It is a maxim that ‘porn drives technology’ – one that we have referenced ourselves a number of times. Demand for pornography helped to driver consumer adoption of the internet, and the genre was a major pioneer of streaming video and online payment systems. As we approach the age of virtual reality – a technology that is even more private than the home video – it is time to ask, what will be VR’s most popular use?
The short answer is: porn. The long answer is: porn, but with some real challenges to overcome.
Virtual reality is the ultimate private show – no-one can see what you are seeing (unless you’ve awkwardly left the headset plugged in to the TV). But, as The Guardian‘s Stuart Heritage found, the experience can also be profoundly uncomfortable. You are a voyeur, unable to interact in any way and with no real control. So, challenge number one is to produce content that people are happy to watch.
Next up is the technology used. Filming VR content takes some very expensive equipment, which can produce stereoscopic 3D and, at minimum, track head positions. The adult film industry has the money to find this, but the expertise in how to use this equipment with a new format will take time to develop.
Challenge three is getting the consumer to spend money – not on the content, but on the hardware to consume it. Pornhub‘s own fledgling VR page can be accessed on a PC, but point-and-drag is not optimal or immersive. In order to watch the films as they are meant to be viewed, consumers will need a VR headset.
There are several low-cost options for this, with Google Cardboard headsets at the lower end of the price scale. There are also proprietary ‘bring your own display’ products like Samsung’s Gear VR. However, all of these suffer from the screen door effect (visible pixels). For the best experience, consumers will need to splash out on one of the big three: the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Sony Playstation VR. These still suffer from screen door, but overall quality, combining graphics, audio and visual feedback, is higher.
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are themselves costly ($800 and $600, respectively), and also require a connection to a high-end PC: as much as $1,000-worth of components, according to estimates. Sony’s Playstation VR, on the other hand, costs $400 and requires a Playstation 4 console ($350). So, the obvious platform of choice for ‘low cost’ VR adult films seems to be the Sony headset. But wait, there’s more.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the videotape format war was raging between Sony’s Betamax and the more open VCR. The urban legend is that Sony’s refusal to license its technology to pornography companies caused the format’s downfall. That is probably not the case (Betamax players cost about $1,000, compared to the $300 VCR players), but it is true that Sony did not allow producers to use their technology for mass production. Would the same apply today? I have a feeling that Sony would not condone a Pornhub app on its platform, and the built-in web browser is poor. Likewise, Google made moves to ban the pornography apps that were developed for Google Glass, when that product was launched. If this marks the standard approach to adult film on VR headsets, then producers will be less willing to invest.
On the other hand, you have the most-talked-about use of virtual reality (in mainstream media, anyway): gaming. The market is smaller, but money is no object to gamers, who are willing to splash out on upgrades to give themselves the edge. Most high-end gaming desktop PCs in users’ homes today are capable of running virtual reality content.
Equipment is not an issue facing either game studios or consumers. As well as the wide base of VR-ready PCs, the Playstation 4 is the world’s best-selling console: more than 35 million had been sold as of January. When it comes to developers’ experience with VR games, that is already progressing quickly: at GDC 2016, it was announced that there will be 50+ VR games for the Sony headset this year, and early results have been encouraging. Gameplay demos and teasers from the likes of Highwire Games and Valve (with the tongue-in-cheek humour that we have to expect from the Portal series) look promising – the real test, of course, will come when these titles are released to the public.
In the long run, nothing will stop the domination of pornography over the VR format – but, in the short term, at least, it has a new challenger.