkVR currently has 14 scenes on its site, all 180 degree except one 220, and they run the gamut of kinky sex, from slavery to BJs to fucking machines to leather play, and all can be viewed on whatever HMD is available. Equally innovative, but in a different way, is Australia’s Lightsouthern, which has taken some of its content cues from woman-friendly website abbywinters.com, which is not too surprising, since company founder Michelle Flynn was once an abbywinters performer. “The Lightsouthern brand is basically all-natural Aussie babes doing all those terrible Aussie things, really diverse and awesome and interesting,” the Melbourne-based Flynn said with a smile. “So we’re just taking that idea and putting it into VR, and one of the things that sets us apart is the locations we have down here, so people having sex in these beautiful, picturesque locations is a huge thing for us. We try to do 80 percent outdoor shoots. We’re pushing diversity in sexuality and body types as well, so lots of it is less glamour and less performative and a more natural, organic kind of porn—so we’re taking that idea and putting it into VR and it’s looking awesome.” But lest anyone come away with the idea that Lightsouthern is an amateur site, Flynn is quick to point out that another segment of its VR production is devoted to “gloss women,” which in the U.S. would translate to “established Australian porn stars,” with whom Lightsouthern’s “Gloss” studio has more than a dozen VR scenes available. Flynn’s modus operandi so far has been to film longer scenes with multiple women and break them up into two or three parts. Those VRs can be found on Lightsouthern’s affiliate platform, Velvet-Reality.com. At press time, Flynn said the company has two VR scenes still in the editing bay including one featuring POV fisting, and once they get a bit more experience with the genre, she expects to release two or three new scenes per month. Then, saving one of the biggest companies for last, there’s Penthouse, which dipped its toe into the VR pool—literally—on Easter Sunday, no less, when it gathered 15 of adult’s hottest actresses to a lavish country estate and essentially asked them to have fun in the multiple lagoons and surrounding cabanas while its VR camera rig recorded all the action. “This is my first time back on set in quite a while,” said Penthouse head honcho Kelly Holland. “And I mentioned to the production coordinator, ‘Man, every single girl out here is stellar; they’re a 10-plus!’ ... I am still trying to wrap my mind around VR and all the things we can do with it, and we’re in the process of putting together a really interesting feature that’s incorporating VR, but I mentally have not yet mastered the technology.” That Easter Sunday shoot, however, was intended to be a showcase for what Penthouse could do with VR, which Holland intended to take to a European broadcast trade show. Penthouse has 3D satellite channels serving the European market, and Holland hopes that its current customers will think highly enough of PenthouseVR’s production values to add its content to their offerings. (See our “On the Set” sidebar on this page for more information.) Despite all of the companies mentioned above, it almost seems as though new adult VR start-ups are being created every week—and as Engadget editor Terrence O’Brien recently argued, in an article titled “Virtual reality and pornography: An X-rated debate,” “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.” Similarly, Mashable.com’s article, “Virtual reality porn is here,” begins with the observation, “There are three questions people tend to ask when virtual reality comes up in conversation[:] ‘Will it make me sick?’; ‘When can I buy it?’ and ‘Is there porn on it yet?’” In fact, “virtually” no one in the tech world doubts that VR will be the Next Big Thing in entertainment, and as soon as Hollywood figures out how to monetize it—VR theaters that resemble Star Trek’s holodeck?—the symbiosis between mainstream VR content and porn will be inevitable, with millions of adults opting for high-end viewing devices ostensibly to see films like Avengers VR but sneaking down in the dead of night to watch XXX VR Vixens. And who wouldn’t pay good money to see the VR version of “A Day On A Porn Set,” where viewers can follow actresses from the bedroom into the dressing rooms, the lunch room, maybe even the bathroom? HoloFilm Productions, of course, already has what it calls “syntholograms”: computer-animated women, often based on real-life porn stars, who are programmed to perform whatever virtual sexual act the user wants, and sex toy manufacturer Kiiroo has already partnered with BaDoink to sell masturbators—male and female—that will respond to cues embedded within VR content, so that whatever the virtual woman is doing on-screen, the penis sleeve is doing in the user’s lap. Also being talked about is “augmented reality” (AR), where the HMD takes the created content and overlays it onto the real world. Sure, it’s great to watch your favorite porn star giving you virtual head in a porn-set setting—but what if she could be seen doing it in your own bedroom? That’s not too far away. As to the future of VR, it’s tough to say—so let’s talk about VR’s present. The New York Times, of all places, is offering VR scenes of the presidential candidates, homeless immigrants and Paris protests on its website, and some real estate companies are filming VR walk-throughs for properties they want to sell. Several e-tailers expect to incorporate VR into their websites to aid shoppers in deciding which items to buy. And according to Gizmodo, even Barack Obama has tried VR. But the truth is, virtual reality is currently at such an early stage of development that, to quote former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the Iraq War, “There are known knowns. ... There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” And that’s about the best anyone short of an engineer can say about the future of virtual reality, both in porn and in the rest of the world.

 
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