We Should Worry About Virtual Reality Sex
Image courtesy of Brainlab
We Should Worry About Virtual Reality Sex
Image courtesy of Brainlab
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You may not own a Virtual Reality (VR) headset, but someone you know probably does. VR is growing rapidly and it’s going to change our world. Gaming, entertainment, education, and healthcare are just a few of the areas that will benefit from VR technology. However, its use in one less commonly discussed industry could put more at risk than we realize. VR sex platforms raise profound questions, forcing us to confront VR’s potential to affect our minds for better and for worse. 

VR affects us in powerful ways for three main reasons. Firstly, computer-generated visuals have become so convincing that it can be difficult to decipher whether you’re looking at a real-world video recording or a computer-generated virtual creation [1]. Moreover, modern VR headsets have advanced to provide a consistent first-person view. Even while turning your head quickly, you rarely lose the illusion of a first-person perspective.

Secondly, the synchronization of other sensory forms like sound, smell, and most importantly, touch, with convincing visuals, amplifies the experience. In one groundbreaking experiment, the synchronized stroking of a rubber hand positioned parallel in space with a participant’s real, hidden hand created the sensation that the rubber hand replaced their real hand [2], an insight that has since been expanded in countless ways in VR [3]. When sensory streams are paired, the brain knits them together, enhancing the illusion of the virtual experience.

Finally, VR translates your own movements to control analogous movements in virtual worlds. When you reach out in a virtual world using the motor pattern you use in everyday life, see a virtual arm extend from your body to touch a virtual object, and feel that object, you experience an embodiment illusion [4]. When the visual, tactile, and motor information are delivered and received close enough in time, your brain is fooled. The body you see is no longer a virtual body, but your body. 

As technologies advance, better visuals, touch feedback, and motor translation will create ever-more convincing virtual experiences. Headsets will progress to be lighter and more comfortable, computer processing power will increase, and as more consumers adopt VR as a medium, the breadth of experiences will expand, including into the intimate.

VR sex simulation is not the same as porn. The term “VR porn” is therefore somewhat misleading. When viewing photos or videos, you experience the material through a real-world lens; you still understand that you’re in your own body in the real world. VR sex simulation, using the principles of embodiment manipulation, supplants a person into a different body. In essence, you can become a different person, potentially acting in ways you never would in the real world. 

VR sex platforms are not science fiction. There are devices on the market currently that stimulate human genitalia in synchrony with visuals and sounds from VR headsets, with much more powerful technologies in the pipeline [5]. Companies are even buying the rights to use the likeness of porn actors and actresses, creating 3D scans of their bodies for use in simulations [5,6].

With better AI, companies will no longer even require the rights to specific people. AI will generate a near-infinite number of digital sexual partners with stimuli so detailed it will be difficult to tell they’re not real people. In fact, some VR sex experiences will be designed for users to engage in acts that are impossible, socially unacceptable, and illegal in the real world. 

User privacy will be difficult to maintain. Right now, data collected from the micromovements of your head are enough alone to identify you from among hundreds of others [7]. Upcoming VR headsets will come standard with eyetrackers, and even brainwave-sensing electrodes [8]. Recent studies have warned about the potential information that can be gleaned from visual gaze data – not just demographic data like age, sex, and ethnicity, but personal data like personality, drug use, mental health status, and sexual preferences [9]. With simple, easily implementable data analysis tools, any VR headset will know who you are soon after you don it and may know more about you than you know about yourself.

This data is far too voluminous for human analysts, but not for AI. VR sex platforms will use algorithms that compile your data to construct sexual experiences just for you. These experiences will be fine-tuned to your current mood - they will recognize your deepest, primal urges before you do.

The implications of this are not hard to imagine. AI algorithms will quickly learn what buttons to push and when, making the experience highly addictive. Perhaps your sexual preferences could be altered by your AI companion’s suggestions. If humans have access to an infinite set of virtual partners that know what they want in any given moment, how will people’s desire to seek out sexual experiences with one another be impacted? Perhaps humans will become so accustomed to “perfected” VR sex experiences, that the thought of intimacy with another “imperfect” human won’t even be arousing.

With first-person, embodied, VR sex experiences, people will feel physical stimulation, and see their virtual bodies being stimulated. They will be convinced that the virtual world is their world, and that their virtual body is their body. Relationships as we know them could be reshaped. It’s time to prepare for this possibility, and that begins by talking about it.

References:

[1] Fallis, D. (2020). The Epistemic Threat of Deepfakes. Philosophy & Technology, 1-21.

[2] Botvinick, M., & Cohen, J. (1998). Rubber hands ‘feel’touch that eyes see. Nature, 391(6669), 756-756.

[3] Slater, M., Pérez Marcos, D., Ehrsson, H., & Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2009). Inducing illusory ownership of a virtual body. Frontiers in neuroscience, 3, 29.

[4] Slater, M., Spanlang, B., Sanchez-Vives, M. V., & Blanke, O. (2010). First person experience of body transfer in virtual reality. PloS one, 5(5), e10564.

[5] VirtualMate, https://www.virtualmate.com/

[6] Camasutra Industries, https://camasutraindustries.com/

[7] Miller, M. R., Herrera, F., Jun, H., Landay, J. A., & Bailenson, J. N. (2020). Personal identifiability of user tracking data during observation of 360-degree VR video. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-10.

[8] Looxid Labs, https://looxidlabs.com/

[9] Kröger, J. L., Lutz, O. H. M., & Müller, F. (2019, August). What does your gaze reveal about you? On the privacy implications of eye tracking. In IFIP International Summer School on Privacy and Identity Management (pp. 226-241). Springer, Cham.

[10] Massey, K., Burns, J., & Franz, A. (2020). Young People, Sexuality and the Age of Pornography. Sexuality & Culture, 1-19.



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