The Surprisingly Lackluster Rise of VR Porn Industry

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The Surprisingly Lackluster Rise of VR Porn Industry

“A 360-degree examination of an industry in flux. “

VR Porn Report 2017

That was me, in December 2015, recounting my adventure inside Ella Nova's anus, the true star of Kink.com's first official virtual-reality sex scene. That encounter, so other-worldly, so beyond anything else I'd ever experienced, served as my virtual-reality aha moment. Just weeks before, I'd been invited to sit in on the filming of the extreme anal, girl-on-girl shoot. When I arrived, Kink, the studio synonymous with online BDSM porn, was booming. For nine years, it occupied San Francisco's 200,000-square-foot armory building where, at its peak, it produced up to 100 fetish scenes a month.

The upper levels, where the company's in-house chef served lunch daily, were filled with office spaces where video editors, developers and graphic designers kept the Kink machine running. The staircases, adorned with ornate paintings of women and men in various states of bondage, led to a cavernous, subterranean maze of elaborate porn sets. There was a seedy-hotel suite, a padded psych ward, a speakeasy and even a holodeck where the company stored its vast collection of fuck machines. The labyrinthine underbelly of the armory was a hive of activity. Directors, actors and crew members flitted from set-to-set, filling hours of digital film with explicit acts for Kink's eager subscribers.

I'd been blown away by my virtual adventure into the orifice of another human being and impressed by my real-life experience inside the Kink mothership, but within months, the novelty had worn off. Yes, Ella Nova's butt was magnificent; it was also an anomaly. Compared to the endless free clips littered across the internet, VR porn was expensive, limited and hard to find. Due to a lack of direct distribution, multi-gig files had to be downloaded and sideloaded before you could even play them. Add to that software updates, firmware updates and heavy battery drain, and an otherwise quick sprint could turn into an hours-long marathon before the starter pistol had even been fired. It was early days, but I didn't have the wherewithal to be an early adopter.

Nearly two years later, my Samsung Gear VR was collecting dust, but the VR hype machine was still going strong. In early 2017, analytics firm IDC estimated global spending on AR and VR would reach $14 billion by year's end and $143 billion by 2020. Back in 2015, Piper Jaffrey predicted VR porn would become a $1 billion industry by 2025, trailing only video games and the NFL in popularity. Considering my early experience and those wild predictions, I wanted to find out if porn really could, as some proposed, help drive a virtual-reality boom.

When I first visited the palace that S&M built, the porn industry was buzzing with the promise of VR. The New York Times had just introduced millions of print subscribers to the medium with free Google Cardboard headsets, and Oculus was getting ready to ship the first consumer Rift. The year before, Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion, and investment in VR was about to skyrocket. As excitement around virtual reality mounted, questionable old cliches about porn's influence on technology resurfaced. Could porn beat gaming at courting the masses in the same way it had with VHS, HD and search? Or would VR be the magic ingredient to bring the porn industry back from the brink?

“Kind of like the internet is for porn, VR is for porn. It just kind of naturally goes together.” — Fivestar, Kink VR

One thing was certain: There was money to be made, and a small group inside Kink saw an opportunity.

“The first time I put a headset on and it was porn that I was watching, it just felt so real,” said Fivestar, then an in-house director at Kink. “It felt like this was the reason VR existed. Kind of like the internet is for porn, VR is for porn. It just kind of naturally goes together.”

Fivestar and Kink's head of postproduction, Kawai, assembled a small team of tech-savvy employees, petitioned their boss for the necessary equipment and started experimenting in VR. What began as a passion project, as Fivestar puts it, quickly grew into Kink VR, a beta vertical featuring downloadable videos with titles like Daddy's Fuck Boy, Two Girls One Fucking Machine! and Ella Nova's Outrageous Anal Adventure.

VR presented new opportunities for an industry vanquished by the financial collapse of the late 2000s and the rise of free tube sites like PornHub. Like the Kink VR team, adult performer Ela Darling (not that other Ella), immediately gravitated toward virtual reality.

