BaDoink, DreamCam and the future of virtual reality porn
Hologram porn; sexbots; teledildonics – is technology about to make physical intimacy extinct? Andrew Billen puts on a headset to find out.
Warning: This article contains adult themed content
It is not yet noon and I have just had a threesome with a couple of beautiful young women. The milky blonde and crème brûlée brunette had bumped their car into mine and, notwithstanding the imperceptible damage inflicted, were beset by a desire to compensate me. Although I have had sex with two women before – admittedly, not at the same time – this encounter is all novelty: the age of the women; their voluptuousness; the angles at which I scrutinise it; and the variety and disinhibition of their sexual practice (butt-slapping as foreplay!). Particularly unusual for me is the pair's voluble appreciation of my sedentary sexual efforts, although this may be because, as I discover when I peep down and check, there is a lot more to me this morning than there has ever been before.
This is my first, and indeed only, excursion into immersive virtual reality pornography – porn movies in which the viewer is a bit more than a voyeur and a little less than a genuine participant. I can see the appeal. In different personal circumstances – were I not married, were my sex life not still extant, had I not two daughters, one about to enter her teens – it might be something to revisit, at least in theory. The reality was that getting into this paradisiac boudoir was more frustrating than being pranged by a young driver and shouted at.
Our date began days before on Amazon with the purchase of a pair of 3D goggles in which to insert my mobile phone. At about £20 ($40), this was the cheapskate's entry into VR, for you can spend £400 ($780) at Argos for an Oculus VR headset. Once it arrives, I try to disarm the child-safe settings on my Virgin broadband, fail to do so and then, availing myself of 4G, laboriously persuade my mobile provider I am over 18. Finally I reach the site of BaDoink, pioneer of virtual reality porn. I can view a video for $1, a deal that will renew in a month at 20 times the rate. I am spoilt for choice for which video to choose from a gallery of wholesome models playing with their hair or breasts. Before I can decide, an ad featuring a naked woman in a dungeon pops up and suggests I sign up to a site called KinkVR.
Nervous now, I download to my phone the innocent-looking Natalie Knight and Serena Santos's Gash Cam, all 49 minutes of it, and jerkily slide my phone into the VR headset. I strap it around my head. I look like an optician. After much fiddling and many false starts, I am finally greeted by slightly blurry and pixellated 3D versions of Natalie and Serena. I inspect their white-walled bedroom, their underwear and so much else that would normally be none of my business. I move my head up and down, from side to side. Their breasts seem to follow me around the room.
I had always thought penetrative sex was the definition of hardcore pornography, but the mindless, strings-free fantasy troilism I have briefly joined is probably considered vanilla next to KinkVR's offerings and God knows what on the dark net (which mercifully lies beyond this article's scope). Nevertheless, I find it hot stuff. I mean, literally hot. After 20 minutes with my head trapped within its rubbery blindfold, it feels like a sauna. My phone is badly overheating too: all that downloading. I untether and am knolled back to reality by a stern text from O2 saying I have expended 5GB of my monthly data budget. Masturbation was never so fraught.
Yet VR is undoubtedly the future of pornography, together with everything else that digital technology is making possible: hologram porn; VR webcam porn; alien porn; cosplay porn; revenge porn; amateur porn; girlfriend-experience porn; touchy-feely haptic porn and ASMR or "whisper" porn. So much new porn. And the sex robot, she cometh too!Advertisement Advertise with NZME.
Some people – paranoid people, I hope – fear that all this tech, will make real sex not just vanilla but obsolete, taking romantic relationships down with it, and the family next. The world, this prediction goes, will join the youth of Japan, the otaku generation so taken by the internet and anime they no longer bother to date. The more likely prospect is that we are heading for an infinite playground for the kind of imagination that prefers to leave absolutely nothing to itself.
