Denton Native Ela Darling Is Blazing A VR Porn Trail.
By the end of 2016, virtual reality porn very well may be a billion dollar industry. According to Naughty American CEO Ian Paul, he expects we’re just a few months away from seeing 10 to 20 million people watching VR porn at least once a month, leading to that billion dollar figure.
As it turns out, an ex-Denton resident is one of the biggest voices leading the charge.
After earning a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois at age 21, Ela Darling became a fetish model at 22, and eventually a porn actress and early adopter and proponent of VR porn. More recently, the 29-year-old founded VRTube.xxx, the world’s first live VR webcam platform, along with a quantum physics major she met on Reddit.
Like the VCR and digital camera before it, the creation of VR technology is being driven by consumers that see its potential to watch people touch each other’s junk. But Darling is a respected voice in the VR space beyond just her involvement in creating the first pornographic holograms. When we recently caught up with her, she had just finished speaking in front of representatives from over 100 VR companies at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference in San Jose, the largest professional event for the virtual reality industry.
During our chat, which we’ve transcribed below, Ela tells us the ins and outs of VR porn, what it’s like to watch and what goes into filming it.
What did you end up doing with your library degree?
Well, I became the associate director of the library right after grad school. I was head of reference. I was in charge of a big teen services grant, and also a big health grant. It was pretty cool. It was actually a really great opportunity. They tell you to wait at least six months before you get a job, but a month later, I was in charge of this library, and it was great. I liked it, but I graduated early twice, so I was only 21 when I got my master’s degree, and 22 when I started working at the library. It was the job that I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I didn’t want the rest of my life to start when I was 22. So I started doing fetish modeling, and I realized that I made more in an hour doing fetish modeling than I would in a day as a librarian — which you have to have a master’s, y’know. I started doing a little more of that. I decided to move to L.A. and do that kind of work full-time while I still had the opportunity. And that’s how I got into porn.
Do you think the library thing is something you’ll go back to someday?
Not professionally. I would love to volunteer at a local library once I have more free time to do so. I’m pretty heavily revered in the tech world now.
Let’s talk about that. How did you get involved in the 3-D porn realm?
I saw somebody post on Reddit about wanting to make VR porn. I tried my first VR headset shortly after, when I was at E3 several years ago. I thought it was awesome, and I definitely wanted to do porn for it, but I didn’t have the tech savviness or coding capabilities. So I figured, probably in a few years when everybody’s doing VR porn, I’ll be able to work with a company and I’ll get to do it myself. But when I saw them talking about wanting to make VR porn and how they just needed to find talent, I was like, “Fuck yeah, guys! Fly me out. Let’s do this.” It turns out they were 20-year-old college kids, so they didn’t have a lot of success finding models on their own. They were excited to have someone reach out to them. So they flew me out. I shot my first porn scene in this dorm room, which was interesting. But it turned out to be a really great opportunity, because we’re incredibly different in every way. So there’s no redundancy. I have a really strong brand in adult. I have a lot of connections in the adult industry; I’ve been working in it for a long time. He’s the most brilliant coder I’ve ever met in my entire life. So we basically, as two people, were able to create a company that’s completely self-reliant. We haven’t had to take any investments from anybody. We can pivot from project to project, and as soon as we realize something’s not working, we can move on to the next thing. We started off doing 180 [degree], 3-D virtual reality porn. Then we did 360 3-D VR porn. Then we made porn holograms with Microsoft Kinect. Then we made a dating simulator with the Kinect using the same holographic technology, and it was cool. But the coolest thing about it was that it really felt like you were talking to a real woman. That’s when we realized that even cooler than feeling like you were talking to a real person was actually talking to a real person. That’s when we started doing the live platform. We launched the first version of that last July. It was cool. We used a green screen. We did 180 capture, and the performers would be in front of the green screen. They would be put into a 3-D, digitally-created room that looked like a video game. That was cool, but it had a lot of limitations; it was very expensive, chroma key is faulty. It was expensive for the performers to set up, and they could only cam in virtual reality, which is a problem because there’s just not that many consumers of it at this point. We needed to find a solution that would allow performers to continue camming for their existing fan base, as well as courting this new group of people who obviously are willing to spend money on things. We came up with a solution that basically takes a 3-D, 360 capture of the room I’m in and superimposes the live feed on top of it. So we’re only capturing a very small live capture, but it’s small enough to be streamed even over 3G phones and still offer a really compelling live experience in virtual reality that is 3-D and 360. Users need 3-D for it to feel real for them.