“I've been an adult performer for almost eight years, so when I try new technology I see it through the lens of pornography,” Darling said. “I ask myself, ‘How can I make porn with this? or ‘How can I watch porn with this?' With VR, it was really, really obvious that it had the opportunity to revolutionize the adult industry in a really powerful way.”

Soon after Darling started experimenting with VR, she founded VRTube, a virtual reality camming platform that also offered choose-your-own-adventure-style dating sims. The tall, slender blonde with inviting blue-gray eyes, quickly became the face of a new, technologically advanced movement in the porn industry. She appeared in Wired, The Verge and The Guardian. A report on Recode bearing a close-up of Darling in a VR headset asked, “Can virtual reality save the porn business?”

Building on VRTube's early successes, Ella and her business partner (who did not wish to be identified) struck a deal with Cam4, an existing cam site with global reach. While VR's impact on porn was still unclear, the “VR Porn Queen” was and still is riding the wave of excitement.

“We've got cam studios on three continents,” Darling said. “We've got several European countries, South America, and I've got independent performers in North America. We've basically become the first consistent, reliable VR cam site. There's no other site that can do the kind of content that we do, which is photo-realistic 3D, 360 at very low bandwidth.”

Other early adopters saw similar successes. Naughty America, a traditional porn studio that's as all-American as apple pie and Stifler's mom, went all-in on VR, appearing at tradeshows like CES and E3 in an attempt to take adult VR mainstream. Since it rolled out its first VR scene in July 2015, the studio has doubled production, releasing two new scenes a week in addition to its standard 2D content.

“VR is the biggest niche since MILF,” Naughty America Chief Information Officer Ian Paul said. “If you want to write it off as just a niche, and it arguably still is a niche, it's a huge niche. It's a niche that's on fire. So it's a force to be reckoned with, and it needs to be watched very very carefully, because it can easily go from being the biggest niche to the mainstream, to the dominant force in the industry, just like that.”

To hear Darling and Paul talk about it, the business of VR has come a long way since my gastrointestinal odyssey. According to Pornhub, its collection of 2,600-plus VR videos (up from 30 in 2016) pulls in 500,000 views daily. With viewership and production apparently on the up-and-up, I assumed the user experience had kept pace. So I dusted off my Gear VR and returned to the home of my first time: Virtual Real Gay.

I first came across the site the night before my visit to Kink in late 2015. I wanted to get acquainted with the landscape, but at the time the VR porn market was a wasteland for anyone but straight men with very vanilla taste. Virtual Real Gay was a homoerotic oasis in a sea of fake-and-bake double D's. Sadly, no amount of virtual beefcake could save me from disappointment. The experience was cumbersome, the content was low-quality and the payoff — well, there really wasn't any.

Two years later — and, I'm sorry to say — not much has changed. As opposed to harnessing the true power of virtual reality, letting viewers experience unknown worlds and undiscovered fetishes, the porn industry has decided to stick to what it knows. Straight men are the dominant force in porn purchasing and as a result, the majority of money is being pumped into producing content with them in mind. Kink, for its part, has created a handful of gay, lesbian and trans videos, and Virtual Real Gay's catalog now includes 38 titles. That's better than nothing, but when you consider the user experience and the cost of a monthly subscription, there's not much incentive for the rest of us to buy in.

But what of the experience? For VR porn to really take off, it has to offer something the free, frictionless world of PornHub can't. If firmware updates, sideloading and troubleshooting shoddy software turn you on, you're in luck! For the vast majority of users, however, virtual reality is still little more than a novelty. I recently spent more than an hour trying to load a single video onto my Gear VR. My first attempt, downloading a video directly from Virtual Real Gay to my phone and playing it in the Virtual Real Player (a proprietary beta app), turned into a glitchy kaleidoscope of outsize buttholes, inflated penises and unidentified orange body parts.

