Virtual Reality Is the New $1 Billion Frontier of Porn

Virtual Reality porn is forecasted to be a $1 billion business by 2025. You might want to get yourself a headset.

December 16, 2015

Virtual reality is real life on steroids. When you strap on a virtual reality headset, you enter another world. I’ve been transported to rooftops in the Ukraine and found myself swimming with whales in animated, underwater universes.

They say dramatic films are like real life with the boring parts taken out. With a headset, you aren’t watching. You’re participating.

Why virtual reality (VR) is taking off now

Virtual reality is not a new concept, but you used to need certain hardware to work it. An expensive PC with high-performing processors, and access to the Oculus developer kits – priced $300 and up.

The quality hardware was too expensive for most people, and the affordable stuff was sh*t, according to Rene Pinnell, co-founder of the Kaleidoscope virtual reality agency.

But all this has changed as smartphone technology has evolved. Accessing virtual reality is now a simple matter of downloading an experience and velcro-ing an iPhone or Samsung mobile into a cheap cardboard viewer. Plug in your earbuds and get ready for a wild ride.

“The quality and the price have reached just the right moment,” said Pinnell. “And I think that anyone who has had a good VR experience is hooked and realizes this is going to have a big impact on the future.”

Because VR technology is so new, there are no film experts in the field yet, according to every producer I spoke to. So filmmakers are left to figure things out on their own. Even the film equipment is being hacked together by creators on an individual, ad hoc basis.

“It’s the new frontier,” VR filmmaker Alyssa “Fivestar” Contreras told me. Contreras has worked at the porn website Kink.com for several years, where she’s shot dozens of 2D films.

As usual, it’s the hungry and adventurous independent filmmakers who are breaking into this new medium. They have the moxie to create cool VR experiences. But independent filmmakers often lack capital to fund their ideas.

Porn can be first “because they can”

Virtual reality is a natural for the porn industry. They’re technological pioneers; after all, they were monetizing digital businesses before everyone else.

“For any new technology, it’s almost like a right of passage for it to be adopted by porn,” Pinnell said.

“Everyone wants to be a part of this,” Matt Slusarenko, the director of business development for Kink.com told me. Kink is a fetish porn studio based out of San Francisco. “Porn tends to be first — because we can.”

Slusarenko showed me around the outrageous Kink headquarters (one room is a dungeon, another designed like a butcher’s shop) and told me that mainstream filmmakers and producers are calling him up and asking him if they can get involved with Kink’s virtual reality content. They want to be part of what’s happening.

Virtual reality porn is forecast to be a $1 billion business by 2025, according to a report by Market Watch. That would make it the third-biggest virtual reality sector, after video games ($1.4 billion) and NFL-related content ($1.23 billion). It’s the next “mega tech theme” in the U.S., akin to the mobile phone industry 15 years ago, a financial analyst said.

Why is virtual reality a good medium for porn?

If it isn’t immediately clear why VR is a great medium for porn, I suggest you watch this video. Here, men and women watch virtual reality porn for the first time.

Their reactions are pretty incredible. Jaws drop. Hands lower to pump the heads of invisible ladies giving excellent blowjobs. Heads whip around. “Whoa. Is that my dick?” one dude says.

“The average consumer wants to be there with the porn star,” Todd Glider, the CEO of BaDoink Porn told me. “They want to break the filter between the LCD screen as themselves. And VR is about as close as you’re gonna get.”

For that reason, Glider said, BaDoink has now switched its business model to focus completely on VR. Since November, it’s their only product in production.

“We expect it to be extremely profitable for us,” he said.

In BaDoink’s videos, you basically enter the body of a dude who’s laying down on a bed, while the action takes place in front of and “on” you. The Barcelona-based studio has made more than two dozen such VR films, with names like “180 Degrees of Double D,” “Cumming Full Circle” and “All that Jizz.”

The same first-person-view shooting style repeats in Kinkvr.com’s videos. But these are geared towards customers looking for fetish porn.

They’ve released a series of free videos, mostly appealing to the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission) crowd. Titles include “Eager to Serve” and “Ariel X and Ella Nova’s Kinky Lesbian Show.”

Again, you’re in the body of someone who is actually there but stays in one spot. Sometimes you can see that body’s appendages. Sometimes you can’t.

The kind of point-of-view experience you can create with VR is especially exciting for Kink, said Mike Stabile, who runs Kink’s PR.

