Ela Darling On The Future Of Virtual Reality Porn: The Autostraddle Interview

Self-described “ladies’ porn star” Ela Darling is what you might call the thinking woman’s adult performer. A former librarian, unabashed Harry Potter nerd and Comic-Con enthusiast, Darling is also an active member of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (and the kind of lady who’ll don an R2-D2 swimsuit for a masturbation scene). It’s no surprise to find Ela at the forefront of the next frontier for pornography: virtual reality. With the aid of a college-aged business partner (very Weird Science), Darling launched VR Tube this past week. Even in its infancy, VR Tube is a huge step forwards for the industry — embracing new technology to completely change what pornography can look and feel like.

I may not be the most technologically-inclined human being on Autostraddle staff, but Ela was kind enough to walk me through the virtual world she’s created. In mankind’s endless quest for knowledge, there is boundless potential for new methods of creating porn. The future is now.

NSFW lalalalala

NSFW lalalalala

What’s goin on?

Everythinggg… everything is going on.

So I’ve been reading a lot about this and I’ve been reading all the articles you’ve been posting and I still have no idea how virtual reality works.

(Laughs) That’s OK.

Can you tell me about how you got involved with this whole thing?

Last spring, these dudes flew me out to Maryland to shoot some porno, and they had mentioned it, and I saw it and I was like, “Omigod, dibs! Can I be your model?! I wanna do it!” I’ve always been interested in it. So they flew me out… and I met the person who is now my business partner at the train station. I almost asked for his ID, because he was 20 and he… looked like a 20-year-old. So I met him and we went to his fucking dorm room and shot a couple of demos on the very first camera rig, which was like, two GoPros tied together. They were really impressed in the work that I did, my insight and the stuff that I could help them with. Last summer they offered me part of the company, and by the end of the summer the CEO and I were equal partners and working on it together.

Were you like, at all skeeved out, just going out to Maryland to meet some random kids?

I was a little weirded out, but one of my best friends lives in DC, so I was like, “If you guys pay for my flight, and you pay me to do solos, then yeah, of course!” It was basically a free trip to see my friend. Really, it wasn’t any skeevier than being flown out to work with anybody else.. Except they weren’t vetted, I didn’t have anybody they had worked with. We met in a public place, and then when I saw him, he’s this baby-faced 20-year-old sweetheart genius boy, and I was like, “Oh, that’s fine.”

What’s he going to school for?

Quantum physics.

Of course. What drew you to wanting to work on virtual reality?

I’ve been interested in virtual reality since I was a kid — Virtual Boy and TRON and all the cool sci-fi shit. I like the immersion, how you can create an entire world that you can lose yourself in. I’m really into books. I’ve never really had a lot of time for movies; I have to watch movies in like three parts — but with this, you’re just immersed in it. There are no distractions, you’re just in it. It’s awesome. Of course, ever since I’ve started doing porn, any time I think of anything, it’s like, “How can I fuck someone with this? Or how can I let people watch me fuck someone with this?”

So you need an oculus rift to view this properly, right? You can watch it on your computer but you don’t get the full experience?

Exactly; you can see it on your computer but it’s not really the same thing. Well, what we’re doing is creating a 3D visually-rendered environment in a program called Unity. In Unity, you can make a room — now it’s a lot more complicated than this, there’s a lot more math and computer-y science-y shit, but I would liken it to building a room in the Sims. You construct the walls, you can put skins on the walls, you can create elements to create furniture — you can actually buy pre-fabricated digital furniture and stuff like that. You place it in the room that you’re building, and then… that’s a 3D-rendered environment! Usually it’s used for like, building a game, but we’re using it to just build a space. When you download our viewer, you download the environment, the room — it’s like a bedroom. What we’re doing is shooting girls on a Microsoft Kinect, and we’re basically just isolating the model. We’re cutting out the background, foreground, everything. It’s just a hovering image of the woman doing whatever she’s doing. We place that image, the hologram onto this 3D-rendered environment, on the bed.

Hologram Lotus Lain

Hologram Lotus Lain

So when you load up the player, you’re in this 3D bedroom and you can look up, down, everywhere. You can move around, you can walk forwards. There’s also positional tracking so you can move your head around.

You can look at different angles, different stuff?

