​VR and vice: Are we heading for mass addiction to virtual reality fantasies?

We discover whether VR is about to swallow mankind into an addictive cycle of sin

Where new technologies go, the porn industry is quick to follow and it's been so quick in this instance that there are virtual smut sites with paying user bases in the thousands, and that's months before Oculus Rift has even officially launched.

A recent Juniper study revealed that adult entertainment executives believe that a significant market share will emerge for VR around 2020. What's more, gambling will also become a big part of the virtual reality story.

Eyes on with VR porn: Our man goes behind the headset

What headsets offer is immersion; 180-degree (or more), stereoscopic action with you as the star of the show and the adult actors and actresses looking deep and lustfully into your eyes as they tend to your genitalia. It's small wonder that users have been donning their headsets and earphones in numbers and praying to their god that nobody walks in.

Yet gambling and porn are synonymous with addiction, and increasingly, questions are being asked about whether the VR revolution could finally ensnare us humans into virtual worlds.

A dystopian vision of a virtual reality nightmare

With a forward-thinking, adventurous and no-holds-barred mentality; a global market and a product that holds interest for just about everybody; porn paves the way. It funds development. It clarifies the content that works.

But is it the dark path to which humanity loses itself in a black hole of our own desires? Where finally, technology gives us the option to live our lives digitally?

Positive reinforcement through the headset

"In terms of people feeling reinforced, aroused, rewarded; sex is the ultimate in things that are potentially addictive," warns Mark Griffiths, professor of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University and expert in cyberpsychology and online behaviour. "Personally, I can't think of anything I've ever done that gives me a better feeling than sex and I'm sure that most people would say the same thing."

Virtual porn is already upon us

As content goes, sex isn't very complicated. Some breasts, some bums and no storytelling required. It's as base level as it gets.

"Sex is one of those things that is highly reinforcing, it's highly rewarding and how people feel is probably better than the highs and buzzes off other behaviours. Theoretically, I can see that VR sex addiction would be very possible but I don't think it's going to be on the same scale as other more traditional addictions."

While users can go on gambling or video gaming until they're only a pair of eyeballs and a mouse finger, there's a "natural refectory period", as Griffiths puts it, with sex to ensure that even the most hopeless of jerk jockeys can't stay at it all day, every day.

As with all online industries, though, what VR porn might do is grow numbers in terms of absolute figures because of access. There's no suggestion whatsoever that it would create sex addicts but it could certainly provide a platform for a tendency that's already there. More importantly, though, it could make for a kind of use that's, so far, one that's only been left to each of our imaginations.

"The thing about the internet is that it's non-face to face, it's non-threatening, it's de-stigmatising, it's non-alienating, it's a very powerful and it's a very rewarding experience, and VR sex could be like that whether it's with fictitious partners, someone that you're actually into or someone that you've never met before," explains Griffiths.

"Where VR sex is concerned, if you can create a celebrity in a totally fictitious way, that will happen. There may be celebrities out there that will actually endorse this and can make money and commercialise themselves to do that. It can work both ways. Some people might find it creepy while others might see something they can make money from."

"If VR is set to cause a revolution it needs to fool more than just our eyes"

The more you do it, though, the more the lack of smell or other senses becomes much more evident.

While both our fantasies and the theoretical scope of VR are ready and waiting, there still remain questions over technical possibilities and the longevity of such a medium in this sphere. The wow factor of VR tends to wear off a little after a while. You stop feeling like you're about to drop a thousand feet if you walk off a virtual precipice and, by the same token, the novelty of dribbling at a pirated 3D render of your favourite Hollywood star bouncing around in front of you could get pretty hollow too. As one regular VR porn user we spoke to put it:

"To begin with, it's five times better than HD. Initially, your senses are confused and you have to tell yourself it's not real. The more you do it, though, the more the lack of smell or other senses becomes much more evident."

If VR is set to cause a sexual revolution, then, it's going to need to be able to fool more than just our eyes. As it turns out, haptic feedback for sensory pleasure is not a new problem for online porn. We have PC peripherals like mice and headphones, why not plug something into your USB socket for masturbatory purposes too?

Immersion over feeling

This would never happen IRL

The area in questions is what's not particularly subtlety known as teledildonics and it's typified by devices such as those from the recently defunct RealTouch Interactive which include matching his and hers sets of vibrators and guybrators. Signals from the former cause sets of belts in the other to move and, apparently, actually feel some way towards like what the person on the other end of the internet is doing to you. It's a decent idea but these things have been around since the 90s and it's not as if they've made it to many desk drawers the world over.

"We're good on video and audio but haptics is a really, really hard problem," admits Kyle Machulis, author of teledildonics site Metafetish.

"A lot of toys out there right now are horrible and it's very hard to come up with something quality. So, instead, what the porn industry is aiming for right now is immersion. It may not feel better but they're so much closer to the action that it may be better, and I think we're on the cusp of that right now."

"Sorry, stick what in where?!"

"First, we need consumer hardware. We need things to be released and available to customers to see if it's really going to take off or not. But when this happens - late this year, the beginning of next - as soon as the headsets are available, the media is ready and waiting."

According to Machulis, though, himself an engineer working some time ago building teledildonics in the virtual sandbox that is Second Life, there are others for whom sex with robots still wouldn't cut it.

"Of course, there's straight women, gay men and gay women to develop for too but, for a lot of people, the perfect porn experience is doing something that's not even physically possible - either through the laws of physics or the laws of land, and that's something that only VR can solve."

"Even so, what we saw in teledildonics in gaming is that people used them to begin with but there's always a lot of fall off with new technologies like this. So, there's going to be a hardcore set of people who stay with VR porn but it's hard to say how popular it will be beyond that. We're all still guessing at the moment. This time next year it will be a completely different story."

Rapid consumer drop off...and not in a good way

Going beyond simple visual immersion is still fairly ridiculous

VR sex clearly has a long way to go before it threatens the real version in any serious kind of way. As a medium for porn, it brings the industry along another jump from flat screens to a full 3D world, even if it's largely just a visual one for the time being. It's hard to believe that vice would be our prime destination in virtual reality in its current state, especially when there are plenty of other equally compelling applications where such involved sensory feedback just isn't necessary for success.

We're quick to turn to sex with new tech because sex itself is quick to turn. As content goes, it's not very complicated. Some breasts, some bums and no storytelling required. It's as base level as it gets. In a way, porn is not so much a seedy distraction and more of a measure of whether or not a particular format is ready. Sure, it'll satisfying our more basic desires when we want it to, but the real adventures of VR lie a long way beyond.

So when you're experiencing your own "refractory period" remember: you're ensuring a bright future for your children. You're basically a developer.


What do you think?

Connect with Facebook, Twitter, or just enter your email to sign in and comment.