The assertion that the pornography industry has always been at the cutting edge of the adoption and exploitation of new developments in communication technology has pretty much reached axiomatic status. Perhaps the most storied example of this is its fateful selection of VHS over the superior Betamax because of JVC’s decision to lower the cost of the tape duplication machines for production companies. But the demands of the porn industry are also often credited for the accelerated adoption of other technologies such as Polaroid photos and Super 8 film; pay per view and interactive TV; camcorder, DVD, and Blu-Ray; World Wide Web, VoIP, e commerce payments, and video chat. Arguably the Internet itself would not have grown so quickly without the bandwidth demanding, low friction, high privacy enablement of porn consumption.
The question at hand (pun intended) is whether the pornography industry will now step up and push the agenda for virtual technologies? Will pornography change from something we view to something we experience? Can augmented and virtual reality expand the way humans communicate and experience their sexuality? What are the technologies that will play a role in this transformation and how will they be used? What will be the social impacts of the availability of these experiences and how will they change society? These are all very heady questions that I intend to explore in this post.
[Warning! This article is NSFW]
The foundation of the relationship mankind has had with movies (and by extension, video) over the last century is based on three important psychological principles. The first is human perception of rapidly presented sequential images as live motion. English photographer Eadweard Muybridge famously demonstrated this in 1878 as a means to prove that at moments during a horse’s stride all four hooves leave the ground. Secondly, the suspension of disbelief allows the viewer to ignore the reality that they are sitting in a theatre viewing a two-dimensional moving image on a screen and temporarily accept it as reality in order to be entertained. Suspension of disbelief is essential for the enjoyment of many movies that involve complex stunts, special effects, and seemingly unrealistic plots, characterizations, etc. Finally, empathic displacement is the reason people cry at movies. We have an innate tendency to identify with the characters and feel what they are feeling. This deep emotional response is responsible for the enduring popularity of movies for over a century. The rule is that the better a movie is written, acted, shot and edited the better we are able to suspend disbelief and empathize with the characters which translates into entertainment value. Today’s pornography seemingly transcends this rule by evoking a very strong empathetic connection despite poor production values. This strong empathetic connection comes in the form of sexual arousal which taps into our most primitive of responses. It therefore follows that the more effectively the arousal response can be evoked the more entertaining we will find the material and the greater value we will assign to it. The immersive qualities of mediated reality lends the potential to evoke the arousal response like no other medium ever has.
Mediated reality refers to the artificial modification of human perception by way of electronic devices that alter sensory input. In Virtual Reality, “the participant observer is totally immersed in, and able to interact with, a completely synthetic world. Such a world may mimic the properties of some real-world environments, either existing or fictional; however, it can also exceed the bounds of physical reality…” [Paul Milgram] “Augmented reality is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” [Wikipedia] My post on Related Concepts provides an in depth look at all that encompasses the mixed reality spectrum. In the marketplace AR and VR are simultaneously emerging. We will take a look at how both technologies can be applied to approach this exciting new frontier of virtual love and sex..
VR provides the most obvious use cases for virtual sex due to its capability to depict a completely synthetic and fully immersive world. Its immersive nature stems from the use of opaque goggles strapped to the head that present a stereoscopic video feed to the eyes. Through inertial sensing mechanisms such as gyroscopes and accelerometers, head movement is detected and the view adjusted to present what is next to, behind, above and below the user in this virtual world. These images may be generated by a spherical array of video cameras whose images are seamlessly stitched together by software, or they may be computer generated with 3D programming. This theoretically allows the depicted experience to take place in any time or place, containing representations of any persons or objects behaving in any manner — real or imagined. VR could therefore present sexual experiences with remote lovers, celebrity look-alikes or exotic beings of one’s own design. Sexual VR experiences could be programs that the user controls the parameters of, or real time encounters between real people in different places presented as themselves or avatars with realistic or fantastic appearances. The idea is that the user experiences the encounter as a true participant from an accurate point of view that they themselves control and explore. This provides a leap forward in the suspension of disbelief thus potentially evoking an arousal response that exceeds that of watching traditional film or video.
Spain-based VirtualRealPorn is one of a small handful of companies developing for Oculus Rift already, by adapting traditional live-action pornography for the headset. VirtualRealPorn films in an 180-degree immersive experience (not full 3D yet) and uses the Rift’s sound capabilities to insert moments in the scene where the actress whispers in the viewer’s ear. It is essentially a linear film-like experience with a beginning and end and no means to directly interact with the action. So far there are 25 clips in its library, each about 9 minutes long and from the POV of the male.
