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Is virtual reality the next big thing in the adult film industry?

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COMING SOON?  With adult film sales lagging, the porn industry is looking to VR to sex up its game.
  • COMING SOON? With adult film sales lagging, the porn industry is looking to VR to sex up its game.

Last week, it was announced that paraplegics are learning to walk again—with the help of virtual reality. Doctors have started incorporating the technology into the treatment of cancer patients. Others insist it will soon revolutionize the way we perform surgery.

But perhaps the most profoundly affected arena lies elsewhere. Because when it comes to technology, there's one industry that tends to get to the deep-dive first, and that's porn.

The porn industry has had a few hard years. Thanks to the proliferation of free content on the web, studios are producing less content, and in order to stay afloat, many have taken to the niche scene. If you're going to fight the free stuff, you're going to have to start shooting something tube sites can't offer.

Trans-porn, for instance, has become a niche goldmine on paid platforms. Incest scenes are another flourishing fetish. BDSM and porn "for women" are also starting to pay off. Soon enough, there'll be virtual reality porn for every fetish you can imagine and some you can't.

"We've tried to figure out how consumers are consuming content," says Jeff Dillon, the director of business development for porn distributor GameLink. "To me, this seems really similar to when we started with video on demand."

According to Dillon, virtual reality has the potential to reach the same heights as other technological milestones like mobile browsers and streaming. Though GameLink just started offering VR content in mid-July, the investment has already started to pay off.

"At first we started out with just 30 movies or so, but I was super-surprised with the results," says Dillon. "Once I started to see how well they were doing, I kept thinking, how can we get more of this content?" Right now, VR videos produced by adult entertainment studio BaDoinkVR are among his top sellers.

Most consumers tend to be—wait for it—young and male. GameLink's VR enthusiasts are slightly younger than the company's predominant customer base, most falling somewhere between the ages of 25 and 35. And many are located in tech-friendly hotspots like San Francisco. Though Dillon admits the majority of porn audiences haven't yet made the leap, he says it's time to start anticipating who will in the future. "When you hit an early market, it's tough to really see these things," he says.

Though VR carries its own futuristic flavor, there are still a few major hurdles ahead. Streaming is slow. Almost all content is available exclusively on mobile devices (for which you need an additional app to access). Graphics can, at times, seem underwhelming. Viewing spectrums are often limited. You also need the right gear, something that can turn into an impressively expensive endeavor.

While Google cardboard goggles are reasonably priced, ranging anywhere from $15 to $30, there are other options on the table, and they're going to cost you. The Oculus Rift, which comes loaded with sensors, integrated headphones and a display for each eye, costs upward of $600. With that, it seems likely that older viewers—some of whom are still consuming pornography in print—aren't likely to jump on the VR bandwagon anytime soon.

And price isn't just a consumer concern. "VR material requires an expensive update. You need new camera equipment, there's a learning curve in understanding how to edit it, which, from what I understand, is pretty technical," says Dillon. Studios, it seems, are nervous about the shift. And while that industry anxiety will likely be remedied in the future, it has led to one particular issue at present, and it circles back to representation.

VR allows consumers the special ability to virtually sink into someone else's skin. But because so few studios are currently producing the content, that skin often looks very white, very young and very male—something not everyone is particularly pleased about.

Only a few "alternative" studios—that is, studios whose films include a greater cast of bodies, genders and sexualities—have fallen into the VR engine. Ersties, a German studio backed by an exclusively female team, recently released the first in what it hopes will be a series of "authentic" VR eroticism. "If technology can help us create and deliver even better porn, then absolutely we are in," the website promises. "Our commitment however remains the same, real girls, real porn, for you, except now we might just have you thinking you've reached the final frontier."

Others have expressed interest in using VR content for reasons other than entertainment. Recently, BaDoink launched Virtual Sexology, a self-help program that "dovetails adult entertainment and sex education." While guided by a licensed sex therapist, the material relies on some of the industry's most popular stars to help transform viewers into better, "more attentive" lovers.

But some think that's something that needs to be taught in the flesh. Michael Aaron, a New York–based sex therapist, told Vocativ, "Most people who seek me out as a sex therapist . . . are looking for real-life human interaction and to feel seen and understood, which goes far beyond the physical experience provided by VR."

Whether or not the series can successfully deliver on its promises remains to be seen. What we do know, at least according to the GameLink team, is that it has a good shot at selling. "There's a good market for the educational stuff," says Dillon.

For those armed with the money and the time, VR could be a welcome introduction to a newly pivoted porn scene. But embracing a new format means leaving some familiar features behind. Traditional porn tends to cater to our voyeuristic side. VR is different. VR is about immersion. The things that are typically edited out of traditional shoots are exactly what need to be edited in to VR. The shuffling of feet on the floor. The sound of setting a cup on the table. Because to have truly great VR experience, you've got to believe in the subtleties of that reality to begin with.

At least until the glasses come off.

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