The viewer really wants to feel like they’re being dominated. And with this, rather than just watching someone, you’re in the scene. It adds an emotional and a dramatic element that’s not just visual.

“In more traditional, ‘vanilla’ porn, you don’t need that point-of-view experience as much as you need it for something like Femdom (feminine domination) porn,” he said. “The viewer really wants to feel like they’re being dominated. And with this, rather than just watching someone, you’re in the scene. It adds an emotional and a dramatic element that’s not just visual.”

Or as Contreras, who makes films for Kink, told me, “It’s like going from seeing things in black and white to color.”

There was a common trend in the videos I watched: the scene mostly stayed in one spot. Sometimes there was a cut scene, where I was teleported to another room. In mainstream VR movies, you can move around the scene by turning your head. It’s more jarring in VR porn — but by necessity more than choice.

“If you move too much, people tend to get sick,” Contreras told me. “Or it’s like someone is taking over your body.”

Animated VR experiences are different. Many of them allow you to move around. For real video, there is technology now that can map real spaces and allow viewers to interact with their VR environment (real or animated), either by using some kind of hand-held device or by using their eyes to select things with the headset.

The virtual space is only as limited as the creator’s imagination. But it makes the backend process far more complicated,so filmmakers have only begun to explore ways to use the virtual space.

“Right now we’re making VR films that look like movies because we don’t really know how to make VR yet,” Pinnell, of Kaleidoscope, said. “In the future, the types of the stories we tell with VR and the way they are played out will be completely different.”

Contreras told me something similar. “We’re really discovering a new medium. It’s totally uncharted territory,” she said.

How to distribute virtual reality experiences

Right now, VR has a distribution problem. There are simply not a lot of VR viewers out there. Without them, the content looks like these weird concentric circles seen through the eye of an old-fashioned stereoscope.

BaDoink had some ideas about how to solve that. First, they sent a film crew to San Francisco with a Samsung Gear VR headset loaded with porn. They recorded people’s reactions.

“I’m the one who someone is doing something to… this is not what I expected,” one girl says.

“One of the things that makes it an exciting market and a challenge is that you’re trying to bring the awareness of VR to people and get them to understand the magic of it. But you can’t do that in a real way until you put the goggles on,” Glider said.

Then BaDoink gave away 30,000 Google Cardboard headsets through a signup form on freevrgoggles.com — no purchase required.

Note: This was also a brilliant marketing tactic, as it allowed them to capture a huge number of emails for their mailing list]. They’d planned to give out 20,000, but they had more sign ups than they expected.

“Right around the beginning of the year we ordered a few pairs of Google Cardboard VR viewers,” Glider told me. “We were really shocked by how good it was — especially because it’s basically the equivalent of a milk carton pressed up against your head.”

BaDoink currently ships a free pair of VR cardboard goggles to anyone signing up for a VR subscription with them. These work with many smartphones, and subscriptions are $29.95 for one month, $59.95 for three months and $99.95 for a full year. None of their content is free.

Kink also jumped on the distribution bandwagon. They’re selling a branded version of Google Cardboard for $17.99, marked down from $20.99.

But Samsung’s Gear VR experience far exceeds what you get with Google Cardboard. Samsung just began selling its updated Gear VR headset to consumers – featuring Oculus Rift technology. The Samsung viewer is already a #1 best-seller on Amazon and has 89 product reviews.

“Forget wearables. VR is the next big thing,” one reviewer said. “I love tech but I haven’t been overly excited over it of late. VR is one of those things that is hard to describe … I took a trip through our solar system in an experience called Titans of Space. It made it feel like you were in a little ship, flying up to each planet and some of their moons.”

Other VR viewers are also on the #1 best-seller list, including the Destek 2016 3D VR Viewer ($44.58 on sale) and the Motoraux viewer ($35.95 on sale).

The VR equipment problem

There are no experts in VR, and this means there are no experts in VR equipment.

“It’s a fairly steep learning curve,” Contreras told me. “You start thinking about what you’re shooting in a different way … and even though the technology is very crude in some ways, and there are mistakes in every VR film if you really pick them apart, our brains are willing to forgive that.”

For one, the traditional film set-up doesn’t cut it. Usually, a set can be created out of the corner of a room, or against a flat backdrop. But with VR, the view is at least 180 degrees. That means that the ceiling and the spaces to the left and right of the camera are suddenly exposed.

