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The Whole VR Porn Industry Is Talking About These Patent Lawsuits

Always a leader in media innovation, the porn industry is now worried about the prospect of patent trolling over VR.

For the past few years, the media's been abuzz about the promise of VR porn. VR technology keeps getting better and more affordable, and adult entrepreneurs are eager to find a medium that might actually make them money. Throw in the fact that the immersive properties of VR are ideal for the intimate experience of porn viewing, and it starts to seem like a perfect storm for the future of high-tech erotic entertainment.

What force could possibly derail the adult industry's virtual reality dreams? Well, for starters, patents.

Two weeks ago, the National Law Review reported that Virtual Immersion Technologies LLC had begun enforcing patent 6409599, an incredibly broad patent for an "interactive virtual reality performance theater entertainment system." The patent is at the heart of a handful of active lawsuits—including one related to VR porn, and another about teledildonics—and other VR companies, even those that haven't been sued themselves, are beginning to panic.

What's covered by the patent? Potentially, a lot of things: if you're considering making "an entertainment and/or educational experience" that a group of people can enjoy "through VR display devices such as a head mounted display," your idea's likely covered by this patent. The abstract references both live and pre-recorded content, as well as the possibility of controlling the action through handheld devices or voice commands; technically, pretty much any VR entertainment system could be seen as falling into territory covered by patent 6409599.

The "'599 patent" was originally framed as being for a theater entertainment system, but could potentially cover VR performances more generally.

The patent's life began in 2002, when it was originally assigned to the Missouri-based Ham On Rye Technologies, Inc, the creators of a virtual reality theater that got some press attention in the mid-90s. Yet in spite of that promising start, Ham On Rye doesn't seem to have been too invested in its patent: records show that through the first thirteen years of its existence, the patent lapsed twice, due to nonpayment of maintenance fees.

In late 2015, patent 6409599 became the property of another Missouri company, 3D Immersive Interactive Insights, LLC, who held for eight months before transferring control to the Texas-based Virtual Immersion Technologies this past August. Now that it's in control of the patent, Virtual Immersion Technologies seems determined to make use of it—if not by producing its own VR entertainment system, then at least by suing others who are creating their own.

VirtuaDolls and its peers are targets for patent trolling because sex-related startups rarely have enough funding to find a long legal battle

What's the fallout of all these legal action? VirtuaDolls and Girls of Arcadia, a crowdfunded VR porn game that raised over $100,000 this past spring, offers an example of just how panicked some members of the industry are.

In the weeks since Virtual Immersion Technologies began pursuing litigation, Eos Creative Group LLC has removed virtually all information from their crowdfunding campaign page ("VirtuaDolls Game Controller" is the only descriptive text remaining, and the VirtuaDolls name has been removed from the project title) and are refusing to comment publicly about the situation. (Backers who post comments and questions on the crowdfunding page are even admonished and instructed to communicate with the team via email only.)

None of which suggests a promising future for VirtuaDolls. But will the impact of this patent be felt beyond the shuttering of one crowdfunded VR porn game? It wouldn't be the first time that the sex industry has dealt with patent trolling: a handful of teledildonics and smart sex toy manufacturers got slapped with legal action last year.

This initial lawsuit has a few VR porn companies scared and trying to figure out what their next move should be. One executive who I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of legal retribution, told me that, prior to this lawsuit, he hadn't even been aware of the patent's existence. Since the lawsuit hit the press, his company has been trying to figure out what effect it might have on their future plans; another company reached for comment seemed similarly taken aback by the lawsuit news.

It's possible that the existing lawsuits are the only ones that will be filed, and that other VR porn projects will manage to remain under the radar, or at least legally license the patent and go about fulfilling our XXX VR dreams. But if Virtual Immersion Technologies is anything like TZU Technologies (holder of the aforementioned, and somewhat infamous, teledildonics patent, which has been responsible for more litigation than innovation), the current lawsuit could be just the beginning—and that could be a serious boner killer for anyone with fantasies of living out their fantasies in beautiful, immersive VR.

The Girls of Arcadia crowdfunding page has been stripped down following a patent lawsuit.

Last year, TZU Technologies went on a bit of a rampage, suing a number of companies it considered to be in violation of its patent (and killing at least one off in the process). It's worth noting that at least one company got TZU to back down from litigation. But tellingly, that company was Kickstarter, and not a small, sex-focused startup.

This points to one of the more troubling aspects of these legal shenanigans: companies like VirtuaDolls and their peers are excellent targets for patent trolling largely because, as small startups, they don't have the resources to see litigation through to its end point, and are far more likely to pay up (and, potentially, shut down).

It's telling that Virtual Immersion Technologies—which, given the patent's broad focus, could theoretically go after a wide range of VR entertainment companies—has chosen to target adult-oriented VR projects, produced by companies far less capable of defending themselves from litigation than, say, Facebook, or other large scale players in the VR market.

There are already a number of barriers that keep smart, innovative people from creating thoughtful XXX tech: between the stigma of working in the adult industry and the declining profits, it's harder and harder to make a case for taking the risk on porn-focused tech. If patent trolling becomes a going concern in the field, that could be one more thing that keeps smart people from creating hot fantasies for technophile pervs. And if that happens, the real losers will be us.