After VR success last year, porn producer Naughty America is now targeting phones and tablets for an AR app it claims isn't porn at all. So what is it?
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Two years ago, Naughty America made waves at
with its debut of
porn -- or, to be specific, 180-degree 3D videos viewable on VR headsets. Riding the coattails of upcoming VR hardware like
, it was a return to the risque days when CES overlapped with the adult-themed AVN (Adult Video News) show, making an awkward mix of adult entertainment and tech.
This year, Naughty America lurked in a smaller closed-off demo space at the back of one of the busiest halls. Much like other years, a variety of 3D 180-degree videos were being shown on
headsets. The videos are better-made, produced with smaller, higher-quality cameras. But the general idea's the same.
What's different is the company's next experiment in AR, a move hinted at a year ago when I last met Ian Paul, CIO of Naughty America. This year, he has a demo ready. "Lower your expectations; it's the very first prototype we've made," he says.
It's not what I expect.
He shows me an app on an
. I see a dancer in the middle of the booth, clothed, twisting and posing. It's a 3D render, not a video or a scan. It's not up close, or in my face. Instead, the dancer's at a distance, oddly removed.
It's a demo made with ARKit,
tool for enabling
in realistic 3D on
. The app, Paul says, will be submitted to the
App Store soon, and it doesn't have any X-rated content, it's just models of adult video stars, clothed, as if they're standing in the room with you. It's not much different than existing AR apps like Holo, which places celebrity impersonators in your home for AR photo opps.
The demo of the dancer is weirdly realistic (Paul says the company tried 3D scans from actual photos, but they didn't look as good). Occasionally, people passing by break the illusion, walking through the dancer, but in general it seems effective. But to what end? The most unusual part of this AR app is that it's aiming away from adult entertainment and pornography to something more acceptable to a greater range of people, as if Naughty America could somehow be a brand beyond porn.
"We're not calling this AR porn," Paul says. "And there's a reason: We're trying to get in the app stores." He admits the company hasn't had success here before, and has no idea if this will work either. In that sense, it feels like a stunt as much as an actual initiative.
Is this all happening because VR has hit a wall? Is the company looking for more ways to reach out? Paul admitted that VR use, based on what he's observed, is flat, and Naughty America is "limited by adoption as a whole."
Still, 25 to 40 percent of the user base is using VR, so even if it is niche, it's "the biggest niche since MILF." Oculus Rift owners are the biggest audience, closely followed by Samsung Gear VR.
AR on a phone is easier to use, and more devices already work with augmented reality. After a disappointing couple of years of VR hardware sales, this isn't a surprising direction. There's something of a showman's attitude to adult video companies that makes me feel like what's being touted is half-real, half-publicity stunt.
But there are trends that have proven prophetic: Naughty America's belief in 3D 180-degree video over 360 seems to be mirrored by the recent Lenovo Mirage Camera, which in turn works with YouTube's new 180-degree 3D video format. "Every once in a while we do tend to influence things, and that might be one of the places," says Paul.
Watch this: My conversation with Harmony the sexbot
Identity and empathy in VR: Still a project
The company's also making its own female POV videos in VR, too, and here lies a deeper (maybe even thornier) question for adult companies looking to explore avatars going forward. Other companies have already explored the idea of videos shot from non-male heterosexual perspectives. I only tried one brief demo on a Samsung Gear VR, while standing over a small table with headphones on. It was quick, and it made me realize POV in VR changes everything.
I was mostly staring at a man's chest hair pressed into my face as I was lying down, pinned underneath; I commented to Paul that it felt more like I was trapped. Were videos like these meant to create a sense of empathy? He nodded and admitted that topics like empathy had been brought up before -- but it's complicated. More so than I realized.
Paul told me Naughty America was approached by a prominent university professor, who actively works with prisons (he didn't specify what type) on correctional treatments, about the idea of exploring treating sex offenders with VR. But Paul refused.
"Despite his offer of non-disclosure, Naughty America only creates portrayals of consensual sex between adults. That is our most fundamental principle. This was too much like 'Clockwork Orange.'"
A future of avatars (maybe)
While AR apps on phones can be impressive at first, my experience with them tends to be that they're short-lived novelties. Is AR the new hot thing after VR for adult entertainment… or just the latest trick at a tech show full of illusions?
If the demo is any indication, it seems more like an advertisement than an immersive experience. Like a tablet-based version of the holographic dancers on the streets of "Blade Runner 2049."
It's not really interactive but, as Paul says, it's an experiment. It's not something that lives on mixed-reality smartglasses, because those don't really exist yet.
But it's definitely a play toward virtual avatars. "Once we create these avatars, we can use them not only in AR, but in VR situations as well," Paul says. He refers to the recent VRChat phenomenon, saying it confirms Naughty America's entry into that area. By creating the avatars, he says, "we can become agents for these performers in virtual worlds."
"Maybe someday there will be a Naughty America you can walk around in in virtual space, we'll see, but this is the beginning."