Porn gets back to its high-tech basics

The adult entertainment industry has a reputation as a technology bellwether, but these days that's largely thanks to its past accomplishments.

While porn was certainly responsible for VHS tapes besting beta and can likely lay claim to leading the charge in online streaming video, it hasn't done a lot to push the needle in several years.

"To be honest, if someone asked me what has been the biggest innovation we've made [as an industry], I could not list anything in the last 10 years," says Laszlo Czero, CEO of Docler Holdings and Jasmin.com.

Porn may be on the verge of a technological renaissance, though, with several companies looking to renew the industry's reputation as trailblazers. And they're counting on things such as virtual reality and remote-controlled haptic devices to help lead that charge.

"You can't start a [virtual reality] company without something that appeals universally to people, and porn does that," said Brian Shuster, founder of Utherverse. "The adult entertainment we introduced [in the early days of the World Wide Web] was really a much lower quality product than what magazines offered, but people still flocked to it."


An attendee at the 2015 Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas demos the Oculus virtual reality glasses.
Chris Morris | CNBC
An attendee at the 2015 Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas demos the Oculus virtual reality glasses.

Utherverse was letting fans strap on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to visit a virtual adult world called Red Light Center during last month's Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. The lines to demo the product were, in some cases, longer than the lines to meet flesh-and-blood porn stars.

In the demo, subscribers could enjoy a virtual lap dance, which was motion-captured by adult superstar Tera Patrick, and even take dancers to virtual rooms and observe a VR orgy.

Virtual reality could become a $4.6 billion industry by 2018, estimates Kzero Worldwide, a VR consulting firm. And while adult will likely be just a fraction of that, novelties such as Red Light are one of the fastest-growing parts of the industry.

Shuster called it part of the Immersive World Web, and it's something that has been a goal of the company since it started 10 years ago. Shuster added that he and his partner got their inspiration from the holodeck on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and decided to push to bring that sort of technology to the masses.

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The present incarnation of the company uses an avatar-based virtual world, which all plays out on computer monitors. Shuster says the company has attracted 25 million users since its launch and currently has about 1 million active users.

The addition of VR, which went into open beta on Jan. 21, will not be available to most of those people, since at present there is no VR headset commercially available. Shuster, though, said there's a big enough base of developers with units that he's confident the time is right to launch.

"Oculus has shipped about 150,000 developer kits so far," he said. "My estimate is that of the maybe 75,000 or more of those were second-generation kits. And I think a good 70 percent of those developers are going to come check out our software right away. Pulling in 40,000-50,000 Rift developers is a great VR community."

Entrance to the virtual strip club, and other adult VR features of Utherverse, will cost subscribers $20 per month, though other, nonadult components of the company's virtual world will be available for free during the open beta.

Adult toy company OhMyBod, meanwhile, has released a pleasure product for women that can be controlled from their partner's cell phone, regardless of their location. And the product, which was on display at the International CES earlier this month, has been garnering lots of interest.

"What was interesting about CES [2014] was we had launched kind of a sneak peek of a Bluetooth-enabled vibrator and had developed an app around the launch. We got fantastic feedback from people who attended the show," said Suki Dunham, co-founder of OhMyBod.

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The product went on to gather over $37,000 on IndieGoGo and has been a hot seller ever since.

Fleshlight, the maker of a popular sex toy for men, is taking a high-tech turn, as well, working with Amsterdam-based Kiiro, a self-described "teledildonics" company, to create sex toys for couples separated by long distances. Without getting too graphic, Kiiro's "Pearl" female pleasure device sends signals to a Fleshlight-equipped counterpart for men called the Onyx. Using rings that expand and contract, actions on the Pearl are transmitted to the Onyx, simulating the sensation.

The devices, which go on sale next month, could be useful not only for long-distance relationships, they could also be used by the Webcam industry, letting fans have a virtual sexual experience with their favorite models, though that could open up an entirely different set of issues.

But that's a matter to be dealt with later, after the technology finds an audience.