To date, most of the talk about virtual reality has been focused on its impact on the video game industry. But many in the world of adult entertainment feel it could be the next big breakthrough for porn — and a few companies are hoping to stake an early claim in the space.
As it does with so many new technology fields, the porn industry is embracing virtual reality. Both established companies, like Naughty America, a prominent online streaming service, and start-ups are bringing viewers into the room through headsets like Oculus, Samsung's Gear VR and Google Cardboard. And while the user numbers are small, they're growing fast.
"Right now, 1 to 2 percent of our membership base streams and downloads VR," said Ian Paul, chief information officer at Naughty America. "But when you look at the numbers month over month, it's growing faster than any format we've ever tracked."
By the end of 2016, he says, the company expects there to be 10 million to 20 million users watching virtual content industrywide.
That's good news for Fabian Grey. As CEO of AliceX, a burgeoning virtual reality porn start-up, he's counting on the surge to help his business grow.
AliceX pairs users with live Webcam models who talk directly with the viewer and charge a per-minute rate. That's a different tack than that of Naughty America, which offers point-of-view films where the actress maintains eye contact with the camera, intimating the idea that the sex the viewer is watching is being performed on them.
Virtual reality won't really won't begin its rollout until later this year, but several analysts say it could make a splash. Piper Jaffray's Travis Jakel, for instance, says that by the end of 2016, there could be 12.2 million headsets in homes.
To help boost that number, and hook customers early, most companies investing in virtual porn are willing to give out Google Cardboard or a similar, low-cost headset for free to users. The pricing models vary wildly, though. Naughty America does not charge users any additional fee for watching virtual porn versus its typical two-dimensional films. Both cost $25 per month for unlimited views. AliceX lets the models set the rate, and Grey says the average charge will be an eye-popping $7-$8 per minute.
"We're targeting this niche [of people] with a high level of disposable income," he said.
Viewing virtual porn is vastly different than watching a film onscreen — and it's fairly impossible to describe. Naughty America's shorts are filmed with a 180-degree field of vision, rather than the usual 360 degrees of other virtual endeavors, That makes it easier for the company to stitch together the footage and avoid noticeable seams that can be jarring in live-action virtual reality. Actresses who barely top 5 feet in the real world tower over the viewer — and the experience in the scenes (of which there are two dozen at present, with many more on deck) adds an increased feeling of voyeuristic immersion.
With AliceX, the "Camgirls" are positioned into a green screen, 360-degree environment, letting the client or the actress choose the background. Viewers can communicate back and forth via a headphone and monitor, but there's a lag, so the lip movements don't sync with the sound in the headphones. As with Naughty America's offering, the models are filmed up close, but the frame rate of the broadcast is a bit less consistent, which lead some users to feel nausea, a common virtual-reality issue.
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The most frustrating thing for users, though, will be the black bar at the bottom of the screen that shows available credits and account standing. Its positioning can block out significant parts of the actress' body, which would likely be infuriating for people paying $8 per minute.
Either way, while the novelty of seeing adult entertainment in a virtual environment will certainly lure some people, the adult industry is, like Hollywood, still trying to figure out how to truly take advantage of the medium when it comes to filming. At present, porn companies are using the same basic techniques used in standard films, which doesn't fully utilize the technology's potential.
That's an issue that will likely be determined as the hardware providers shake out in the years to come.
The subject matter itself might even change, specifically in gonzo adult films where especially graphic and fetish-themed acts reign supreme.
"In the short term, we expect to see a toning down on the extremes," Paul said. "The people producing extreme porn may see some backlash. It's one thing to dehumanize someone in a little box [on a television or computer screen], but it's a different thing when you're in the world with them."
For now, though, virtual porn is still an infinitesimally small part of the overall industry, largely restricted to start-ups and online sites. Major porn studios like Hustler and Vivid have not yet launched virtual film divisions, in part because the installed base of people who own virtual-reality headsets is similarly small. But they're not ignoring it.
"We are working with a VR company and will be creating clips for them," said Steven Hirsch, Vivid's founder. "It's not cheap, but it's not overly expensive to the point where you're not going to try it."
Still, proponents say there's money to be made — and like VHS tapes and online streaming, virtual reality could be the next technology that the porn industry helps to mainstream.
"I don't know of any other content makers who are making money on VR, but we are," Paul said. "That's a sign that VR is here to stay. If adult is making money on it, you can't put the genie back in the bottle."