Yeah. It’s really cool. So right now we’re talking about 180 degrees of capturing the women. We’re waiting for some software upgrades to be able to incorporate multiple angles of cameras. It’s been almost a year since I first met the guys and it’s been awesome. We’ve gone through a couple of different iterations of camera rigs and we finally settled on using the Kinect and we’re really excited about it. It’s really fucking cool, man. When you’re here, I’d really like to show you.

Yeah, I’d love to see it! You were telling me earlier about how you like, duct taped cameras together?

Yeah, the first one. It was like if you took some scrap wood and made a little box thing that the cameras could fit in and then we duct taped the cameras together? And then I had this little digital camera from 2004 and I duct taped that to the back of this rig to use the tripod mount. It’s a whole camera taped to this thing for the sake of the tripod mount on the bottom. It’s super janky; it’s kind of adorable. We progressed to a 360 degree mount with 12 GoPros but we just weren’t happy with the quality or the way the experience was turning out. You had to be too far away from where the cameras to achieve stereoscopic view, basically. Do you know what that means, stereoscopic?

No, not really.

It’s like when you have two cameras side by side? It’s supposed to mimic the distance between your eyes.

So it’s a more realistic experience when you’re looking at it?

Yeah, that’s why we use the Kinect, which is stereoscopic. We shot Lotus Lain and Arabelle Raphael — do you know Arabelle?

I don’t know her but I feel like we have a lot of friends in common.

Oh my god, you would fucking love each other.

How have you chosen the people that you’ve worked with? Has it just been friends or..?

Yeah, just my friends or people who’ve expressed interest. I shot a couple of other people but the files didn’t work out. I shot Sinn Sage, who’s one of my best friends and unfortunately the audio got corrupt. I shot a girl named Aimee Black and the audio got corrupt on that one also. There’s been a few hitches but it’s going pretty well. It’s girls I’ve met on set or worked with, but largely it’s my friends.

Where do you want to take this from here? Where do you want it to go?

I would love for it to be more interactive. I would love for it to be set up so your movement could guide different narratives, like if you’re doing an adventure and you look over to the left, then she’ll spank her ass. If you look over to the right, she’ll use that dildo that you’re looking at. That would be cool; I don’t know how close we are to that. My business partner would know more about that. I’d love to incorporate haptics, but that’s a ways off.

What is that?

Haptics? It’s touch sensation. So you’d have something on your hand and it would react, so it would give you the sensation of touching.

Have you ever seen that episode of the X Files where the chick uploads herself to the internet…?

(Laughing) YES!

That’s what this all sounds like to me.

Yeah, that was kind of a little bit of maybe-inspiration, but if I say that to people they kind of think I’m a weirdo.

I remember being like 11 and seeing that and thinking, “I want that life.”

Wouldn’t that be the fucking coolest?! We’re making it happen!

You’re basically doing that, but in a sexy way..?

Yeah, yeah.

I guess I’m still just trying to picture what it’s actually like. A bunch of our writers went to the Lesbians Who Tech conference in San Francisco and some of them got to play with the Oculus — it looks kind of amazing and terrifying.

Yeah, there are some scary games, horror mazes where monsters jump out at you and I fucking cannot. I’ll do it and I’ll try it and as soon as a creepy zombie jumps out and tries fucking my skull, I’m just done. Like, if you look at it, it’s not the greatest quality. You’d find much greater quality on the Xbox One, but it’s the immersive quality — that pushes everything over the top. Everywhere you look, you’re in the game, and it’s creepy. It’s scary as fuck.

It’s not like when you’re at a 3D movie or something and you can just close your eyes and remember you’re in a room with a bunch of other people, huh?

One of the buzzwords or phrases that people throw around a lot is “breaking of frame.” When you watch TV, when you watch a movie, there’s a frame. When you go to the movie theatre, there’s a screen, but it’s framed by reality. In this, there are no frames. You’re within.

So do you think eventually people are just never gonna leave this..?

Eventually… I mean, eventually the entire human race will die out.

But do you think in the future people will just kind of live in there, in the virtual world?

I don’t think so. I mean, I think people will live in it as much as we live in any aspect of entertainment. You can lose yourself for 12 hours watching House of Cards on Netflix. You can lose yourself for several hours watching VR porn, but eventually you gotta keep the lights on, you know?

Virtual Ela

Hologram Ela picked out these virtual pillowcases just for you.

What do you think this means for the future of porn? This is a really vague question.

Well, it’s a whole new avenue of porn. It’s a completely different narration style. The story-telling is really different. The capture style is different. Everything is a little different. It’s going to take a lot of adjusting for people who have been doing porn for a long time, with a very traditional film background. I think having a technical film background would actually behoove you here. At least for now, the files are really, really big and it’s kind of hard to pirate.