Considering the degraded woman at one end and the lonely onanist at the other, the novelist Martin Amis once observed that pornography was a sad business all round. There is, I have to say, no sadness when I talk to the brains behind Barcelona-based BaDoink. Dinorah Hernandez, 33, the company's production director, is a former freelance videographer who started making sexual parody videos at college in America. Product director Xavi Clos, 38, who has a background in technology, has a girlfriend who's a colleague but "of course" watches BaDoink videos. Open, friendly, good-looking, Hernandez and Clos do not fit my image of pornographers."I find it hot stuff. Literally hot, with my head trapped in this rubbery blindfold. My phone is overheating too."
At first Hernandez was sceptical of VR, having had the clunky phone experience I suffered. Then the Oculus arrived, with its better resolution, better 3D and better fit. As an incentive, BaDoink gave away 10,000 cardboard headsets and began to see business take off.
"People are not paying for porn like they used to," explains Hernandez. "There are so many sites and so much free porn. If we wanted to remain competitive, bring people quality and still charge a subscription, we needed to produce higher-quality content. Also, it's not so easy to go and pirate a VR scene."
So how big is VR porn? Clos says the industry has few facts. "But just for you to understand how big it is, the No 1 search term on Pornhub Premium is 'virtual reality porn'."
BaDoink listens to what its customers want, which turns out to be more story and teasing and a bit less intercourse. Scenes are always shot from a male point of view – which is why when I looked straight down I saw a penis but not my penis where my penis actually is. I suggest to Hernandez there is a fantasy going on in these videos that concerns the customer's own body. "Absolutely," she says. "We've had to stop working with some actors because they're too heavy with tattoos, and people cannot suspend their disbelief that it's their body."
So what can I watch? "We have kinky scenes, where we're using bondage, but what we're following is a fantasy of being tied up in bondage," says Hernandez. "The acting is on purpose over the top. Violence is not something we'd even think about doing."
I ask whether customers are addicted to their service. Clos initially says, "Yes," because he has seen the subscription renewal numbers, but then says only in the way he is addicted to Netflix. But he might watch Netflix every night, I say; he wouldn't watch VR porn every night unless he was addicted. "If I were single, why not?" Clos replies, puzzled.Advertisement Advertise with NZME. Will technology kill physical intimacy? Photo / Getty Images
Pornography – the representation of images intended to stimulate sexual excitement – is not as old as sex, but almost certainly nearly as old as representative art. In 2005 a German archaeologist, Harald Stäuble, discovered in Saxony a clay figurine of a man having intercourse with a woman. It was made 7,200 years ago. The world has never, however, experienced anything like the tsunami of porn engendered by the internet. Its scale is impossible to quantify. Estimates of revenues in America range, absurdly, from US$6 billion to US$97 billion ($9 billion to $149 billion). The extent of web porn's infiltration into lives and its impact upon them, however, can be gauged by two reactions to it in Britain.
The first is the introduction in the past decade of those family settings on domestic internet hubs that so nearly deprived me of Gash Cam. What surprises me is to learn from Virgin Media that only about 850,000 of its customers turn on Child Safe filters, around 16 per cent. An Ofcom report found that although six in ten parents are aware of broadband filters, only a third use them.
The second giveaway is the growing number of people who feel themselves drowning in bit torrents. Dr Stephen Blumenthal, a consultant psychologist and psychoanalyst at the Portman Clinic in London, which deals with addiction, tells me there has been a dramatic increase in clients who feel "overwhelmed by their sex addiction". And when did that begin? "I'd say it follows the development of the web, since the 2000s, and again around 2010, coinciding with smartphone developments."
Pornographers have not had it all their own way. In 2007 was born Pornhub, the aggregator site that allows users to share porn for free. Now it's the tenth most popular website in the world. Because anyone can log on for nothing, it has driven countless smaller operators out of business. Its business model, however, requires people to click through to paid sites, and these sites must offer something worth paying for. Much will be kinky/perverted. Some of it may include rape or paedophilia and feature sex-trafficked women, treated with nowhere near the care and professionalism of BaDoink's models (who are paid up to US$1,000 a video). This has rightly been getting Pornhub, which during the pandemic has made its premium tier free and is donating to charity, some dire press, although Pornhub says it is doing what it can to eradicate such material. Other sites, like BaDoink, survive through technical innovation.
