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Can Virtual Reality Save the Porn Business? (Video)

"There needs to be some new bastion of porn sales at some point, or else it's going to become just a very exhilarating hobby."

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

“If I’m going to pay $800 for anything, I’m going to want to jerk off with it.”

So says Ela Darling, a porn actor and co-founder of VRTube. She believes the future of her industry will be inside virtual reality headsets, and without an explicit endorsement, the tech industry is quietly hoping she’s right.

Consumer virtual reality is around the corner, with VR headsets from Samsung, Facebook, HTC, Sony and more hitting store shelves in the next nine months. Porn is widely believed to be among the most powerful forces driving mainstream interest in VR, even though almost no one outside the adult entertainment industry will talk about it on the record. One Silicon Valley investor even noted that a “sin clause” in his contract prohibited him from touching the taboo.

Porn is said to be a $15 billion to $25 billion industry, and it will take a long time for any sort of VR content to rival that. But as other, once-lucrative revenue streams dry up, virtual reality is increasingly seen as a lifeline for erotica.

Since time immemorial, the adult entertainment industry has had a symbiotic and, lately, uneasy relationship with technology. From VHS to online payments, porn has played a vital role in driving technology adoption. But even though porn exploded on the Web, adult businesses have found themselves hammered rather than helped by it. Charging for porn got extremely difficult in the age of “tube sites” with laissez-faire attitudes toward piracy. The genie is out of the bottle, and many now expect porn to be free and immediate.

“The majority of the adult studios out there are struggling,” Vivid Entertainment co-chairman Steven Hirsch said. “The amount of production is 40 percent of what it was a few years ago.”

Startups such as VRTube and VirtualRealPorn are gung-ho about the VR future, focusing all their energies on getting out in front of the upcoming market. At the same time, bigger and more established porn companies such as NaughtyAmerica and Vivid are cautiously exploring it, partnering with outside studios to produce experimental films while also trying not to undermine their existing brands.

Nearly all involved say VR porn is just better, because it feels more like a real experience than watching someone on a 2-D screen. “There’s so much more that people want,” Darling said. “They want a human experience. They want something that helps fight the loneliness in their lives. They don’t just need to jizz, they need to connect with someone.”

What will enhance the experience all the more, industry insiders say, is the emerging field of “teledildonics.” These high-end sex toys connect wirelessly to phones and computers and sync up with the action in videos playing on them, simulating the feeling of actual sex.

“There’s a fantasy there of a connection with an actor, but it’s not real,” sex addiction therapist Bill Bercaw said. “When you factor in VR porn with teledildonics, now not only are you in the room with your favorite porn star, not only are you in the bed with your favorite porn star, you’re getting a real blowjob from your favorite porn star.”

The companies that produce porn are trying to make the case that seeing, hearing and (with teledildonics) feeling like you’re really there will reignite users’ willingness to open their wallets.

And they need the money. Adult industry research firm XBIZ says DVD sales have fallen by 40 percent over the last decade.

“It’s a dire time,” Darling said, adding that she and her fellow performers have found it harder and harder to find work. “There needs to be some new bastion of porn sales at some point, or else it’s going to become just a very exhilarating hobby.”

Just how successful virtual reality porn will be is anybody’s best guess before headsets reach consumers. VR is expected to grow slowly and even if it’s a hit, it will be many years before it can reach the scale of something like the now-ubiquitous smartphone. But the broad consensus is that VR content will be harder to pirate than DVDs and streaming online video, especially when delivered directly to an app on a headset like the Oculus Rift rather than as a downloadable file.

In fact, Piper Jaffray estimates VR porn content will top $1 billion in revenue by 2020, becoming the third-biggest driver of the sector behind video games and the NFL.

VirtualRealPorn already claims to have “thousands” of users paying up to $100 a year for access to its virtual video library, though it declined to go into specifics. VRTube, meanwhile, broadcasts a live “cam girl” session for an hour every week where Oculus Rift users can chat live with Darling as she performs.

“You have to imagine, you’ve got this thing on your face, and you’re completely immersed in this world,” she said. “Like, look around, this performer, they’re there in front of you. It’s not like you’re watching a girl on the screen. There’s no screen, there’s no frame, you’re there. As a performer, you have to bring your A-game. You can’t phone it in, you can’t just be good at fucking.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.