Can Porn Save VR?

If history is any guide, the adult industry's investments could benefit device-makers

The porn industry is already innovating in virtual reality, which could be a good sign for VR more broadly. Art Direction: Dianna McDougall; Sources: iStock, Naughty America
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

There’s a near-naked woman pole dancing in a conference room on Madison Avenue.

It would probably violate some kind of co-working space rule if she were there in the flesh. Instead, the woman, clad in a white thong, is in the room via augmented reality and has appeared on a tablet screen like some sort of reverse Pokémon Go game. Instead of cartoon monsters, there are nude dancers, and instead of tossing a virtual ball to make those monsters disappear, you drag and drop from the screen to make naked models appear, life-size, in front of you.

“I like being your private dancer,” the woman says, gyrating, jiggling and spinning around on top of a small conference table.

The woman is an adult film actress, and her three-dimensional dance is part of a slate of augmented-reality and virtual-reality erotica created by Naughty America, a publisher and producer of adult content whose website is most certainly not safe for work. If you take the experience a step further and access Naughty America’s content using a VR headset, the conference room will melt away entirely. The viewer, reclining on a white leather couch, can drop actors and actresses of their choice into a virtual penthouse suite surrounding them and can move around the room to watch their new companions strip and dance.

“People will buy the Oculus Go or another headset to watch porn but eventually, they will want to watch something else, and that opens the door.”
Xavi Clos, head of VR product, CM Productions

Naughty America makes porn, but the subscription-based company says it views itself primarily as a tech company pushing the boundaries of virtual- and augmented-reality entertainment. The company has produced X-rated AR and VR experiences since 2015, including 3D adult experiences and live-action VR porn, and it’s far from the only company banking on the business proposition of making technologically advanced adult content. BaDoink VR, another adult content company that produces live-action VR porn, sends subscribers Google Cardboard headsets to turn their mobile screens into VR viewing goggles. In February, it began selling Facebook’s Oculus Go headsets preloaded with the company’s content.

For people who like the idea of watching porn in virtual reality, the bullishness with which Naughty America and BaDoink have approached the medium is great news. But the porn industry’s investment in virtual reality may also serve to benefit the VR industry more broadly. If history is any guide, porn has been nothing but good for tech companies, encouraging consumers to adopt new hardware and even coming up with innovative business models and methods on new platforms. After all, what better way to introduce shiny, expensive tech to the masses than by enticing them with X-rated content?

“People will buy the Oculus Go or another headset to watch porn but eventually, they will want to watch something else, and that opens the door,” said Xavi Clos, the head of VR product at BaDoink VR’s parent company, CM Productions. “This is called porn helping the VR manufacturers and helping the VR ecosystem to grow.”

Jonathan Coopersmith, a technology professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, has written at length about the connection between pornography and technology adoption. In an academic article published in the journal Icon, Coopersmith posited that porn “would be publicly praised as an industry that has successfully and quickly developed, adopted and diffused technologies” if not for its salacious and morally controversial subject matter.

Take the VCR, one of the more enduring examples of porn’s effect on the adoption of new tech hardware. The cost of producing and distributing porn on videotape became a viable and relatively low-cost option for the industry compared with the cost of making and distributing an X-rated feature film, and because there’s always a demand for porn, the chance to make money was high.

“What the VCR did for the first time was allow you to watch pornography from the privacy of your own living room, your own home, whereas before, if you wanted to see a pornographic film, you had to go out to a movie theater in a seedy part of town,” Coopersmith told Adweek.

As a result, the porn industry made a vast library of adult videotapes that people could rent or purchase and view, but only, of course, if they invested in a pricey piece of hardware to view it. They did, and that investment from early adopters allowed hardware makers to continue building VCRs, paving the way for more adoption, encouraging other content companies to make their shows and movies available on videotape and driving down the price. That, in turn, encouraged more adoption, and so on.

“As the market grows, the prices are going to come down, especially as there’s a desire to reach a broader and broader audience,” Coopersmith said.

A similar dynamic can be seen with the adoption of both the Blu-ray player and the internet. Porn producers rightly believed people would pay a premium for higher-resolution porn, and they invested in Blu-ray technology to make it. (Some producers tried distributing their porn on HD-DVDs for similar reasons; ultimately, though, Blu-ray won out.)

On the internet, the sheer availability of porn, due in part to the ease with which virtually anyone could produce and upload adult content, resulted in a massive testing ground for new commerce methods, business models and digital practices that have in turn benefited the digital economy more broadly, according to academics. A Dutch porn company developed the first working internet-based video streaming system in 1994 to deliver porn to its customers, journalist Patchen Barss wrote in The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication, From Gutenberg to Google.

It was particularly important that early adopters of the internet spent at least some of their time consuming porn, Coopersmith wrote in the Routledge academic journal History of Technology, because users accessing the internet for the purpose of porn and sex “frequent the internet more heavily, operate at a more advanced level and otherwise demand more” advanced tech than people accessing the internet for other purposes.

There’s another reason why new tech and pornography have worked in a complementary manner, too: Historically, they appeal to the same market.

“A lot of the early adopters of new technology tend to be young men in their 20s who are also the demographic for the porn industry,” Coopersmith told Adweek.

The adoption and eventual diffusion of new tech rarely arrives with a bang, but instead ticks up year over year. The same can be said for virtual reality, which has been around since the mid-20th century for various commercial and military purposes and has been available to at least some consumers since the early 1990s. The magazine Computer Gaming World optimistically predicted in 1992 that VR tech would become available and relatively affordable for the general public “in the next year and a half,” but bogged down by exorbitant prices and complex technological requirements, consumer VR has for years experienced something of a failure to launch.

Analysts and industry watchers, though, seem to think consumer-facing VR has made enough progress that adoption is poised to accelerate. More manufacturers are building better and cheaper VR headsets, making the tech more accessible. Meanwhile, curious and optimistic publishers of all kinds are experimenting with creating and publishing VR and mixed-reality content, including video games, news content and even advertisements. The International Data Corporation estimates that around 65 million VR and AR headsets will be sold in 2022, compared with the estimated 9 million sold in 2018.


@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.