Every December, Pornhub reports the latest trends. The headline last year was that it recorded 8.7 billion more searches than the previous year, taking the total to 39 billion (yes, billion). Some of the trends were bizarre. "Alien" was the second most searched term, with seekers after "alien impregnation" and "sexy alien babe" increasing in the run-up to a Facebook event, "Storm Area 51", last September, which resulted in 150 folk turning up at the Nevada Test and Training Range, demanding to see dead aliens and being told to go away. A quick check suggests CGI and bad costumes play a major role in this type of online experience. There is a similar interest in cosplay, which is really just dressing up to enact pastiches of pop-culture obsessions. Perhaps gilf porn, which is grandma sex and also of rising appeal, is something mainly visited for a laugh. Or perhaps I am naive.The company plans a VR private room where you touch someone remotely 'through their devices'.
As for ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, even Pornhub seems puzzled, calling it "such a controversial fetish that some people don't even believe it exists". It is audio porn in which whispering and scratching trigger a "head orgasm". On the subjects of revenge porn, in which vengeful exes upload sex videos of their onetime girlfriends, and "deep fakes", in which the faces of celebrities are grafted onto the bodies of porn actresses, Pornhub is notably less chatty.
There is a trend that outpaces all the above variations of fantasy, and it is realism – or, perhaps, dirty realism. It comes in many forms. The top search last year was "amateur". The report quotes Dr Laurie Betito, a psychologist from the Sexual Wellness Center (which is part of Pornhub): "It seems that people are looking for more realistic depictions of sex… Sex has become so much less taboo that those who get a kick out of exhibitionism can do so with very little experience or equipment. The message is: anyone can be a porn star."
Or perhaps the message is that in hard times people will do anything to earn a buck. L'Atelier, a Paris-based company that predicts future digital opportunities, estimates that globally there are 500,000 online sex workers earning US$5,000 to US$200,000 ($8,000 to $307,000) a year.
Even "real" people, however, cannot deliver skin-on-skin sexual experiences over the internet, and the techies of future porn know it. It is their challenge to make us forget that, and virtual reality porn is one strategy. On the crowd-sourced question-and-answer site Quora, there is a mix of replies to the query, "What is virtual reality porn like?" One respondent says, "It comes as close as possible to feeling you are there," but another quotes a neuroscientist who claims it tricks the brain into exhibiting behaviours associated with the VR body the customer has been temporarily granted. Perhaps with BaDoink we should be thinking less of intimacy and more of role play.
DreamCam may be different. It specialises in "interactive peer-to-peer private sessions with voice communications in real time". The nature of these private sessions is explained by the photo on its web page of a fully dressed man in VR goggles sitting upright in an armchair while talking to a leggy brunette in a white bra, lounging on a bedroom chair. DreamCam is a virtual reality webcam site with almost 500 models signed up to its platform, about a tenth of whom are online each day.
The firm's CEO, Stan Gearson, has noticed an interesting phenomenon with VR. Punters not only behave better when they think they are in the same room as the model, but begin to treat them like a person. Some have spent more than six hours in a single session. "They are building relationships," Gearson says. "I do believe that VR can provide a sense of a real relationship, because you feel the presence of a real person. There are a lot of complaints about users' behaviour on live cam – they can act and talk rude – but in VR they communicate very politely. It's amazing."
DreamCam was not the first into VR webcamming. Ela Darling, an American librarian turned porn actress turned businesswoman, was performing virtual reality sex way back in 2014. In addition, by filming herself with two VR cameras, front and back, a goggled-up viewer could walk all around her. Darling became the first "porn hologram girl".
When I skype her in Los Angeles, she is happy to be called a pioneer of virtual intimacy. "I did kind of stay on the cutting edge of adult virtual reality," she says before explaining that she now helps run ViRo Playspace, a VR social space that is not just about sex. But did she forge a real intimacy with clients when she did VR webcam chats?