Yeah, I was gonna say, I was just downloading the demo and it’s like three and a half gig.

Yeah, they’re big. It’s all big. But as computing progresses as well, the speed and everything… I think it could be the next golden age of porn. It depends. The oculus is supposed to come out in the spring… They haven’t made any big announcements exactly when, but there are so many VR headsets being created right now and being marketed — there’s a really big market. If people have a way to view entertainment, they’re going to want to jerk off with it.

I think one of the first things I ever heard about Google Glass was that friends of mine trying to make porn with it.

Oh, yeah.

How could you see cam girls using virtual reality?

So it would be really cool to be able to stream that capture — the issue is that the files as you know are fucking huge. I think it’s a little ways off, but nothing is too far off when it comes to technology.

Is anyone else doing virtual reality porn?

There are some other ones, but nobody’s really doing it the way that we are. A lot of the other ones have spent a fuckload of money getting to where they are… We spent time and research, but we really haven’t spent that much money. It’s actually a pretty low-cost project, especially compared to some of the others. I think the fact that I’m a performer and I’ve been in the industry for a while helps, because people trust my name, recognize my name.

Also, feelings about porn are starting to become a little more ethically-based. In the past year or so, I’ve gotten a lot more questions like, “Is it ethical? Are the girls safe? How do I know if the porn that I’m consuming is actually fair? How do I know if they’re actually paying the girls right? Are tube sites basically like Spotify or is it stealing?” People kind of give a shit, and I feel like having a female performer at the forefront of it assures people that if there’s a female performer behind it, then the female performers are fine; they’re taken care of, it’s ethical, it’s safe, it’s fine. All the girls that work for me, I either compensate them in cash, whatever they consider to be their fair solo rate, or I do a trade shoot with them so they get content for their own site. That allows them to flourish, and it gives them equity for their own site, and it helps them. When it comes to porn, we get paid a day rate, you know? I’ll go to work, I get paid a lot of money, but it’s a one-time thing, and then the companies are profiting wildly off of that. I like being able to trade with women because they’re getting something that they can profit wildly off of too. They can make money off of it in perpetuity.

The thing that was really surprising for me when I moved to LA and started meeting people like you and April (Flores) and other people in the porn industry was how strong the community between performers really is. It’s really cool!

Yeah, I really like it. When I did fashion modeling, like runway and stuff, they’re just so adversarial. The women weren’t very supportive of each other for the most part, or they were very cliquey — and then the cliques would be supportive of each other as long as it was helpful to them, and there were a lot of nasty attitudes. I really don’t find that in porn. Of course there’s going to be sometimes, but there’s a really big community and there’s a lot of mutual support. I’m on the board of APAC (the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee) and that I think they’re doing wonders for bringing performers together for the common good. I’m the secretary; I was elected secretary last summer, and it’s been really great.

I think it’s really important for performers to have representation, and come together to amplify our voice. There’s an organization for agents, there’s an organization for producers — there needs to be something for performers. It’s taken a long time to get here. Others have tried to create something similar and it just hasn’t really taken hold, so I’m very proud of APAC for the longevity that we’ve achieved and the work that we’ve done and are doing. The stuff we’re doing behind the scenes on behalf of the industry is something I take great pride in.

Stef Schwartz is a founding member and the self-appointed Vapid Fluff Editor at Autostraddle.com. She currently resides in New York City, where she spends her days writing songs nobody will ever hear and her nights telling much more successful musicians what to do. Follow her on twitter and/or instagram.

Stef has written 428 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I have an oculus DK2 and I won’t even lie. The porn that is out there for it is.. pretty damn weird to view but it is also a totally different experience from just watching it in 2D. I am SO thrilled with this article because the great majority of it out current is (of course) aimed at straight males and it shows.
    The tech has a lot of room for growth and for now I find it more fun for things like VR games and some flying around simulators than porn simply due to the bulky headset and the limited stuff that’s available.
    I would adore finding more queer porn from folks like Courtney Trouble or Chelsea Poe in this format but it is still REALLY early to see that kinda stuff from a non-dedicated group. Thank you so much for this article Stef. 🙂

  2. As a Sims enthusiast and an immersive theatre-goer and a sexuality educator, I’m so into this interview! Kind of super mind-bending to imagine what this kind of VR tech could grow into…

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