Imagine a customizable experience in which you choose everything from the color of your partner’s hair to the position and sex act you most desire. Exchange a partner with one body type and hair color for another with completely different features. Or maybe experience something you’d be embarrassed to ask for in real life. Red Light Utherverse is a company in pursuit of this vision. It is a coming together of the Adult 3D online role playing game Red Light Center, and Utherverse, the social networking profile website. They are integrating the Leap Motion gesture sensor to allow an Oculus Rift VR headset user to bring a representation of hands and hand motions into the virtual environment in order to interact with menus and controls to scroll, drag, click, etc. Founder Brian Schuster claims it’s almost indistinguishable from videoed porn content. “The resolution is basically identical. It’s anatomically correct and with the motions you have the really subtle movements of the inner labia and the clitoris.” A stimulated woman can even show signs of “wetness.” This new VR porn promises to get the user up close and personal. Very close. [Daily Beast]
While the promise of virtual sex is surely intriguing, if it is essentially only a voyeuristic experience then the technology has not significantly improved upon the viewing of traditional video. Visual virtual reality alone lacks the physical component naturally associated with the arousal response. The lack of physical feedback hampers user proprioception, sense of presence and sense of immersion in virtual environments. This is where haptics come in to play. The origin of the word haptics is the Greek haptikos, meaning able to grasp or perceive. Haptic sensations are created in devices by several means: Electromagnetic technologies such as vibratory motors and coils moving a central mass is by an applying a magnetic field; Electroactive polymers, piezoelectric, electrostatic and subsonic audio producing wave surface actuation capable of a large variety of effects in terms of frequency range, response time and intensity; Reverse-electrovibration sending a weak current through an object, that when touched creates a variable sensation of friction based on waveform, frequency, and signal amplitude. In all cases, vibrations are managed and controlled by embedded software and integrated into device user interfaces and applications via embedded control software APIs.
Vibrating “sex toys” have been around for centuries. According to a study conducted in 2014, the annual worldwide sex toy industry revenue approaches $15 billion. Where there’s money to be made, the adult entertainment industry can be counted on to innovate and push the technological envelope and jump the gap between simple vibrations and virtual touch. Internet-enabled sex toys that let long-distance partners feel each other in real-time are referred to as “teledildonics.” For men, there are vagina emulators, and for women, penis-shaped ones. Touch pressure applied by one partner is picked up by sensors in the implement, sent over the Internet, and felt by the other partner, and vice versa. The toys can also sync up to the action in adult movies. One example of teledildonics is the RealTouch. Here is an excerpt from their website:
“RealTouch… creates a True Internet Sex experience using patented haptic technology. RealTouch syncs with programmed adult videos as well as live cam models so you can experience realistic oral, anal, and vaginal sex with the world’s hottest performers. You’re feeling the action, not just watching..”
While RealTouch has successfully integrated haptic touch sensation into synced video and live experiences, it is made for the flat screen, not virtual reality. The holy grail of sexual simulation is a combination of haptics and teledildonics with VR, and several companies are in hot pursuit of that scenario.
Tenga is a Japanese manufacturer of disposable male sex toys that has put together a robotics solution that’s the closest you can come to having physical sex with a video game. The software was crafted for the Oculus Rift, which the virtual sex participant straps onto his head. The program interfaces with a Novint Falcon, which was created as a 3D haptic controller device for gaming that allows you to feel weight, shape, texture and force feedback when playing touch-enabled games. The Falcon has removable handles, or grips, that the user holds onto to control the Falcon. As the user moves the grip in three dimensions the Falcon’s software keeps track of where the grip is moved and creates realistic forces that a user can feel, by sending currents to the motors in the device transmitted 1000 times per second with sub-millimeter sensor resolution. The surfaces of virtual objects feel solid, and can have detailed textures applied to them. Tenga rigged its masturbation aid so that it’s held in place by the Falcon’s claw, then programmed software to respond to the sex simulation onscreen. The “game” consists of a 3D-rendered woman in schoolgirl attire, who is either bent over a bed or kneeling before the “player.” As the avatar in virtual reality moves, so does the Falcon—and so does the Tenga sex tube. Coupled with a pair of headphones to provide realistic surround sound, the setup creates one of the most immersive simulated sexual intercourse experiences yet. See video of clothed demonstration here.
