The Oculus Rift and virtual reality sex

Every Tuesday Andy straps on the Oculus Rift and dives headfirst into the world of virtual reality in the Rift Report. Is it really the future of PC gaming? Let's find out.

Now that I have your attention, let's talk about the dirty elephant in the room: sex games. As long as the concept of virtual reality has existed, people have been fascinated by the pornographic possibilities of the technology. Now, thanks to the Oculus Rift and accessible 3D dev tools like Unity and Unreal, those wet dreams are coming true. Sure, the Rift can whisk you away to fantastical worlds, but some people would rather just toss themselves dry to digitised filth. So it's no surprise that a number of adult games developed for the headset have appeared online, which I've bravely decided to test.

The first game on our appalling menu is Sexy Space Adventure, in which you play as a starship captain who has sex with women, in space. Looking down I notice that my avatar is sporting an erect penis, and in front of me a naked woman is wandering around the room, occasionally bumping into walls. Galaxies and nebulas spin past a window reminding me that I'm in space. The character models are horrifying: the woman has empty, staring eyes and a nest of mad hair in need of some serious anti-aliasing. She's like something Silent Hill would conjure up. Worse still, she speaks in an eerie Stephen Hawking-style machine-generated voice. “Yeah, baby.” she drones emotionlessly.

I jab at the number keys to swap between various sexual positions, jerking the mouse back and forth to thrust my terrible virtual groin, but there's no collision detection and I go straight through her. Then she inexplicably slides along the floor, leaving me stupidly humping the air. Somehow I detach the camera and have a surreal out of body experience where I watch myself lying face down on the floor as my glitched partner rotates slowly in the opposite corner of the room. I'm feeling decidedly unsexy, especially when I clip through her face mid-coitus and see two giant eyeballs floating in front of me. Sexy Space Adventure? More like Lynchian Sex Nightmare.

Next we have Bathroom, which sees you wandering around, surprise, a bathroom as a woman who looks suspiciously like Lara Croft 'entertains' herself in the bath. By which I mean she's masturbating. Sexy Space Adventure was rubbish, but at least it was funny. This is just weird, and interaction is limited to circling the bath like a horny buzzard as she cycles through a handful of robotic fiddling animations. To be fair, the character model is pretty good, but there's something wrong with the proportions and she looks like a giant. I don't think much of the bathroom's decor either.

Similarly limited in scope is VR Titties, which is about as artfully subtle as its name suggests. Here you stand motionless as a purple-haired anime lady fellates you in a Satanic sex dungeon. Continuing the trend of this week's column, it's more creepy than sexy. Occasionally she takes a break from her slurping and looks up at you with a cold, lifeless gaze. It's actually quite chilling, which is an emotion I rarely associate with sexual arousal. In the background another woman dances listlessly in a cage with her top off, and I wonder if anyone would ever find this more arousing than just watching normal porn. You do get the sensation of 'being' there, like in any Rift game, but you'll need a doctorate in disbelief suspension to see these uncanny virtual sex dolls as being even vaguely real.

Then there's Lucid Dreams. Unlike the rest of the low-rent grot I've looked at so far, this is actually genuinely impressive. It transports you to an empty white void, in the centre of which is a row of, yes, naked women. They're staggeringly detailed—3D scans of real people with 8k resolution textures—and I don't think I've ever seen a computer render such realistic human beings before. Get in close and you can see folds in the skin, blemishes, moles, and other imperfections. If you're the kind of person who reads Playboy 'for the articles', you could argue that this isn't pornography, but rather a demo for the body scanning technology. But the way the models are posed makes it clear that it is, at least in part, designed to arouse. You can see for yourself here.

The website of Veiviev Limited, the company behind Lucid Dreams, reads like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel: “We are at the cutting edge of digital and analogue human replication,” they say. “Our goal is to create more enjoyable and pleasurable artificial liaisons.” They've certainly nailed the models, but will they be able to animate them with the same level of realism? We're so naturally tuned to how other humans move that it won't take much to send those women tumbling into the uncanny valley. “We're working on movements,” they replied to a commenter on their website. “Bear in mind that this costs a lot of money. We don't have a budget like The Last of Us, so they will take time to implement. Everything is self-funded at the moment.”

Unsurprisingly, all of these demos are from the male perspective. I did find a website that sells head tracking-enabled porn offering videos from a female point of view, but that's about as progressive as VR smut gets at this early stage of its existence. Still, it's a steadily growing subculture of indie Rift development, and it'll undoubtedly get more 'sophisticated' – especially when combined with technology like FriXion, which uses something called 'haptic telepresence' to let you interact with peoples' genitals over the internet. Personally, I find the whole concept of virtual sex a bit sinister. Some may like the idea of a future where human intimacy is no longer shackled by the need for physical contact, but all I see are millions of sallow men sitting in dark rooms with their mouths hanging open, plastic boxes strapped to their heads, and their hands down their pants.

One thing that could jeopardise Rift's future as a platform for explicit content is the recent Facebook buyout. The reason these tawdry sex games can exist is because anyone can make a game for it. You don't need a licence or any special Oculus software: just a program like Unity. If the social media giant makes the Rift closed and moderated like iOS, these games would have to go through an approval process. Zuckerberg has said that, beyond games, Rift will become a platform for “new kinds of experiences” like having “courtside seat at a game”, but I doubt he had Sexy Space Adventure in mind. Facebook are notoriously strict with adult content, deleting even partial nudity from peoples' profiles, so it's reasonable to expect this will extend to the Rift if its openness is affected.

More optimistically, VR could be a way for people in long distance relationships to communicate more intimately than in a Skype call. BeAnotherLab's Gender Swap experiment, which uses cameras mounted on the Rift headset to let you 'see' through the eyes of another person, could also have interesting applications for couples. There are doubtless many imaginative, positive ways to fuse virtual reality, technology, and sex waiting to be discovered, but there'll always be the grubby, sticky-fingered side too. You can expect a lot more examples of seedy, bedroom-coded tugware when the Rift is released—and rest assured, I'll be trying all of them, because journalism.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.