"With VR-camming, as well as pretty much any camming, there are people who log on because they want to see something sexy but ultimately want a connection. They want to feel like there's someone in the world who, transactionally or not, recognises them as a person. I would have people pay $5-$10 a minute for more than an hour, just to talk.
"I have a few cam clients with whom I have truly become friends over the years. If we're going to do a sexy cam show, they're still paying me for that, but they could talk to me about something going on in their day or we text about Westworld and the TV that we're watching. One of them, when he's in town, takes me to lunch and we hang out."
That elusive "girlfriend experience" remains for some users a holy grail. Anna Lee, president of the VR studio HoloGirls, told Peter Rubin, the author of Future Presence: How Virtual Reality is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy, and the Limits of Ordinary Life, that it topped every wish list when VR started: "Everybody was asking, 'Give me a girlfriend. Make me believe that she wants me. Make her look at me. Make her be intimate with me.'"
The problem must surely be that it will always be an "experience" rather than a girlfriend. Nevertheless, there are new devices that will make the experience seem more real. A company called Kiiroo, for example, sells digital male and female genitals that connect to the internet and can be remotely controlled by your absent partner. Darling's company is planning a VR private room where you can meet someone on the other side of the world and "touch them through their devices". The adjective attached to this technology is "haptic" and the noun is "teledildonics". "Haptic" sounds a touch more romantic to me."With VR-camming, there are people who log on because they want to see something sexy but ultimately want a connection."
Yet why limit yourself to robotic vaginas when you could have a whole robot woman? We are not in a Westworld future when we think about this. Primitive sexbots have been on sale for a while. There is Solana, who comes accessorised with different peel-off faces and a variety of wigs, so I might possess Natalie one night and Serena the next. They do not walk, these digital sex dolls, but some talk. The Harmony sex robot can orgasm, and dear old Roxxxy, who made her debut at an adult entertainment exhibition in Las Vegas ten years ago, has an internal liquid cooling system to keep her synthetic skin at, presumably, something close to 36.5C.
In her 2018 book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, Dr Kate Devlin, a lecturer on artificial intelligence at King's College London, discusses sex robots. It may be alarming that having spent more than £7,000 ($13,600) on a robot woman, some men then abuse her violently, but Devlin maintains there is overwhelming evidence that men who "rape" robots (as if robots were in any position to give assent!) are unlikely to rape women in real life. As for whether a man truly falls in love with his sex robot, Devlin extrapolates from men's relationships with sex dolls: "The relationship is not mistaken for a human-human one. Nor do they replace it. It is more of a parallel."
Professor Kathleen Richardson, professor of ethics and culture of robots and AI at De Montfort University in Leicester, is far more hostile. An anti-porn feminist who was once a pro-porn feminist, she has concluded that all pornography is harmful, that she has suffered in abusive relationships from using it herself and that it should be abolished. Sex robots, like porn, perpetuate the idea it is permissible for men to objectify and own women's bodies.
But, I ask, given we don't concede that robots are intelligent beings, what's the harm in men using what they bought how they want? Might it not mean that prostitutes would be put out of work and the sex trade crumble? "Well, I wish that were true," says Richardson. "Intimacy is something outside of artefacts. It's between human beings. It's what's between people, the social element, that is the key to our humanity and I think that is destroyed by turning people into objects."
Yet men and women may surely have private fantasy lives separate from real relationships? "You call it fantasy life. I call it alienation. It's a complete estrangement from intimacy and real life and real relating."
So when Kate Devlin wonders whether it is so wrong to have a romantic relationship with an object if it gives a lonely person happiness? "She doesn't know anything about it," says Richardson. "She doesn't, in that book, explain that you can't have a romantic relationship with a robot. Some people think you can have a romantic relationship with a child, right? But you can't do that either."
In Las Vegas two Januaries ago, sex robots were on display at CES, the annual consumer electronics show. In another corner should have been Lora DiCarlo, demonstrating her own little robot, Osé. Osé is a hands-free sex toy DiCarlo designed in order that women could achieve a "blended orgasm", the best, she claims, of all female orgasms. Yet although she had won the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) innovation award, which entitled her to display Osé at CES, she was banned from the show when the CTA suddenly decided Osé was "immoral, obscene, indecent or profane" and not in keeping with its "image".