Sex technology is no longer the exclusive domain of the pornographers. The opportunity is too big to be ignored by tech visionaries. A company called Frixion is developing a hardware solution that is almost identical to Tenga’s except for added smartphone and wearable accelerometer integration. What makes Frixion more interesting is their open and modular API that allows all devices to interact with each other where their functionalities overlap. They are creating a developer friendly plugin system that will enable users and other third parties to integrate new devices as well as extend the functionality of existing ones. Their vision is to establish a universal virtual sex platform which they are positioning as “a new kind of social network”. This approach is expected to accelerate innovation in the haptics space creating still unimagined experiences in the future. They just might become the Android of the sex toy industry.
Up to this point I have primarily been referencing virtual reality experiences, but augmented reality tech also presents interesting opportunities to tap into the arousal response in novel and interesting ways. One of the earliest applications of commercially available mobile AR was ushered in by the print industry making use of smartphone cameras and view screens. Newspapers incorporated it to make content more compelling and interactive while ad agencies used it to bring advertisements to life. It didn’t take long for the girlie magazines to get on board. In 2013 Playboy began incorporating augmented reality technology into Dutch and Italian editions. Using augmented reality codes from Layar, additional content is showcased when scanned with the mobile app. For instance, the cover will come alive with semi-nude and partially animated clips of the models vying for Playmate of the Year. Interior pages feature content such as last year’s Playmate giving an introduction to the current edition and another page that gives viewers the opportunity to ogle 2012’s Playmate even further. This gave Playboy the ability to move beyond the limitations of the wood pulp pages of the magazine to entertain their audience.
Also in 2013, a book and iOS app combo was published that taught the lessons of the Kama Sutra in a new and innovative way. Using augmented reality, the Kama Xcitra brought the sexual positions to life by creating a 3D model of the action to the screen of the iPad. The book uses fiducials (graphic markers) printed on the pages which the app recognizes through the tablet’s camera, then displays the animated models within the virtual boundaries of these pages. You can move the camera around the models and see them from all angles. Though somewhat primitive by today’s standards, Kama Xcitra proved to be a titillating educational tool for the adventurous.
The first augmented-reality robot is pushing the future of the sex-enabled virtual bot closer to reality. U-Tsu-Shi-O-Mi is an interactive “mixed reality” humanoid robot that appears as a computer-animated character when viewed through a special head-mounted AR display. A virtual 3D avatar that moves in sync with the robot’s actions is mapped onto the machine’s green cloth skin (the skin functions as a green screen), and the sensor-equipped head-mounted display tracks the angle and position of the viewer’s head and constantly adjusts the angle at which the avatar is displayed. The result is an interactive virtual 3D character with a physical body that the viewer can literally reach out and touch. Though the U-Tsu-Shi-O-Mi was not invented as a sexual experience, one can see a clear path toward a very interesting use case whereby a robotic teledildonic doll can become anyone the user desires using AR. This scenario could offer a pre-programmed experience or enable two people separated by distance to make virtual love to one another whilst ensconced with sensors.
Augmented reality technology can be used for nefarious purposes as well. This prank video shows an app that purportedly allows the user to see through people’s clothes. The makers even went so far as to create a real app that (badly) superimposes bodies stripped down to their skivvies on whomever the phone camera is pointed at. Though this was just intended to be humorous, it brings up serious privacy concerns. It would not be far fetched for a realistic version of this app to be developed. It certainly would be offensive to people if AR could be used to match their gender and body type to lifelike animated 3D nude imagery that is superimposed over them as they move about in real time. Even though this is not their own actual nude body being viewed, it could be a convincing enough analog to evoke a feeling of violation in the subject. Such technology could be especially problemsome in schools and the workplace. Today we trust the app store gatekeepers to filter such distasteful apps out of the marketplace, but app stores can be circumvented through sideloading hacks and it’s only a matter of time before this scenario becomes reality. How will society deal with this? Will we see new policies and legislation formulated to address this form of privacy invasion?
The next step from lifelike mechanical sex robots is to bring artificial intelligence into the mix. An artificial being on which a virtually projected lover truly comes to life when that being can anticipate one’s sexual and emotional needs in real time and adapt accordingly. Self driving cars are now a reality — adaptive sex robots will not be far behind. Newly arising scenarios such as this bring with them entirely new sets of problems for society to address. At what point does technology assisted sex become cheating on one’s partner? When does a robot stop being a sex toy and become something more? Is it when the human has feelings for the robot, or when the robot can express feelings in return? It’s a blurry and slippery slope between VR porn and sex robots that many will find themselves defining for themselves and defending to their significant others in the coming years.