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Virtual reality’s impact on the porn industry, and the psychology of viewing

by AirTalk

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A photo taken shows a view of a short erotic film through a virtual reality headset during a presentation at the MIPCOM audiovisual trade fair in Cannes, southeastern France. VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

One of shiniest objects coming out of CES this January was the Oculus Rift headset.

The Rift, as it is called, is a wearable virtual reality headset. It’s small, it’s easy to use and it’s debuting in March. It’d set consumers back close to $600 a piece, but the price tag has not dampened enthusiasm. There are cheaper versions -- Samsung makes them (for $99, but they could only be used for specific models of their smartphones), so does optical instrument maker Carl Zeiss. Of course, there's also the $20 Google Cardboard.  With all these options out there, video game makers have started to produce content. But they are not the only ones.

Producers of porn are also banking that the new visual and visceral experience provided by VR would similarly lends itself to their genre.

How is VR porn produced? How expensive is it to make it? Lots of research have focused on the sociological and psychological impact of traditional porn, are those effects magnified given the verisimilitude of VR porn?

Interview Highlights

How is VR porn content produced?

Ian Paul (Chief Information Officer at Naughty America): It’s very similar to how we shoot adult content today. The cameras are a mix of off-the-shelves and custom components, and there’s different coaching that we have to provide for the performers, but it’s very similar to how adult content is already shot, with the exception of the experience, it’s radically different. You can look around, you’d notice exceptional depth perception, it’s quite immersive, you really feel like you can reach out and touch the performer.

What are the costs?

Ian Paul: Ton more investment in the R&D, the file sizes are much larger, you are dealing with storage costs, the editing workflow is completely different, so you are dealing with investment in different editing equipment processes.

Do you think this is different enough to get viewers to pay for the content?

Ian Paul: We already have, we have the content about the July timeframe of last year and the response is overwhelming.

Do you think free providers, like the “tube” providers, will find a way to do this

Ian Paul: They may eventually. They are an ad revenue-driven model. We think it’s going to be very difficult for them to integrate ads into this type of experience. 

The production you saw was a little different, describe what the shoot was like that you witnessed?

Sarah Ratchford  (writer for Vice):  The shoot was quite a long day, it was about 12 hours. What happened was -- the porn star Tori Black -- and she got into this contraption, it was basically like a dressing room: enclosed by white curtains, the rig was several poles with Canon Rebels attached to it. So there was 112 lenses pointed at her, capturing every angle of her body. She struck physical poses, she did the voices, the faces, everything.

You saw the finished product of this production, what did you think of it?

Sarah Ratchford: I saw the finished version of the scanned avatar. So I saw Tori's avatar. And then I was personally scanned in with my own avatar. Mine was clothed, mind you. But I was blown away. They only took an hour or so to developed it, as opposed to the full time it would normally take. I was floored. I tried to reach out and touch the avatars, even though I fully knew it was virtual reality and not available for me to touch. It was magical.

Do you think this has the potential to please women as much as it does men?

Sarah Ratchford: I really wonder about that. This is really geared toward heterosexual men right now. They are working on making it better for women and people of other genders, too. But Tori Black herself even said that, essentially for women to be amused by this, the men are going to have to try really hard. Women are used to putting on that sort of performative aspect of sex, and men aren't.

Taking VR aside, what's your view on pornography and your view on intimacy?

Neil Malamuth (UCLA professor): I think it's going to be a very complex issue. On the one hand, it's quite likely and this is pure speculation that this kind of VR pornography might make actual physical contacts between mates less desirable, in a way  it'd create a competitive possibility with somebody who is ideal, who you can form in certain ways, and the immersive experience can make it much more gratifying and less difficult to obtain, less messy, less nuanced by the relationships... Again, though, I'd need to say that there will be individual differences here. I could see it for some couples it could be used as an adjunct to make their experience more intimate. I could see single men using it in a way that would create a sexual experience that is more intimate than current pornography that can have for them. In that sense, paradoxically, they may be more satisfied what we call a "tamer view of pornography" than having to seek a more extreme variety that constantly may be needed to turn one on.

You study the impact of pornography on relationships and on couples, do you have concerns about the more immersive experience?

Ana Bridges (University of Arkansas professor): Two general concerns that I have. In general, I think pornography is increasingly becoming the place where young people learn about sexual behavior. Unfortunately, pornography of all type, and VR porn as well, is  a type of  learning environment that is strictly focused on the individual. Sexuality is truly about self-gratification, the way it is presented in this context. It's not an environment that emphasizes or caters to the mutual pleasure that is part of sexuality. One of the concerns I have in the increasingly immersive environment is that the more real the more experiences, the more they are rehearsing what they will do in real life. 

Do you think that that has had a negative effect in many cases in women's sexual satisfaction?

Ana Bridges: Both women and men. There are some men and women who will find real relationships more difficult and real sexual interactions more difficult. Some men are already posting, that after finding VR porn, that they are not interested in finding a relationship with a real partner because then they actually have to do things like "worry about getting married" or "having children." I also know from the women that I have interviewed and spoken with that they have concerns when they are having sex with their partners, whether their partners are truly engaging with someone else, someone they found in pornography. I think the more realistic and immersive the environment, there's a chance that for some people that would become more intrusive.

You talked about people act out violently sexually based on what they've seen, do you think that might be more likely if they have violent imagery in VR porn than in 2D?

Neil Malamuth: That is definitely a possibility, although at this point, from what I understand, [VR porn producers like Naughty America] are very strict in creating any violent pornography. In general, the effects will be more powerful by virtue of the fact that it is much more immersive. So the more you recreate real-life type experience, the more likely it is for some people there will be copycat kind of effects.  

Guests:

Ian Paul, Chief Information Officer at Naughty America, a porn producer based in San Diego that has been producing VR porn

Sarah Ratchford, a writer based in Toronto for Vice magazine. One of her recent pieces follows the porn star Tori Black in her Virtual Reality shoot for the VR porn company Holodexxx. She tweets from @sarratch

Neil Malamuth, Professor of Communication Studies at UCLA, who has studied the psychological effect of pornography for the last four decades

Ana Bridges, an associate professor at the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas, where she studies the impact of sexual  media on individual and couples

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