Saturday, April 2, 2016

Virtual Reality and Pornography: An X-rated Debate

The true test of virtual reality is upon us. As the consumer version of the Oculus Rift rolls into homes across the globe, the world is watching intently to see if this is truly virtual reality's moment. But what will be its killer application? Will our basest desires drive adoption as they have with previous mediums? Or has porn been dethroned as a technological kingmaker? Executive Editor Christopher Trout and Managing Editor Terrence O'Brien argue the finer points of VR porn.

Terrence O'Brien

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, 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.

Obviously, there were other factors at play, but the fact that the format embraced by the porn industry ended up winning the war is no coincidence -- it has a history of picking the winner. It wasn't that long ago that the industry coalesced around Blu-ray, partially thanks to it's larger capacity. I'm sure you don't need to be reminded how that turned out: HD-DVD became a historical footnote and Blu-ray was crowned the standard for high-def media. At least for as long as physical media remained relevant.

Christopher Trout

Let's talk about those "other factors." First, off, the evidence supporting porn's influence on tech is shaky at best, but as we all know, people love to watch other people fuck and the porn industry has always been an early adopter. Still, assuming everything you say is true, porn isn't what it used to be.

Now, when the war over Betmax and VHS was going strong, the porn industry was still in its nascent stages. It was new and provocative. It was part of the cultural zeitgeist. Jackie Kennedy even famously admitted to seeing Deep Throat, probably the biggest adult film of all time. It was released just three years before Betamax.

The industry had its boom. And it's been through its bust. Porn today looks nothing like it did in the days of physical media. When DVDs were the gold standard, people were still buying porn and they cared about the quality. Those were also the days when people bought CDs and either cared about the sound of their music, or were just buying what the labels were selling. As we've learned in the internet age, quality isn't at the top of people's minds. If we can get it for cheap or free, we're down. That goes double for porn. VR is too expensive to produce to give away for free.

Cheap, even free, porn is in abundant supply today. Porn's studio system, like much of establishment media, finds itself competing with amateurs. Production value and creativity have suffered as a result. There is no "Deep Throat" for the online generation, and in order for consumers to buy into what could be a very expensive and high-friction experience, they're going to have to see something new and spectacular. Something mind-blowing. That's what VR is supposed to be. It's supposed to transport you. No one wants to be transported into a generic, cheaply made POV video. And that's most of what's being produced right now.


This is true, that the industry has changed. But what hasn't changed is its ability to propel the adoption of new technology. Sure, porn helped push the adoption of Blu-ray as a media standard, but it's also behind what ultimately relegated Blu-ray to a niche product: streaming video. It wasn't Netflix or Skype that first brought on-demand and live streaming video into people's homes; it was porn. It was the industry responsible for a large percentage of all streaming video in the early days, which is part of why it was targeted by lawsuits from Acacia Research in 2003. Some of the first plug-in free video? Delivered by porn sites. And all of this goes double for live streaming video. Camgirls and other sex-industry performers were pioneers in the field of live streaming and live chat. That expensive teleconferencing system in your office uses technology that was pioneered by pornographers.

But it goes beyond video. Much of the internet is powered by technology that may not have been invented by the porn industry, but was pushed forward by it. In the early '90s the idea of using your credit card to buy something online was pretty far-fetched. It was Electronic Card Systems that really pioneered online transactions in the mid '90s. And ECS's first big partners weren't Amazon or; they were porn sites. People felt more comfortable, more anonymous buying their porn on the internet, and so online payments took off -- not powered by our desire to read books or buy second-hand shoes, but by our desire to watch naked strangers touch themselves and each other.

Some even argue that the adoption of broadband was spurred in large part by the public's desire to consume porn. In 2003, Nielsen credited adult content and file-sharing services (at the time, largely music) as the driving force behind broadband adoption in Europe.

by Christopher Trout and Terrence O'Brien, Engadget |  Read more:
Image: Wired