NOTE: Although this article itself is safe for work some of the sources may link to web pages that are not safe for work. This article discusses issues that are of an adult nature in a matter of fact way, and if you are not comfortable with such discussions it is advised that you read no further.
Sex, as they say, sells.
Some people argue that our interest in sex and sex-related things drives much of human behavior. Early psychologists such as Sigmund Freud were convinced of that and modern understanding of evolutionary processes explain why it is that we care so much about sex.
While we may see a sexy woman or man in an advertisement selling anything from a boat to detergent, it is pornography that most directly exemplifies sex as a commodity. Globally the pornographic industry is a $97bn behemoth. Thanks to the rise of the internet and the ubiquity of computers, smartphones and tablets getting access to pornography is easier than ever.
Shifts in 21st century values also seems to be de-stigmatizing pornography and the adult industry as a whole. Adult film stars now have their own award shows and in the United States and globally there are adult industry expos that enjoy strong attendance. Adult products are big business and as long as human beings are interested in sex it’s unlikely to go away.
Pornography and technology
In the protracted war between Betamax and VHS, two of the first home video standard, there is a pervasive story that pornography was a major factor in deciding the outcome. The story goes that Sony, which was one of the main sponsors of Betamax, was skittish about associating Betamax with pornography and so the less prudish gatekeepers of VHS got a boost that put the final nail in Betamax’s coffin. While it is true that Sony refused to let pornography be published on its format, there’s no evidence this was a decisive factor in that particular format war.
It is however true that the adult industry and pornographers in particular have been quick to capitalize on new technological innovations. Whether it’s webcams, 3D technology or HD video, pornography has grasped onto it firmly with both hands. It works the other way as well, this industry has driven the development of new technologies that have found applications outside adult entertainment. Innovations in internet commerce security,privacy and anti-piracy legislation are but three examples.
In the future there is no reason to think that the adult entertainment world will not continue to push certain technologies. As we speak, for example, Realdoll (a manufacturer high-end sex dolls) has begun to invest in artificial intelligence (AI) development. The development of sex robots, in other words. Clearly any advancement in AI will have application beyond adult entertainment. So what about the adult industry and virtual reality?
Pornography and virtual reality
Virtual reality is no different in this regard. Already we have several products that aim to bring sexually themed experiences to head mounted displays and other virtual reality peripherals. In fact, when it comes to haptic technology, the technology of simulating touch, the adult industry is a key innovator. You may have never encountered the term “teledildonics”, but it is one of the ways in which touch has been transmitted electronically over a distance between two people. These internet-enabled toys allow two people to have “sex” from any location in the world with internet access. Lovense is one pioneering company in the interactive teledildonics industry that has been around since 2009. The company produces toys for both male and female users. Some current virtual reality pornographic content already includes compatibility with Lovense products.
Of course, the “person” in control of the teledildonic device doesn’t have to be real. It could be a virtual 3D avatar, which is another area where the adult entertainment industry had already provided.
Pornography is driven by novelty, and in a world where massive volumes of pornographic material is available at the click of a button anything new or exciting has immense value. Virtual reality is just such a development. At this very moment there is virtual reality content available for HMDs as basic as the Google Cardboard. First-person video shot in 180 or 360 degree stereoscopic video where the viewer get to see the experience from the perspective of one of the participants. There’s no editing here and one can choose what to focus on, looking at any part of the scene that takes your fancy.
Non-interactive virtual reality content is relatively easy to produce with the right equipment and when the slew of consumer HMDs slated for release in 2016 finally hit the market we can expect to see much more content become available.
PornHub has recently announced a virtual reality product known as the “twerking butt”. It’s a simulated female posterior (including genitalia) that comes with an HMD and companion mobile application. The idea is that this combination of devices will create the illusion of sex for the user. The privilege doesn’t come cheap either. The deluxe version of the product will set you back a cool $1000 and that doesn’t include the required smartphone.
Even more impressive than this is a specialised robot known as the VR Tenga. Combined with the Oculus Rift HMD and the right software, the Tenga lets users interact and have sex with a virtual character.
More than just sex
Turning pornography from a passive viewing experience into an interactive one qualitatively changes the nature of the game. It is now possible to make the experience not only about sex, but about feeling close another human being, even if that person isn’t real.
Japan in particular has a tradition of creating “dating simulators”, some of which have explicit content and some which do not. These involve wooing one of several romantic possibility and (depending on the type of game) you may be rewarded with the opportunity to be intimate with that character if you make the right choices.
These sorts of deeper interaction take on a whole new dimension when applied to virtual reality. Sony’s Playstation VR HMD was announced along with a number of software titles. One of them, Summer Lesson, puts you in the role of a tutor that must spend time with a number of girls in their bedrooms. The game isn’t explicit, but it shows the potential of virtual reality to craft intense experiences that are about more than just sex.
In fact, virtual reality experiences may eventually serve as a substitute for human contact. Something which is a legitimate concern, voiced by media commentators and academics. Technologies such as virtual reality pornography may have a profound effect on the society of the future.
The future impact of virtual reality pornography
Technologies change society and sex is always a fundamental part of any society. So it stands to reason that a technology that changes sex itself could have a double impact. It’s not only virtual reality, but related technology such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence and robotics that are set to change how humans conduct their sex lives in the future. Already some ethicists are calling for a pre-emptive ban on sex robots. The same argument against sex robots would hold true for virtual entities.
Even today some people are highly susceptible to fantasy, getting lost in virtual worlds to the detriment of their health and quality of life. There are also a whole host of ethical questions that come to mind. For instance, if you have teledildonic sex with a stranger over the internet, does that count as infidelity? What if it is with a recording, or an AI character? How emotionally invested will people become in fantasies that can literally touch them so intimately?
We don’t have the answers to such questions yet, but new technologies that drive new ways to express our sexuality are emerging at the same time as major attitude changes to sex, gender identity and the bounds of what is permissible are happening. Only time will tell the consequences of these events, but there is almost no doubt that virtual reality will continue to play a central role in them.