With VR that’s shot in 360, as BaDoink’s new video, “360 Degrees of Seduction,” is, that becomes even more true. Suddenly, the camera crew and the director can’t be behind the camera, they have to be somewhere else entirely, completely invisible in the immersive scene. For that reason, Contreras told me, Kink hasn’t chosen to focus on 360 content.

“We found that the content was most compelling when the action was going on right in front of you,” she told me.

Then there’s the acting. A porn star that used to do a lot of moving around now has to “just sit there” with as little movement as they can muster often with their head tipped back at a totally unnatural angle to accommodate the camera.

“The position of the actor in the viewer’s body is very awkward,” Contreras told me. “There’s a lot more blocking and positioning that we have to do compared to 2D porn.”

Porn actors also have to adjust, because in the spot where their co-stars head used to be there’s now a contraption with at least two cameras strapped down.

“He is really supposed to lie there as still as possible during the shoot, which is a challenge,” Glider said. “And the closer she gets the better. But then again if she gets too close, that can be a problem. There tends to be a lot of rehearsing before you hit record. But the actors are excited about it. They’ve heard it’s the next big thing.”

When I went to check out Kink.com’s studios, housed in San Francisco’s former armory, I found out that most of their traditional sets haven’t been used for virtual reality. They have everything from dungeons to doctors’ offices, but they haven’t shot any VR videos in 360 degrees.

Instead, they’ve built a specialized camera rig. 360 rigs can cost hundreds of dollars. Kink has the money, but Kink producer Kawai Carvalho told me he didn’t like any of the products available.

“The ones we got weren’t strong enough, so we just said, ‘Fuck it, we build cages all the time. Let’s build one of these.’ ”

First, Kink’s in-house machine shop designed and built a rig that held two digital SLR cameras. One was upside down, so that the lenses could be as close together as possible. But that proved too bulky. It was hard for the actors to move their heads enough to make a natural shot and accommodate the rig.

By the time I arrived, Kink had already shot the free “holiday” VR videos. They knew that with all the Black Friday sales and recent releases of new VR headgear, customers would have more access to VR devices than ever. They’re testing the waters, waiting to see how many people view the content and who might pay for it.

The rig Kink producers had been using on the new videos was smaller than the first. Its rectangular frame held GoPros instead of bulky DSLRs. Kink asked me not to photograph it as they want to keep the design a secret.

Other rigs, like the one BaDoink uses, attach 12 cameras to a pole to get a complete 360 degree view.

The number of cameras used is largely up to the filmmakers. Once the footage is recorded, it’s then stitched together on the computer.

Pinnell told me that non-porn VR filmmakers sometimes use a software called Unreal to edit with. But the multiple streams of incoming video make editing more complex – and time consuming – and all videos need to be converted into a VR format before they can be played.

A second chance for porn

Porn has always relied on technology to boost profits. But internet porn has caused concern as it’s so easy to steal. That’s why BaDoink and Kink are excited about VR porn: internet thieves don’t have the software capabilities to copy this yet.

Kink and BaDoink didn’t want to jinx themselves by telling me how much they expect to make off VR. But a lot of companies are seeing dollar signs and investing in the medium. Take Utherverse, a virtual reality network that the International Business Times called “the sexy version of Second Life.” It’s been around since 2005. But founder and CEO Brian Shuster told the IBTimes that his company invested $40 million to make the network’s online sex club, Red Light Center 2.0, compatible with the Oculus Rift. The site has 25 million registered users who pay monthly subscriptions of $20-$30.

In the meantime, porn and traditional VR filmmakers are going to give audiences their own viewers or wait for them to buy their own. Pinnell said he thinks that will happen in the next couple of years. “Give it another two or three years and then this going to be truly spectacular,” he told me. “Then the tipping point will happen and it’ll be obvious that this is a big thing.”

It makes you wonder. In the future, are we all going to end up hooked up to our weird, bulky headsets, plugged into virtual reality porn and forget about trying to have sex with flesh and blood human beings?

“I think it’s too simplistic to say that VR will make us more isolated,” Pinnell said. “You’re plugged into a different world, but there are also people inside it. Some people will have issues with it and they’ll get addicted to it … but again, that’s like every technology. The power for good and evil are equally large. It’s what we do with it.”

Cheers to a Brave New X-rated World.

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