Want to shag a celeb? Avatars let you have sex with anyone, well ... virtually
New developments in digital tech let you fulfil your wildest desires with your ultimate fantasy person
Never mind quantum computing, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and 3-D printing, sex-tech is where real innovation is happening. According to the Guardian, sex-tech is a $30bn (R437bn) industry growing at 30% a year, potentially outpacing sectors like drone manufacturing, the Internet of Things and cryptocurrency.
And with technology doubling in speed, capability and capacity as quickly as every nine months, things are getting pretty interesting.
The porn industry has always been an early adopter. One of the earliest known collections of cave paintings, found in France and apparently 40,000 years old, predominantly features vaginas.
Pornographic film production began almost immediately after the invention of the motion picture in 1895. Telephone sex exploded in the 1980s. In 1998, three men applied for what became known as the teledildonics patent for the "interactive virtual control of sexual aids" that envisioned a future where remote sexual interaction would be commonplace.
According to Patchen Barss, author of The Erotic Engine, the sex industry has taken advantage of every technological advance in the production and distribution of visual images.
"Pornographers earned their reputation as tech pioneers by getting in on the early days of many new media. They led the world to the VCR, cable television, bulletin board systems and the internet," he writes.
Companies from web development firms to smartphone service providers quietly maintain two operations, says Barss - one in the porn world and another in the mainstream.
"The porn side allows them to find early adopters, hone their products and make technological improvements. They then sell sanitised versions to their mainstream clients where larger, more reputable profits lie."
When it comes to sex and sexuality, it seems, human beings are constantly driven to find new ways to express themselves.
RACY AVATARS OF REAL PEOPLE
It should come as no surprise, then, that a group of randy geeks on forums like Reddit, crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and other websites, have begun making racy avatars of real people, including celebrities and exes so they can have sex with them in virtual reality. They're also selling them online to thousands of people.
Have your eye on Jessica Alba, Emma Watson or Beyoncé? This booming marketplace for 3-D models of celebrities lets users fulfil their wildest sexual fantasies. According to a report by Canadian digital media company Vice, this community of 3-D graphics hobbyists are able to make avatars of anyone who exists in real life.
Defying the constraints of physical reality, in the virtual world you can articulate the avatar into any position you want
You begin by choosing from a variety of penises and vaginas, pubic hair, breasts, tongues and belly buttons, and use a photograph of the person to generate an animated 3-D avatar of them.
Defying the constraints of physical reality, in the virtual world you can articulate the avatar into any position you want. With a VR headset like Oculus Rift or Valve Index, you have a complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world, giving users the opportunity to move from being simply an observer to being a participant; this changes the experience of pornography massively.
Our longing to see, touch and experience each other has driven the quest for tools to draw, paint, photograph, film, and now replicate the objects of our desire, if not always our affection.
The website Slushe caters for the 3-D erotic art community and allows artists to share their work, which tends to mostly be women with massive breasts who can be programmed to perform virtual sex in any setting, from the boardroom to the dungeon. One user called it "a middle-aged man's Barbie house".
On Patreon, MeshedVR, a small indie developer, focuses on advancing character simulation. "A natural outlet of that work is a VR sex simulator!", the founders claim on the site.
Their first project is Virt-A-Mate (VaM for short), an adults-only virtual reality sex simulator and sandbox (a virtual environment for testing new software). They make realistic characters using "a combination of realistic joint physics, soft body physics, skin-accurate collisions, and advanced rendering techniques".
These characters are brought to life by capturing and storing motion capture from off-the-shelf VR controllers. They react to the user's movements or objects they control in a realistic manner, with the aim of bringing to users the most realistic sex simulator possible.
"I use it to fulfil my sexual fantasies or replicate sexual encounters with my ex-girlfriends," one user commented on a subreddit with close to 8,000 members, dedicated to creating 3-D adult content with VaM.
I use [the virtual reality sex simulator] to replicate sexual encounters with my ex-girlfriendsVaM user
Foto2Vam is a programme that uses a photograph of a person's face to automatically generate a 3-D model with the same face, which can then be used in VR.
"Foto2vam has enabled me to literally feel like I'm there again, ie getting a handjob/footjob from my ex looking at me with a smile, or having another ex ride me on the floor in reverse cowgirl in front of a mirror ... the possibilities are endless," the user said.
Another user commented that it was important to make sure they ask girlfriends to pose with a few different angles for photos that can then be imported into VaM.
"Oh, and I find it amusing to alter reality and give them boob implants, etc," he added.
A PRICKLY ISSUE
Computer-generated porn has been around for decades. On Second Life, a computer game in which players create avatars inside of a 3-D, virtual world, players can "live out" just about any scenario and interact with fellow avatars from all over the world in 188 different adults-only areas.
Launched in 2003, Second Life is in its twilight years now, but it has a thriving kink and fetish community. These communities rely on participants' good behaviour.
The problem arises when you're creating avatars that look like someone who exists in real life and sharing them with others.
The avatar cannot consent to having sex. And what of spurned exes carrying on depraved and violent acts with avatars of former lovers? The legal implications for creating these models are murky.
For many people the potential of VR porn is about creating the "perfect" sexual experience, even better than the real thing. But for others, it can mean pushing the boundaries, often with highly explicit and violent imagery.
Although it's still a niche industry, it's not unforeseeable that models based on real people used in VR pornographic settings could become the future form of revenge porn.
Porn has long held up a mirror to society. It's an industry driven and funded by men, and it targets men. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with creating adult content, studies continue to show that pornography influences real-life practice to worrying degrees.
Should you get caught up in the world of avatars, ask yourself what mark are you willing to leave on the fabric of sex history.