Performer and developer Ela Darling tells us about the complications of filming for 3D virtual reality.
Virtual reality is changing the way we view media, interact with each other, and get off, and adult performer Ela Darling wants to be on the cutting edge of it all.
Darling is the creative director, star, and co-owner of VRtube, a burgeoning VR porn company and lab for development in the emerging tech space of virtual reality. The company started with VR porn, expanded into the market with the first-ever real-time VR porn video game, and this week launched an interactive VR camera, the launch of which marked the first ever Oculus Rift-enabled 3D virtual reality live cam offering.
I chatted with Darling about camming, how porn fuels developments in technology, and what the big names in virtual reality think of putting XXX content into the mix.
MOTHERBOARD: How long have you been involved in the adult industry?
Ela Darling: About six years now.
How did you get involved in VR?
Last spring I met these guys on Reddit who posted about how they wanted to do virtual reality porn, and they wanted someone with more porn experience, and I do have a lot of porn experience and connections in the adult industry. So I reached out to them because I was really excited about it, and they flew me out to the East coast to shoot with them.
"Whether people want to admit it or not, being able to jerk off is an important part of utilizing new technology."
They ended up being 20 year old boys, basically, and we were shooting in my business partner's dorm room, so that was unexpected. When I first saw him I thought, "Is it rude to verify his ID?" because he looked like a kid. But he's a fucking genius. He coded this whole cam program in about a month.
What is his background in?
What first drew you to VR?
I've been interested in VR since I was a kid. I've always thought it was really exciting, and it's the future of entertainment, and so many other things. Porn is my livelihood, it's my everything, so when I come across emerging technologies I see it through the lens of porn; so I approach it through the question of "How can I use this to fuck? How can I fuck with it, or how can people watch me fuck with it?" So when I started to notice VR becoming more and more en vogue, and Oculus becoming a large company and we were on the verge of this VR revolution, I really wanted to be in on it.
Porn has been suffering for years now, the money is not what it used to be, it's a really dire time for people. I saw this as an opportunity to be engaged with a new kind of porn in a new wave of pornographic production.
How is VR porn different from traditional porn?
The difference between 2D traditional porn and VR is, in my opinion, as different as television is from a stage play, and the same issues arise with it.
When the television was first introduced, it didn't catch on at first, because people were broadcasting live stage productions, and it's not the right use for the medium. With television, you realize, you need to take an entirely different narrative approach. So, different camera angles, different perspectives, using the camera and editing and techniques you don't have in stage production.
It's the same thing in virtual reality: There are many ways we film porn. There are a lot of techniques and different approaches that just don't work at all in VR. When you think of a regular porn film, you have the wide angle shot, you have the close up of penetration, you've got different views, and with VR you kind of have to pick one. You can't just do a close-up shot because in virtual reality it's either a gigantic penetration that completely consumes your field of view, or weird disjointed two people's genitals close up.
Why is that, is it just the way the cameras work?
Yes, it feels like you're there in person. So imagine if you were watching real life, think of all the camera angles you'd need. It is overwhelming. Editing and cuts are also more difficult. You know how often on YouTube they are really into jump-cuts, where you just chop a few seconds out? They often move around a bit. But if that happened in real life, or in virtual reality—studies show when you are experiencing virtual reality your brain perceives it as reality—imagine if you're talking to someone and it just started cutting around like that, it looks like a fucking Japanese horror film, it's really creepy. So you can't edit at all.
That's one of the issues we have with the holograms, if [the pornstar] fucks up and says something in the middle she doesn't want repeated, or she accidentally calls herself by her real name, we have to start over completely because if I cut out even that small little bit, it would look like there's a glitch in the matrix.
You've performed as a cam girl in the past, how is VR camming different from traditional camming?
It's not that wildly different from the performer's perspective. It's different because I have some things to keep in mind in terms of field of view of the camera. I have to find the monitor and make sure my body isn't out of the field so my arms look like they're amputated weirdly. It's stereoscopics, so there are two cameras shooting at the same time so I can be filmed in 3D, so I have to position myself for both. Other than that, it's very similar to the camming I used to do. The biggest difference is the hardware. Other than that, it's not all that different for the performer.
When you film the VR porn, what equipment do you use? And what do you use for the camming, is it different?
For the VR porn, we use the Microsoft Kinect, that uses an infrared camera that creates a point cloud. Basically the camera sends infrared nodes that tracks where you are in space based on your proximity to these points. That's how it tracks depth. With camming, it's just two cameras doing 3D, so there's no positional tracking. With point cloud, it can determine where you are and establish this view.
