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.

“If you want true innovation and creativity and disruption in the adult world, hire and empower and fund diversity. … Enable those creators to create, and you’ll be amazed at the innovation and disruption you’ll see.”
Cindy Gallop, founder, MakeLoveNotPorn

Jitesh Ubrani, a senior research analyst who tracks trends in mobile devices for the International Data Corporation, said “easier-to-use devices at lower price points” will help fuel the industry in coming years, and that the increased usability of the headsets, along with the amount and quality of content available on those headsets, will also help encourage more widespread adoption.
“Combine that with a growing lineup of content from game-makers, Hollywood studios, and even vocational training institutions, and we see a brighter future for the adoption of virtual reality,” Ubrani said in a report about the state of the industry.
If the lineup of content matters, any increase in the quantity and quality of VR content, including porn, should be a reason for headset makers to celebrate. That’s not to say they’ll admit it. Big tech has increasingly kept the adult content industry at arm’s length, preventing adult content producers from being included in app stores or even from using mainstream digital tools like video streaming, payment processing and email services. Tumblr users were dismayed to learn last year that the blogging service would ban adult content by the end of 2018. Even Starbucks said in November it would prevent people in its stores from accessing porn on its free Wi-Fi.
The dynamic is similar with VR headsets. Adult content apps are forbidden from most mainstream app libraries like the Oculus Store or Google Play over adult content restrictions, and headset makers do not generally tout that content as a selling point. Google and Samsung did not respond to requests for comment about their headsets being used to consume adult content.
“We do not distribute adult content through the Oculus Store,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “As is the case with many devices, people can access content through sources outside of our Store, in which case that content may not follow our guidelines.”
As a general rule, Coopersmith said, device-makers and other equipment makers like to keep some of the potential uses of their products quiet.
“It’s bad PR to be associated with porn,” he said.


Some of the established players in the industry, though, aren’t particularly concerned. Users looking for porn can usually find it. And it doesn’t much matter to a device-maker if someone is buying a VR headset to watch porn or do something else on it. A unit sold is a unit sold.
“The most-used video application on the headset is the video player,” Clos said. “[Device-makers] are smart enough to know that they can sell the headset for whatever reason and they will still make money.”
Virtual-reality porn is expected to be big business. In 2015, the firm Piper Jaffray estimated that VR adult content would grow to a $1 billion business by 2025, and there are several adult content companies looking to get in on the action, mostly via subscription services.

“If you look down the road, we’ll eventually get Westworld.”
Andreas Hronopoulos, CEO, Naughty America

That’s not to say the transition from standard video to VR will be an easy one for adult content producers. If there’s anything adult content producers have discovered in recent years, it’s that good virtual-reality porn can be hard, and expensive, to make.
Naughty America CEO Andreas Hronopoulos told Adweek he believes the investment in creating adult content in virtual and mixed reality is worth it but acknowledged it’s more expensive to create VR and mixed-reality porn than it is in other formats.
“Twenty years ago, the joke was that if anyone had a three-chip camera, you could make money in adult content … but that’s not the case today,” Hronopoulos said. “The barrier of entry for getting into products for adults, the products we are creating, is much higher.”


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