My second attempt, sideloading a video and watching on the Oculus player, was a success, but sadly not much more gratifying. As was the case in 2015, poor camera angles, skewed perspectives and bad blocking combined to create an experience that was more nightmare than wet dream. If it weren't for Ella Nova's anus, I likely would have written off VR porn entirely. The spirit of experimentation and innovation I saw at Kink in 2015 and in my conversations with Ela Darling, however, gave me hope that the promise of VR porn was deferred, not dead.

“If you try crappy content on a crappy device, you're going to think VR is crap and you're going to write it off.” — Ela Darling, Cam4VR

When I returned to Kink earlier this month, though, the excitement was gone. In January, the studio announced plans to move production to Las Vegas and focus on less-controversial pursuits at its SF headquarters. It has since sold off its treasure trove of bizarre porn props, bondage equipment and fuck machines in a series of garage sales. The paintings have been removed from the stairwells, and the once-buzzing basement is a ghost town. For now, Kink VR is on hold and Fivestar tells me the fate of her passion project is TBD.

“I really can't say what's next for Kink VR,” Fivestar said. “I hope that we keep pushing the technology barrier and going further and further with our content. Unfortunately, I'm not the head of the company, so I'm just waiting for instruction on that. For me, I'm just going to keep experimenting, and as long as I'm learning, I'm having fun. I'm meeting a lot of really great people in the industry who are excited about adult and VR, and I'm hoping to work with them and create experiences like people have never seen before.”

As Kink mulls its investment in VR, all eyes are on an industry that two years ago looked like a sure bet. Investment in virtual reality is still going strong, but there are signs of shifting priorities even in the mainstream. A report from Crunchbase found a decrease in funding for VR startups in the first quarter of 2017. In May, Facebook announced it would close Story Studios, Oculus' award-winning content arm, choosing to invest in productions from third parties instead. In June, Apple introduced ARKit to jump-start augmented-reality development, effectively side-stepping VR altogether. Just two weeks ago, rumors surfaced that HTC, makers of one of the most compelling headsets on the market today, might be looking to sell its VR business.

Still, analysts, investors and VR-content creators are quick to point out that the market is in its infancy. In order to create high-quality experiences, producers are often forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars on off-the-shelf cameras or create VR rigs of their own. Creators have to have deep pockets or technological know-how just to get into the game. Once they do, the viewer's experience is largely out of their hands. High-quality headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are prohibitively expensive, driving most users to experience virtual reality for the first time on low-end devices like Google Cardboard.

“The proliferation of cardboard devices is great, in that it puts [virtual reality] in the hands of people who would never seek it out themselves, but the downside is that it's the lowest possible quality experience of virtual reality,” Darling says. “So, let's say you're trying VR for the first time, and you're trying it on some crappy piece of cardboard that someone sent you, and you download a porn video that is not optimized for VR and isn't a great example of VR content. If you try crappy content on a crappy device, you're going to think VR is crap, and you're going to write it off.”

Ultimately, Darling says, “this is a case of ‘you have to walk before you can run.'” She says the next wave of headsets and lightweight, standalone devices like the one Oculus is reportedly producing, in conjunction with inexpensive, user-friendly 360-degree cameras will help push mainstream VR adoption and, in turn, VR-porn viewership. Like Darling, Paul believes it's only a matter of time before VR porn has its moment.

“It's not an if, it's a when,” Paul says. “The technology is only gonna get better, smaller, more high quality. At some point in our lives, we're gonna be in some sort of Star Trek holodeck, you know? It's just a matter of time. Even if there's, let's say, more than a lull — let's say there's kind of a drought, and some of the big manufacturers aren't pushing it as much — we're still gonna support the technology because it's just a matter of when.”

Porn's impact on new technologies is near impossible to measure, much less predict. There's no guarantee that virtual reality will be a mainstream success, no way to know if it can pull porn back from the brink or benefit from the adult industry's carnal appeal. In the end, porn may not be VR's killer application but, at the very least, it's still “the biggest niche since MILF.”

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Author: VR Reporter

I am a hi-tech enthusiast, VR evangelist, and a Co-founder & Chief Director at Virtual Reality Reporter!

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