As a consultant, I tend to check the "help wanted" sites to look for new short-term gigs in 3D graphics (you know, to help finance my creative habits). In the process, I get a lot of raw "market intelligence" about which companies are hiring what kind of people. And lately, I’ve seen a notable increase in ads for people to work in porn. My filters are kind of broad (anything with the word 3D in it), and as such, I sometimes see ads like this:

New company developing an online adult multi-user world is in need of models for 3d characters with motion captured animations. Nudity is required to make the models because they are going to be anatomically correct, though once modeled, the motion capturing can be done in clothing. We are looking for male and female models of all types. After completion, those models we used will also receive a cd-rom with an Avatar(3d model) in their likeness. Please send photos(no more than 100K each) with dimensions and whatever personal information you feel comfortable disclosing(can be useful for character development)

I’ve seen a bunch like that lately, which says to me that relatively soon (6-18 months) , we’re going to see an explosion in virtual porn services–full-on massive multiplayer online (MMO) kind, with thousands of real people on the other end of the line meeting up for a bit of plug and play.

Now, the idea isn’t new. Textual worlds (MUDs, MUSHes, MOOs, etc..) had textual sex, chat rooms had chat sex. Oh, baby. Even evercrack had the most basic equivalent of sex for the virtually promiscuous. Well, it at least had the ability to get naked. The Sims has certainly made a fortune selling the tease, if not the act. But I have yet to see a MMO world that’s dedicated to sex. In fact, one might wonder where porn has been all this time. It usually leads the pack with making money off new media. What’s up, Hef?

Well, the issue for 3D worlds has and will continue to be content and quality. The avatar (body) creation tools in most on-line worlds are complex and the results are still fairly cartoonish (hence the help wanted ad above). Rendering realistic humans is still a very hard problem. Rendering them in ways that will make sex look realistic (or at least interesting) is even harder. If it takes studios like ILM and Pixar months to make an approximate human using 1000s of computers, imagine how hard it will be for a single PC to do the job.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are thousands of smart people working on the problem at this very moment, sitting in darkened rooms, hacking away at their keyboards, with the goal of making the most realistic virtual humans possible so that others can someday sit in darkened rooms, hacking away at their keyboards, to enjoy them.


PC Hardware companies like NVidia put out demos like Dawn, showing how good a virtual human can look (with a lot of effort). But doing virtual sex right is even harder.  Someone quickly figured out a way to make Dawn appear nude, and I’ll tell you, she didn’t look half as good naked–her breasts are totally lifeless.

Here’s a quick run-down of the "Hard Problems" in making virtual humans:

  • Skin — generally looks plastic — need to use special lighting functions that paint surfaces differently based on the angle, intensity, and color of incoming light.
  • Hair — flowing hair is very hard with millions of separate strands — note Dawn’s very short cut — need to use lots of computational horsepower or some very clever tricks to make hair look anywhere close to real.
  • Muscle — 3D models typically look stiff and lifeless — need to use biomechanical simulation of human body, muscle, skeleton, etc.. to control how the virtual actor moves and responds to external forces, and forces from its own chosen actions.
  • Soft tissue — doing that giggle and bounce is even harder in some ways — use a fluid dynamic simulation to compute the motion of fatty zones, but that’s very computationally expensive.
  • Voice — computerized voices sound computerized — many on-line games either stick to text or give players microphones. Voice isn’t nearly as much of a problem with shipping a CD rom, where you can employ voice talent and record it, but in a MMO, every character may be driven by a player, not an actor, and the action is totally unscripted.
  • Movement — most animation you see was either hand-crafted (by an animator or team thereof) or derived from the recorded motions of a real human actor/dancer in a "motion capture" session. For quality virtual porn, actors would need to move on their own, autonomously, and this requires an even better biomechanical simulation, one that takes objects and higher-level goals (like "grab the doorknob") in to account.
  • Collision detection. — just testing the physical collisions of skin against skin or clothing against skin is a daunting task.
  • Emotion — getting the face and body to be expressive is an even more subtle art than getting the muscles to bulge properly.
  • User Interface and AI — use a mouse to control 600 independent movable parts? No way. You need some sort of AI to figure out what the user wants his or her avatar to do. And you need some better way of mapping the damn 2D mouse to a virtual 3D world.