DiCarlo speaks to me from her home in Oregon, explaining how hers is a sexual wellness product that uses the new tech in a healthy way in pursuit of pleasure. "When we started this company, we took an evolutionary leap. We're been moving forward a little bit in pornography because of VR, and even sex robots are a form of pornography. But sex tech related to female masturbation devices has just been standing still. As I'm sure you know, Dr Mortimer Granville actually invented the original vibrator more than 100 years ago."
This year DiCarlo did attend CES, setting out her stall in philosophical opposition to the sex robots she believes – and it is literally true – turn female bodies into objects.Sex toy designer Lora DiCarlo. Photo / Getty Images
But would she ban sex robots? "No, I think it's not that the products themselves are bad. I think it's the way that we view them as a society, the way that we use them and the way that they're advertised. I think there's definitely a way that we can go about marketing that's far more appropriate and far less demoralising. I have no problem with the products. Same thing with porn. I watch porn."
As I approach the end of my journey into the future, I realise I have been hearing this debate about porn all my life, and that my intellect has always sided with the libertarians and my gut with those who maintain there is something beyond sad and actually wrong about pornography. In my time, I have interviewed Hugh Hefner of Playboy (charming) and Larry Flynt of Hustler (creepy), but neither shocked me the way Outnumbered actor Tyger Drew-Honey did when I met him six years ago. He was then 18 and claimed that at his school, 16-year-olds would boast that they had acted out outrageous porn fantasies on their girlfriends. "If you said, 'Oh yeah, I had really soft vaginal sex with someone last night,' people would be like, 'You queer!'"
Attitudes have probably irrevocably shifted towards an acceptance of pornography, but this is not because the philosophical or evidence-based questions have been resolved. It is because of the ease of access to porn. Millions upon millions of people use it regularly, and with familiarity comes not contempt but ever decreasing shame.
Two of them, while not wanting their names in The Times, are happy to share their thoughts. The first is a tech industry worker in his thirties who lives in New York. He has been using VR porn for five years, has 13 subscriptions to sites and accesses them every day.
"Once I started experiencing VR, I felt so much more connected," he says. "In VR, the woman has to do almost all of the acting. The male actor is more like a 'stunt cock'. So really I get to experience the woman performer in full control. In that way, I get to learn more about their onscreen personality. I also see their faces right up close, and their eyes deeply gazing into mine. I become so much more connected and I care more about these performers that I started following many on social media. I felt like I had to tweet them, or like their posts, to show more support.
"I am not in a serious relationship, but I've had a few casual ones since 2015. It never came up with partners, and I wouldn't feel comfortable letting them know about it either. Even the mention of porn can be taboo. It will be multiplied tenfold if it is VR porn."
The second sharer is a 37-year-old male IT worker in Germany who uses DreamCam's webchats twice a week and spends €400 a month on VR models. He says they have made life more fun and "more diverse". "When I'm bored or alone, I can chat with friendly girls. I don't have a girlfriend but when I had a relationship, I did watch the broadcasts. I don't see a direct connection between romance and watching porn, and I think the same applies for many men and many types of porn. I have never had problems communicating with girls."
The extent of the American's usage alarms me a little, but both men sound perfectly sane. Nevertheless, at the Portman Clinic, Dr Blumenthal clearly sees people who would have been better off in an age before porn went broadband. "The problem with the internet," he says, "is it's like you're on a landing with a number of doors and you can go through any of them. Once somebody goes through a door behind which lies much more explicit material, they can't unthink that thought."
And although I have closed the door on Natalie and Serena's bedroom by unsubscribing from BaDoink, I know that if I ever resubscribe, there will be an even greater choice of doors. What I am certain of too is that the 900,000-plus signatories campaigning to shut down Pornhub for "[allegedly] aiding trafficking" will fail miserably in their abolitionist quest. It or its successor will always be with us. The future of porn is not no porn. It is more porn. Much, much more porn.
Will VR turn me on?
