Oculus held their second annual developers conference earlier this week and had many exciting announcements. Among the shiny new toys promising a bright future in virtual reality was a lot of talk about social connection; not surprising considering the company is owned by Facebook. The executives at Oculus were vehement about their goal of creating a VR environment and devices where people could connect and be social like never before. And with Oculus Touch, the ideal future is one where the device can trick the user's brain into "feeling" the environment and the people around them, in spite of the people being simple avatars made up of light and pixels.
Oculus compatible companies like VirtualRealPorn (link NSFW) have already sprung up to provide a new kind of porn viewing experience using pre-recorded videos. The website boasts "the most immersive VR porn," with "180 degrees of freedom filmed in true Stereoscopic 3D to feel like you were there." Head Tracking allows users wearing a VR headset to move their head in all directions to see everything going on around them and 360 degree sound completes the illusion for total immersion. The company has even partnered with Lovense (link NSFW) for integrated toys for men and women to provide that final sense of actual touch.
BaDoinkVR (NSFW) is another porn company that offers a similar experience with pre-recorded video. And BaDoink also offers a free set of cardboard goggles to house a smartphone for viewing "virtual reality" videos. The company recently took to the streets of San Francisco with an Oculus Gear VR headset and smartphone loaded up with their videos and got some interesting reactions from people watching VR porn for the first time (no porn footage is actually shown but the people are talking about what they are seeing).
But what happens when it's a person on the other side of the goggles and not just a video? Virtual dating is not a new concept. Adventure games like Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft, are the perfect environment for people with the same interests to meet, fall in love and even marry. Sure, the dates may be a bit more unconventional; instead of dinner and a movie, it could be running a 20-man (or woman) dungeon. Some couples even hold in-game weddings when they decide to tie the knot in real life.
The online game, Second Life, is filled with players who date and, with the use of in-world animations, have sex in the various user-created virtual worlds. Couples can explore and go to nightclubs for an evening of dancing, sit in a café in Paris or explore another planet if they so choose. They can also sexually experiment with endless roleplaying possibilities and be vampires, werewolves or tentacled aliens, all from the safety and anonymity of their home and keyboard. With the use of traditional headsets and microphones, players can even talk to each other as they interact. But the Second Life environment still lacks the illusion of tactile interaction and sexual encounters amount to an elaborate form of phone sex or "pixel-bumping" with avatars. However, Linden Lab, the tech company behind Second Life, has announced SL will be compatible with Oculus Rift.
Linden Lab is also hard at work on a game codenamed Project Sansar specifically for VR. The game would allow creators to build virtual worlds like in Second Life but far more immersive. They recently held their first closed beta, inviting only a few of SL's veteran creators to test out the platform. An open beta is expected to launch with the release of Oculus Rift in early 2016.And with the advancement in technology Oculus is promising, it could completely change the landscape of online dating and sex.
Imagine logging into a virtual environment. You can hear the chatter of other people around you, the soft clinking of glass as they drink Romulan ale...and then you lock eyes with someone across the crowded Ten Forward. You smile and they smile back and your heart skips a beat. They approach your table and you shake hands. You can actually "feel" their hand on yours; you can feel their skin because your brain is telling you it's real. But the person making your heart quicken is in a room thousands of miles away, wearing a headset like yours and experiencing the same illusion.
What are the emotional and societal ramifications of such an intense virtual experience? Maria Schultheis, a psychologist and professor at Drexel University who uses VR to work with stroke patients that have traumatic brain injuries told Think Progress, "A more benign effect [could be] reinforcing positive behaviors or making [the experience] so positive that they develop a preference for the virtual world rather than the real world. In adding all of the things that they would get out in the real world [through virtual reality], you’re giving them less of a reason to go out and experience them." But how "benign" is adding to the already rampant anti-social behavior that permeates our society? We already see a generation of people who would rather text than call because they can't be bothered to actively listen to another human. So, what happens when the one thing that requires the presence of another human (sexual intercourse) can be satisfied through virtual reality? Will it make us lose touch with each other even more?
One could even make the argument that VR could encourage violent behavior towards other players or a place to harbor pedophilia, using the excuse, "This isn't really real." And yes, there absolutely is that risk because there are awful people in the world. But with the evolution of technology, you have to take the good with the bad.
In spite of any possible dangers, Schultheis argues, "Virtual reality can allow you to share experiences in a way that tech now doesn’t allow, and that’s what brings humans together — sharing experiences."And in the world of sex and dating, VR could give people a way to find each other and be together that might otherwise not be possible. It could open up a safe place to explore fantasies with others that one might be too shy to explore in the real world. VR could let you go on a date on Mars or in Westeros (because who doesn't want to visit Winterfell at least once?). Why not have tea at Pemberley with Mr. Darcy or do the deed on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo? Why not travel back in time for a date at a speak easy in the roaring 20's or leap forward 100 years to someone's version of cyberpunk New York? Why not go wherever your imagination can take you and meet someone along the way?