What's Really Happening With VR Porn

Photographed by Michelle Groskopf/INSTITUTE.
If you’ve paid any attention to the inner workings of the porn world over the past few years, you’re probably aware that what was once a booming, profitable business has been transformed into a piracy-plagued industry where everyone’s looking for a strategy that’ll bring paying customers back to XXX content. To many, technological advances seem like the easy answer: for a while, 3-D video was pitched as the solution; when that failed to catch on, ultra high-res 4K video was offered up.

Now, a few enterprising porn producers are turning to virtual reality, or VR, to enhance the XXX experience. One of its biggest evangelists? Ela Darling, the cofounder of VRTube.xxx.

Darling — a librarian turned porn performer who’s been obsessed with VR since childhood — launched VRTube.xxx a few years ago after connecting with cofounder James Ashfield on Reddit. Over the course of the company’s short life span, it’s gone through several iterations. The original vision featured pre-recorded content, but that was abandoned after Darling and Ashfield realized the space was likely to become crowded with competitors. The pair's next move was to experiment with holograms, but since the technology wasn’t quite up to snuff, they switched focus yet again, this time creating software to enable live cam shows in VR. That software is now licensed to Cam4, a cam network that hired Darling and Ashfield to facilitate its transition into the world of VR cams.
Photographed by Michelle Groskopf/INSTITUTE.
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As a woman producing VR porn, Darling is something of a unicorn. Women are a minority in both porn production and the VR world; Darling could only recall two other female producers who occupy this rarefied space. In some ways, this unique status has been a boon to Darling’s business. “I love that I’m a pioneer in the space of VR,” she says, noting that it’s gotten her a good deal of attention in the press, as well as opportunities to speak at a number of conferences, including SXSW and Versions.

But it also puts her in the precarious position of being a woman in an often-misogynistic community that can be rife with sexual harassment — and where the sexual nature of her work could be read as contributing to the overall problem. “Women are still trying to find their space in the tech world...and demand a seat at the table that is actually accommodating to them,” she says (as opposed to, say, one where they’re theoretically welcome, but only so long as they’re willing tolerate a boys’ club atmosphere).

The last thing Darling wants to do is undermine that effort by catering to sexist ideas about women’s roles within the tech space or by presenting herself as a mindless sex object. “I try very hard to moderate my behavior and the way I present myself and my ideas so that it’s not needlessly salacious and it’s informative and it’s clear that I know what I’m talking about.”
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHELLE GROSKOPF/INSTITUTE.
Fortunately for Darling, most of the women in VR have been supportive of her work. “There’ve been very few women in the space that have responded negatively to me,” she says. “There’s an organization called Women in VR and the founders are so sex positive...whenever somebody comes in and insults porn, women who have nothing to do with the porn industry will speak up on behalf of us.”

Sometimes, I can feel like I’m the token person in the space.

Ela Darling
But while she appreciates the support she’s found among women in mainstream VR, she’d still love to see more XXX talent in production. “Sometimes, I can feel like I’m the token person in the space,” she says, which can be a pretty lonely position. There’s also the fact that getting more women making porn — any kind of porn — means a greater diversity of ideas as to what makes for hot pornographic content, something that can only strengthen the industry.

Darling’s perspective as a woman has already shaped the VRTube.xxx experience: unlike other VR environments, VRTube.xxx doesn’t provide users with their own virtual body. “I don’t want to incorporate a corporal avatar in our experience until that can be something that the user gets to completely customize on their own,” she says, envisioning a future where users can have avatars that match their race and gender identity. “I don’t want someone to put on a headset [and see that], ‘Oh, okay, I guess I’m a white dude now.’”
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PHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHELLE GROSKOPF/INSTITUTE.
Darling also doesn’t want to put forth one single vision of sexy, which is another reason she finds live cams so appealing. Pre-recorded content requires producers to invest a lot of money up front in the hopes that they’ll make it back through sales — one of the many reasons why pornographers often play it safe and cater to broad, mainstream, and usually heterosexual male tastes. (Although the medium’s still very new, Darling has noticed that squirting is pretty popular with VR fans: “It's like it's coming right at you. It's really cool,” she says.)

Live cam shows, on the other hand, are created on the fly and offer a lot more freedom when it comes to exploring different fetishes — and showcasing different types of performers. “I like that with the live cams, we can cater to whatever the fuck you’re into,” she says. Her big dream is to expand the platform to include men and trans performers. Darling envisions a world where the software she’s helped create is used for VR cam shows starring performers of all races, orientations, gender identities, and body types.

But the realization of that dream relies on VR headsets becoming mainstream tech — and that’s still a ways off. “The biggest hurdle is getting the hardware into the hands of consumers,” Darling says. While Google Cardboard is easily accessible, it offers a subpar experience of VR, especially when paired with poorly produced, amateur VR content. Darling fears that consumers who view subpar content on a cheap headset might get the wrong idea about the medium, giving up on it entirely without ever experiencing its true potential.

With any luck, that won’t happen. Earlier this year, Samsung offered free Gear VR headsets to anyone who purchased a Galaxy S7, putting quality VR experience in the hands of an even greater number of people. Darling thinks the promotion will help drive a whole lot more VR development — and hopefully bring us even closer to a future where XXX VR is a standard part of the porn landscape.
Photographed by Michelle Groskopf/INSTITUTE.
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