CARTAGENA, Colombia—Ten minutes after we left the restaurant together, I found myself back in Ela Darling's bedroom, looking sheepishly at the posters on her wall as she kneeled on her bed and purred at me in her underwear.
I smiled politely to acknowledge her advances, but was mostly interested in having a quick look around her bedroom— at the Boba Fett poster on the wall, the skulls arranged on her bookcase, and the mannequin in a gas mask that looked like something out of a Roger Waters' nightmare.
Then suddenly some dude I hadn't noticed put his hand on my shoulder and pushed past me, snapping me out of my virtual reality world and back into the crowded convention hall hosting the Latin America Adult Business Expo.
"What'd you think?" Darling, now fully dressed, asked me as I handed the VR headset back to her. "Did I take your VRginity?"
I had only experienced Darling's VR camming demo on a smartphone snapped into a headset, but the image was good enough to make me feel like our relationship had advanced quicker than I had expected—certainly quicker than my wife would appreciate. I'm told the VR camming experience viewed through an Oculus Rift is truly transportive.
Darling, a pioneer in the VR porn industry, thinks VR camming is going to be a game changer. And I can see why. VR camming shortens the distance between the viewer and the model and dramatically enhances the intimacy of regular camming. The difference between 2D camming and 3D VR is like watching somebody get naked on Skype versus getting a private table dance in the backroom of a strip club. In both instances you can interact with the person in front of you, but in the VR world you're in with both feet, out of your comfort zone, and fully along for the ride.
The intimacy of VR camming is reciprocal. Darling says camming to a VR audience is different because clients are "entirely immersed in a world that I crafted for them to experience." So even when viewers are not looking the model directly in the eyes, they're still looking at something the model has created for them to see in her fantasy realm. Viewers can't help but give their full, undivided bandwidth to the immersive experience.
Camming in 2D is like having a "conversation with someone while they're staring off into space or checking their phone," Darling says, while VR camming is like "having a conversation with someone who is looking you directly in the eyes."
The biggest limitation to VR camming at this point is user adoption of technology. But once the headsets become standard issue with video game consoles, VR camming will be set for take off, Darling predicts.
"At first people didn't believe in VR —they thought it was a gimmick, and condescendingly wished us good luck. But over the course of two years, I've had a lot of people who originally turned their nose up at it come back to me asking for advice or help to start doing it," Darling told me. "It's already become deeply rooted in the adult industry, and now we're starting to get into live cams."
Darling is a librarian-turned-porn-star-turned-business-woman who is now a leading VR evangelist and pioneer in the world of digital sex work. Last May she partnered with Canadian company Cam4 to start the first 360-degree, 3D VR livecam experience.
But they're not alone. Other companies are already nipping at their heels.
Swiss company AliceX just teamed up with Colombia's largest webcam studio, AJ Studios, to launch what will soon become the second VR cam site, scheduled to go live on Aug. 22.
AliceX says it will have five models streaming 24/7 in front of green screens using a proprietary technology that took 14 coders more than a year to build.
"The rest of the pipeline is secret, so I can't tell you too much about it," AliceX CEO Fabian Grey told me.
VR camming people are cagey like that. There aren't many of them in the business, so they all like to keep their technology and trade secrets close to the chest.
Darling is also protective of her proprietary camera technology, which is patent-pending. Instead of using a green screen, Darling streams live video onto a pre-recorded 360-degree, 3D capture of the models' bedrooms. That's why I was able to turn in a full circle and have a look at the creepy mannequin on the bureau behind me, as easily as if I were sitting in swivel chair at the foot of her bed.
Darling says she decided against using a green screen because not enough people have VR headsets yet to make it totally viable for cam models to switch exclusively to VR. Models need scale to profit from a business based on tips from loyal customers; so a popular camgirl who pulls 2,000 viewers to her shows isn't going to want to betray that intimacy with her audience by switching to green screen backdrop that benefits only a handful of VR viewers.
But by using a video capture background, Darling's viewer experience also works in 2D.
"In order for a performer to be successful, they need to be able to cam to 2D clients as well," Darling says. "They need to be able to cater to existing clients who have already supported them. And in order to do that, we had to ditch the green screen."
Also, Darling says, green screen does weird things to her green eyes.
"Sometimes when my eyes were a certain shade, they would disappear on green screen, so I would look like a demon beast from a hellscape dimension, which is totally my boner, but not everyone's. So that was an issue."
In a way, VR camming is evolving faster than it's growing. Though the technology hasn't quite become mainstream yet, it's leaping ahead without waiting for users to catch up. Early adopters are already experimenting with new teledildonic technologies and trying to figure out ways to integrate next gen haptic gloves and suits that use air pressure to simulate touch.
Darling thinks the full sensory VR immersive experience is still a few years off, but it could eventually revolutionize the way some people experience intimacy.
She's not so starry-eyed to think that VR camming will someday become the future of sex, but Darling does think that it will "supplement sex" by "changing the way that people have sex and giving them new ways to experience sex with a partner."
More importantly, Darling hopes VR camming can provide some people with a measure of intimacy to combat loneliness.
"I think there are lonely people who don't have access to romantic relationships for whatever reason and who will find a lot of value in this. This could be the next step in terms of fighting loneliness, which we know can have serious physiological effects on people," Darling says. "It's about establishing a reciprocal relationship with another human being and actually feeling like you are in a space with them, and that is the key aspect of this."
Alice X's Gray agrees that VR is natural evolution for camming because it enhances a digital sex experience that is already intimate and interactive by design. But it's not something that's meant to replace sex the old fashion way.
"I think VR will enhance the experience of pornography, but I don't think it will be the future of sex. People still want the real deal and experience sex with all senses," Gray said.
Many people will also remain traditionalists when it comes to porn, Darling says. VR camming will be a growing niche market that pushes the limits of technology, but it won't ever fully replace low-tech "me time."
"There will always be people who want to watch good old fashion porno, and people who still buy porno mags," Darling says. "People still like to jerk off the way they grew up jerking off."