People are trying to develop the software to make Microsoft Kinect able to do live streaming, but it's just not there yet. What this does is there's an actual video feed, but it's not actually capturing video, it's creating holograms that is an element that plays into a 3D-rendered environment. My partner basically created a 3D camera from various off-the-shelf products, camera sensors, and a drill and a lot of hope and ingenuity. So this isn't holographic so much, though to a degree the experience is a bit similar. What you're seeing is a performer in front of a chroma green background. It's not the actual room I'm in. It's an image we've crafted and basically pasted as a wallpaper in a video game environment.
The user's experience with VR cam is way more immersive and engaging than traditional 2D cam, because they feel like they're in the environment with you. So when I look at the camera, they feel like I'm looking at them. If I kick my foot at the camera, people have said they jump back because they feel like they're going to be kicked in the face.
What is the view like of the performer? Is it 360 degrees from the viewer's perspective?
When you put on the Oculus Rift, it captures 360 degree view, but we aren't filming live in 360 degrees, and there are a lot of reasons for that. You can look around and you feel as though you're in a garden next to a pool next to a beautiful house, and it feels like you're outside and this person is in front of you. There's a chat box underneath the performer. I don't have a big enough green screen so it's from my bits up, and there's a chat where everyone who's present can chat and I can respond to them. That's what it looks like.
"The difference between 2D traditional porn and VR is, in my opinion, as different as television is from a stage play."
The reason we don't do 360 degree cam is because it's just so much data, and nobody needs that much. Nobody gives a shit what the fireplace behind the camera looks like. What they want to see is the girl who's talking to them or masturbating. The rest of the environment is important to establish immersion, but it's not important that they see the actual 360 environment. Also when you're shooting with 360 view, that's 12 cameras worth of data. That is a shit ton of data and way more bandwidth than needs to be spent on this.
Is it just you performing right now or do you have other people enlisted yet?
Right now it's just me, but once we get figure out how to monetize it and get it off the ground, we'll start doing paid shows. At that point I'll bring in a couple girls a week. Right now it's just me, but in a matter of days or weeks we'll starting bringing in other performers to cam.
How are you involved in the development process? Have you learned coding through this, or did you know it before?
I'm learning coding, my business partner has been teaching me coding. I'm never going to replace him as the coder, I probably won't even supplement him because he works at a much higher level than it's worth it for me to put time into. But I am learning how to code, I'm learning a lot. I've learned a lot about VR, I've learned about technology, I've learned a lot about how eyes work and how your eyes perceive virtual reality, and how that information is disseminated through the consul. So I've learned a lot, and I'm learning code slowly. So it's been a great learning experience in that regard.
Have you met Palmer Luckey, what does he think about VR porn? What is the general perception by the developers?
I met Palmer briefly, we happen to follow each other on Twitter. I met him at Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference a couple months ago. At the beginning of the conference, there was a big panel discussion and Palmer was on it and a couple of other people that were really big in virtual reality, someone from Google, someone from Samsung. On the panel, the moderator mentioned porn, and they shied away from it. So afterwards they had a Q&A so I asked them.
I said, "look, you don't have to like talking about it, you don't have to like it at all. But the fact is that virtual reality porn exists, its here, it's happening and it's awesome. So do you think the VR industry is going to actively ban porn or passively tolerate it?"
The only person who said anything about it was Palmer Luckey, and he said, "Oculus is and always has been an open platform, and that's a big deal." I thought that sounded great. As long as they don't actively ban it, porn will find away. Porn always finds a way. And if it can't find a way, neither will your technology.
How many people do you know who own Google Glass?
Yeah, Google banned porn from Google Glass. Whether people want to admit it or not, being able to jerk off is an important part of utilizing new technology. People are going to buy devices that allow them to consume whatever they want. When a company thinks they need to actively ban content they don't feel jives with their image, it's basically saying that their reputation as a company is more important than making the product useful to me as a consumer, and if that's more important to them, then I'll consume a product from a company that does value the way that I use it and the applications I require.
What does VR mean for the future of porn?
I think VR porn has the capacity to bring an entirely new side of porn to the masses. I think it could bring the industry a really big boost. With the cam show I did the other day, I had basically across-the-board positive reviews. I had a lot of people who said they usually don't pay for porn but they would absolutely pay for this. That's big, people are willing to pay for VR content, especially if it's prohibitive to download or pirate it. They have to have our player to watch it, and it isn't worth the time to pirate the holograms we make, they're $5 a set. With this, the level of engagement and immersion and intimacy you get is so vast, I really think it's going to make people to want to open their wallets again, and start spending money again.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.