Is anybody else out there doing anything like this?
We were definitely the first. There’s another company that came in and did the same green screen technique that we abandoned. I don’t know if they’ve really made much progress; I don’t hear much from them. There’s one company that does 360 2-D, which is easier to do but, like I said, consumers don’t respond well if it’s not in 3-D. So we’ve watched a couple other people crop up in the live field, but nobody else is taking the technique we’re using. We actually patented the approach we’re doing, so they kind of can’t. We’re about to soft launch in a few weeks, which will be with performers that are available in a free chat, where you just tip performers to see them do whatever. Shortly after that, we’ll move to doing private shows. Then probably the next wave — it’s already possible, we just need more software — we’ll make it widely available where performers can record their performance using the 3-D 360 capture and sell the 3-D 360 porn themselves. It empowers performers to create their own content and own their own content. It’s big. As it stands now, if you’re a performer and you want to do VR porn, you take a day rate from whoever is willing to hire you, you leave and that’s it. A lot of performers are realizing that owning your own content, or creating your own content, is very important to stay relevant and to stay successful in this industry. We’re trying to make that a possibility for people without having to spend a bunch of money on a giant camera array and learn complicated stitching software and everything involved in that.
It’s cool that you’re taking 3-D technology in places it hasn’t been before. It’s interesting that, like the VCR and several other technologies we have now, 3-D seems to really be driven by the porn industry.
I want to emphasize the difference between 3-D and VR. 3-D kind of fell flat because there wasn’t much of a value change between regular 2-D porn and 3-D, given that you had to have a special kind of TV or hardware to watch it — you need special glasses. The necessary requirements to experience 3-D were too cumbersome given the small value change from watching in 3-D versus 2-D. With VR, it gives you a compelling sense of presence and intimacy and immediacy that you just don’t get anywhere else. The way that your brain processes VR, it’s like you’re having a real, lived experience. You remember it as though it’s just a regular memory. So I just want to emphasize that 3-D and VR — while the VR is 3-D, it’s a world different than just 3-D porn.
Critics of porn often talk about how it dehumanizes the performers. But I feel like it’s probably easier to objectify the performer in a 2-D environment than in virtual reality. You’re so one-on-one with the performer that it seems like it might be easier to empathize with them.
I would argue that porn doesn’t dehumanize anyone. It’s not porn that’s dehumanizing people. Porn is just showing a sexual side to people that are already sexual. It’s just that consumers come from a background where, as soon as something is sexual, it is no longer acceptable. I don’t know what kind of sex ed you had, but I grew up in Denton, and I was told that, if I lose my virginity, I’d become basically as valuable as a partner as a chewed-up piece of gum. So I’m literally garbage if I have sex. We’re taught that people who are promiscuous are dirty and wrong and unsavory. I think the issue is that people see porn and they watch it through a lens they’ve constructed — or that’s been constructed for them — that the people they’re watching are somehow bad or less than human because of the work they do because they’re sex workers. I don’t think that’s because of porn, I think that’s because of the way society is. That said, you do have a much better sense of empathy when you’re watching VR porn. I had a guy watch his first VR porn scene and it was a POV scene from the female perspective. It was hetero porn, but he was the female performer being fucked by a male performer that you could see on cam. He said it changed the way he thinks about sex. It changes the way he thinks about having sex with female partners because it felt very aggressive to them. It felt like he was just being railed without any concern for his own feelings. It made him realize that he needs to approach sex in a slightly different manner. It made him have a better approach to sex, and a more sympathetic and empathetic approach to sex with real-life women having seen this once in VR. You have a different perspective when you’re in VR because you feel like you’re a participant. It’s not a passive experience. Especially with the live stuff I do, you’re talking with a live person and it feels like you’re really in their space. You feel like you’re in my bedroom with me. You look around and you see my actual bedroom and I’m right there in front of you. I find that the relationships that I build with my consumers is really accelerated. What takes me weeks or months in cam chats and private chats with my consumers to get to a certain place of shared vulnerability and reciprocal attraction and communication, with VR that happens so quickly. After just two or three sessions, I’ll have people come to me not because they want to see sex, not because they want to see me naked, but because they want to feel like they’re in a safe space with someone that they trust and are comfortable with. That is what they’ve gained from my VR live cam. I think it offers a little more person-hood to the performer because you’re seeing them as a peer; you’re not seeing them as just a body on the screen. With gonzo porn, for example, the whole screen that you’re watching can just be penetration. That’s cool; that’s fucking hot. However, that’s more objectifying in the sense that it’s showing you just a part instead of the whole. With VR, it’s always the whole. [Laughs.] It’s always the hole! It’s the whole hole. You get the whole person. Certainly, you can see a lot of things. You can have super fucking misogynistic experiences in VR. Even so, as a viewer, you tend to remember you’re watching another person who could be very much like you.