Do any of these wrong, and your virtual sex looks no better than Barbie and Ken doing the plastic nasty in the back seat of their corvette. The good news (or bad, depending on your perspective) is that porn companies won’t care. People get turned on by all sorts of things and people’s imaginations can and will fill for the most glaring technical errors. They will find their users, just as they found people willing to watch "porn" that consisted of a webcam uploading a new picture every 30 seconds.

But as virtual porn gets more and more realistic, people will get more and more picky about the details. A cartoon character is, in many ways, more believable (as in, we can suspend our disbelief, or natural tendency to pick things apart) than something that’s 99% human. When it’s almost perfect, those slightly unfocused eyes, or the slightly unnatural walk tend to make our brains work overtime trying to figure out what’s wrong with this picture. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the initial virtual porn sites look intentionally cartoonish, less for style and more as a simple way to have 3D without requiring a solution to all the problems I mentioned.

You can tell I’ve thought about this. So far, I personally haven’t dealt with any companies doing virtual porn, not so much because I think porn is evil, but mostly because the people I’ve met in that business (the money people, anyway) have been slimy. And personally, though I might have some good ideas on how to build a MMO world, porn or otherwise, I don’t see myself telling my friends (and kids, down the road) that’s how I made my money.

On the other hand, this might be the best thing that happened to porn in a long time. For one thing, apart from the models who have their bodies copied, no one is getting exploited–at least no one is getting paid to have sex. It’s pretty safe, barring lightning storms. It’s certainly very private, as long as no one is snooping on you. And it’s probably not any more isolating than watching a video alone with the lights off.

Not that porn need be so isolating, but my impression is that it often is. Multi-participant porn may be more social, in that you’d spend at least part of the time talking (or negotiating) with other players. But how couples who watch porn together will adapt to a MMO is anyone’s guess. If it follows the model of the home computer, then a couple may go to two separate computers.

And there are all sorts of other concerns for the casual player. Just who are you having sex with? It’d better be an adult, or someone’s going to get raided. What happens when Joe Homophobic finds out the virtual woman he banged last night on his PC is really a man playing a woman? Like that’s not going to happen in the first 20 seconds. What happens when someone wants to customize an avatar to be the virtual image Madonna without her permission? Well, maybe that’s a bad example.

The thing I like about virtual worlds is they offer an opportunity to explore aspects of our creativity that are unlimited by physical reality. Even though I’ve worked on MMOs that try to be ultra-realistic, I honestly don’t play those. I like my first life well enough and I find the restrictions not worth the hassle. People in general seem to prefer escapism, fantasy, and way out there explorations.

The analog for the virtual sex worlds will be the ability to do things that are so wild and impossible, they may be illegal to act on, and even illegal to express (as virtual child porn has already been ruled illegal at least once). Beyond the obvious, people will want to experiment with all sorts of new and old fetishes, body transformations, multiple orifices, and so on, that the result will be hard to call human. How much the early pay services allow or encourage that remains to be seen, but someone will go there eventually (and probably way before anyone ships the $100 adapter that adds a realistic sense of touch).

And that begs the age-old question of whether acting something out virtually makes you more or less likely to act it out in real life. I don’t know the answer, if there even is one answer for both kids and adults and ages in between. Does watching porn cause people to fetishize "porn-style" acts over more natural sex? Does the fact that a male avatar can hump for an hour before climax (or climax twenty times) impact the user’s own real-life sexual experiences? That’s one for the sexologists to debate. But if it’s even partially true, then having all sorts of new fetishes to explore and all sorts of non-physical constraints will certainly keep the Ph.Ds churning for years to come. And if people are now complaining that surfing the internet for porn can be addictive, just wait till the immersive version arrives.

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