Porn meets virtual reality, and sparks fly

Like many tech entrepreneurs these days, Ela Darling views virtual reality as the future of her industry.

“I feel more connected with the people who are watching me because I know I am dominating their attention,” Darling said during an unusual business conference in San Francisco last week.
That’s an understatement. Darling’s industry — online pornography — is perhaps better suited than any other field to take advantage of the increasingly popular concept of transporting oneself into a virtual world.

It’s one thing to watch sex on the Internet, but quite another, porn companies say, to feel almost like you’re in the performance.

For Kink.com, San Francisco’s chief outpost of the porn-tech industry and the host of the conference that featured about a dozen other adult video companies, virtual reality may be a lifeline of sorts.

The studio, like its counterparts in Los Angeles and around the world, has struggled against the avalanche of sites that give porn away for free. For companies like Kink, which depends on revenue from subscriptions to its trademark bondage and other sexual fetish videos, the hope is that virtual reality becomes the premium experience that gives viewers a reason to pay more.

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History is on the side of the porn industry, which has always paved the way for new entertainment technologies, from film to home video tapes to online streaming.

After all, sex sells.

“I think of us as like a weed,” said Kink spokesman Mike Stabile. “We find the cracks in the sidewalk that we can pop up through and it’s only when we start pioneering the path that people say that’s a viable place. The big content producers follow because we take the risks.”

The porn industry is approaching virtual reality with the same ethos that drives Silicon Valley innovators — take risks, fail fast and learn.

In porn, “people aren’t constrained by society’s expectations,” Stabile said. “If you’re willing to work in the adult industry, you’re willing to fall on your face and have everyone look at you like, ‘What the heck are you doing?’”

VR could be huge for the industry. Last year, the research firm IBISWorld projected that 2020 revenues for the U.S. porn industry should reach $3.3 billion, which means essentially flat revenue growth. Subscription websites “declined significantly” when free, user-created videos began proliferating, the IBIS report said — though higher-quality VR porn could revive subscription services.

It is “too early to know the impact that virtual reality porn will have on the industry, but, if it produces an appealing product, it is likely that it will significantly alter the industry landscape,” the report said.

Consumer sales of VR headgear like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR and the HTC Vive this year are already driving a rise in traffic to adult VR sites. The online research firm SimilarWeb said traffic to the top five adult VR sites spiked in March to about 18 million visits worldwide, especially to one site run by the porn firm BaDoink of Rochester, N.Y.

The promise of VR is why Kink invited about a dozen companies last week to its headquarters in San Francisco’s historic Armory to share what they’ve learned about the emerging technology. Some rooms in the building are outfitted with chains, whips, cages and other sexual bondage gear.

BaDoink representatives said after just one year of virtual reality, the technology already represents about 10 percent of its business.

In traditional adult films of the past, the viewer is more of a voyeur, said BaDoink spokesman Tyrone Miller. But with virtual reality, “it’s an intimate experience where you look down and you see what is presumed to be your body,” he said. “You look into her eyes and you can have this emotional connection that you just don’t have with traditional porn.”

BaDoink is about to experiment with VR sex therapy videos, which will guide viewers through breathing and exercise techniques to help them “become better at sex,” Miller said.

“Porn has always been criticized for being misogynistic, and we’re trying to flip this on its head by adding a health aspect so it’s more interactive,” he said.

But in the past year, they’ve developed their own platform to stream live virtual reality encounters. Darling said the venture is generating enough income to allow her to cut back on the number of adult videos she performs in and is “paving the way for new modes of income.”

Darling, who is using her stage name in public out of safety concerns, said VR is a “transcendent” medium that humanizes adult video performers.

Viewers “tend to be more respectful and nicer,” she said. “And because you’re having that deeper connection, you start to see them as more of a whole human and less just flesh on camera.”

Kink director-producer Fivestar, who also keeps her real name private, said her company is experimenting with 360-degree video, which presents challenges such as making sure none of the production crew is in the shot, even though they still need to be available on set in case something goes wrong.

“We’re at the beginning of a brand new medium where it’s pretty much the wild west,” Fivestar said. “You can try whatever you want to try and as long as you’re doing it, you’re in it. We’re right here at the frontier and there’s so much potential. It’s a very compelling medium, and I think it could really affect the way people view the world.”

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