I haven’t experienced virtual reality yet, but it’s sounds like it’s already really realistic looking. It also seems like the technology is improving super rapidly. What is VR currently capable of, and where do you see the technology advancing to in, say, five years?
It’s hard for me to speak so far down the line. Just one year ago, I had just barely launched my company and we had just barely launched the holographic porn that we made. A year later, we’ve already created three new products. The cam product that we’ve created has progressed so much. In the next few years, we’ll have better headsets, we’ll have greater user adoption. There’ll be more opportunities because there’ll be more consumers in the space, we’ll have better capture technology. Hopefully, the bandwidth requirements will be more manageable. I think we’ll have more auxiliary devices and the like, where if I touch this dildo it reciprocates that touch on a stroker on the user’s end. I think there’ll be more of that. But, ultimately, just getting better, smaller headsets that are easier to access — that’s going to be a really big deal.
I was listening to a podcast this week where one of the hosts had recently tried VR porn for the first time and the other had never tried it. The debate was whether or not the one who tried it would be able go back and watch 2-D videos or flip through a magazine and get the same enjoyment from it that he had before. Is it a once-you-go-VR-you-can’t-go-back kind of thing?
It’s just a very different experience. I would say comparing regular porn to VR porn is like comparing a magazine to an HD video. People are always going to find a way to jerk off. Whether you have a headset or a drawing in the dirt that kind of looks like boobs, if you really want to jerk it, you’re going to jerk it. But I think the experience is so different and is such a greater value that people are going to have a hard time going back. In fact, so many consumers that are in this field now have never paid for porn. It’s audacious to pay for porn. There’s a whole generation now that doesn’t believe porn is something you spend money on, that it’s all free on the internet. It’s not. All the free porn on the internet, for the most part, is stolen or is there to get people to spend money on it — because of all that the porn industry has really suffered. I’ve been doing this for seven years, and the rates are about 50 percent of what they once were. That’s a problem. With VR, what I’m seeing, is people that tell me they’ve never paid for porn before, they’re paying for this. Would those people go back to regular porn? Of course. If there’s something that looks like people fucking, then of course you’re going to watch it and jerk off if you really want to. But spending money on it? No. Once people start spending money on this, spending money on regular porn just seems wasteful.
Finally, I don’t know how much you’ve been keeping up with what’s going on with the Exxxotica Expo in Dallas, but basically the City of Dallas told them they couldn’t put their event in the convention center, and then they sued for discrimination, and now the city is spending $4,000 a day on lawyers to figure out a way to legally get away with telling these people they can’t come here. What’s your take on what’s going on with that situation?
I’ve definitely heard about it. It sounds like there’s some complexities and nuances in the lawsuit that I can’t speak intelligently about, but I think, from what I hear, they’re trying to find an excuse to prevent Exxxotica from having a show there. What I hear from performers, though, is that it was fucking atrocious [last year]. The people who were protesting it were absolutely horrible to them. There were people that told them that they deserved to be raped and that they and their families [should] die. The people were fucking vicious. The people who were critical and were protesting it were really nasty. Some women got groped — a lot of the time, when you go to an adult convention, you get groped because people are fucking animals and they don’t respect boundaries sometimes. They don’t see you as a human sometimes. This was particularly bad and, from what I heard, a lot of people didn’t even make money on it. I sure hope that they are allowed to have Exxxotica there just for the sake of free speech. But I also hope that, if they do, there will be a little bit more attention paid to security and making sure that this is a safe space, because the things I heard from performers about the way people were treating them were appalling. When I was a librarian, [I learned that] if you have an open space, anybody can go there. It isn’t just the people that you like. It isn’t just the organizations you think are great. If you have a community space in the library, if the fucking KKK wants to come in and have a public meeting there, as long as they follow the same rules as everybody else, you kind of have to let them — whether you like it or not. Because that’s the nature of free speech. The reason we have this excellent society that we live in is because everybody has the right to express themselves. When it comes to a public space like that, I think they need to stick to the same rules. Fuck, I’m at a convention center in San Jose, California right now, and I just had a talk about VR porn. I’m given the same respect and the same voice as all these other professionals in the VR industry. And I think that’s how it should be. It’s legal work. We pay taxes.