By Jane Mulkerrins, 42, writer
I'm sitting on my sofa while a man with a huge snake tattoo on his torso encourages me to start getting frisky with the perky-breasted girl straddling me. This could be you too, for $9.99 a month, plus virtual reality headset.
I sign up to Virtual Real Passion, one of the few sites dedicated to women.
The stories have a cheesy narrative: "weekend break", "executive secret" and the one I'm streaming, "Merry XXXmas". And there are all the elements of regular porn: cringeworthy dialogue, cheap-looking sets and foreign accents. In After Match, when the buff tennis coach asks, "Have you ever been with a Spanish man?" I burst out laughing.
But the sensation of being an active participant is definitely novel. I can turn my head to change my field of vision, and move forward and backwards to zoom in and out, exploring my partner's body. I can also look down at "my" body – far more impressive than my real body, with perfect boobs, a washboard stomach and no pubic hair whatsoever – and watch as the actor/actress licks, rubs, penetrates "me". For though I say active participant, there's an offputting passivity to my role in most of the films – I don't do any of the talking, let alone instigate any of the action.
Does it turn me on? Not really. It's immersive, without any actual interaction, and makes me feel oddly disconnected from myself and my own real body. I got far more excited by a video that my mum just sent me of a rat fighting with a magpie.
The male perspective
By Alex Chevasco, 36, scriptwriter
She is waiting for me on a rattan couch, dressed in a little white dress with her arms and legs draped along its length. She's pleased to see me. She leans in close and whispers, "I love you." She pauses, before adding "so much". Her delivery's a little flat but before I can dwell on it, she has wriggled out of her dress and underwear and has clamped her thighs around my head.
She is a 3D rendering of porn actress Alex Grey, fed through the two autofocus lenses clamped to my eyeballs, conjuring this Californian poolside scene out of my living room in London.
To someone like me, a single man in his thirties, traditional porn long ago lost its transgressive sheen. It's readily accessible, it's free, it requires no interaction with any third party and headphones are the only concession I need make to secrecy. The trepidation and shame I can remember feeling as a teenager, poring over lingerie catalogues, died quietly the day I learnt that women watched porn as well and for the same reasons I did. The purpose porn's come to fulfil in my own life is functional. It's a tool to sap my libido for a few hours.
Back to Alex's thighs around my head. As vivid as the illusion is – and it really is – there is a catch. My role in this VR simulation is very much a first-person thing and the story's entire purpose is to collapse any distinction between viewer and viewed, but the fact remains that I can't touch Alex or interact with her in any way, which makes this particular moment tense in a way I can't fully describe. I can do nothing but stare while my brain screams at me to reach out and grasp her. I start to feel uneasy and am relieved when Alex suggests we take it into the bedroom and the lights fade out.
When the lights come back up, I have a stand-in, a hairless torso and legs. Alex is straddling my virtual self. It's clear I'm separated now only by seconds from wild consummation. Alex offers some breathy assurances as to my prowess. Eagerly she pulls off my boxer shorts and doesn't seem to notice when they catch around my ankle. There's a kind of poignancy to this odd detail. It's where the fantasy dovetails with the reality of sex, at least as far as I know it. It's where it manages, for a moment, to recreate an actual, usable facsimile of human intimacy.
So here I am, not watching two people have sex, but I, myself, having intangible sex with Alex Grey, whose rapt cries are steadily gaining in intensity. And I wonder, as I watch her mouth form an enraptured O, whether something other than sex might not actually be the real draw here. It feels as though the immersive quality of virtual reality is better not for the simulation of sex but of something closer to love.
The makers of the video seem to have anticipated as much, hence Alex's many loving declarations, which I wouldn't say hasten a viewer's ability to get off.
Personally I find her illusory vulva unsettling. But I can see how a more willing user might be able to fully commit to the fantasy. I watch as a contented smile spreads slowly across Alex's face. Whatever else, she's clearly enjoyed herself and, strange though it seems, it's hard not to feel that the credit is somehow mine. She said as much.
Written by: Andrew Billen
© The Times of London