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Virtual reality pornography could raise issues about consent, researchers warn

The rising popularity of virtual reality pornography could cause a dangerous blurred line between real life and fantasy, researchers have warned.

Computer scientists at Newcastle University found that VR porn – where users can have an active part in a fantasy thanks to headsets - could make some of the more degrading and abusive elements found in some pornography seem more “real”, they say in research presented at the computing machinery conference CHI 2017 in Denver, Colorado.

The researchers used a story completion method mainly targeting online writing communities including fan fiction and forums. They culminated with 45 participant-generated stories, 24 were by men, 18 female and three other. The majority (30) were heterosexual and 26 said they were not already users of VR porn.

The participants were given an introductory sentence describing a man about to have his first experience of VR porn. They were then instructed to continue the rest of the story for around 10 minutes.

While the results varied, what was present throughout was “an apparent disjoint between ‘virtual reality’ and ‘real reality’ and a negotiation of the barriers between them”, the study noted. In one finding they even suggested VR porn was akin to cheating on a partner because of the "increasing reality".

It Is Global. Virtual reality is not just a thing in the United States alone. People all over the globe are learning to embrace the technology. Some of the biggest virtual reality conventions are actually held in other nations. Some of the leading companies behind virtual reality are located overseas as well. Virtual reality is gradually becoming a great way to connect with people from around the world. No matter the distance, this technology can bring people together.

Other commonalities included themes of perfection, masculinity, heteronormativity and some raised ethical questions.

Researchers divided the stories into two groups, the first was branded a “perfect” scenario – where participants described a perfect sexual experience. The second group was labelled “precarious”.

Research lead author Matthew Wood said the second group’s stories “often went beyond what would be acceptable in real life with sometimes violent imagery, featuring men performing degrading sexual acts on women or forcing themselves upon them”.

The authors also warned that VR porn could be used for revenge porn – saying it is “not unforeseeable” for a user to base a model on real people and then place them in pornographic scenarios.

Dr Madeline Balaam, co-author of the research said: “Our research highlighted not only a drive for perfection, but also a crossover between reality and fantasy. Some of our findings highlighted the potential for creating 3D models of real life people, raising questions over what consent means in VR experiences.

The VR Today. Currently Virtual Reality is growing in popularity and while companies like the Oculus Rift are losing some of their customers because of unpopular marketing practices, other devices, including the HTC Vive are taking the VR stage. Furthermore, with Google Cardboard creating the concept and other companies taking note, Smartphone Virtual Reality Goggles are letting consumers easily enjoy and experience immersive virtual and augmented reality. With huge consumer base, the multiple platforms for development, and the lack of many VR games and experiences, small start-ups as well as huge companies are investing huge amounts of money into the development of content for Virtual Reality, which might very well help VR finally achieve the world-wide recognition it didn’t manage to achieve on the market for years.

“If a user created a VR version of their real life girlfriend, for example, would they do things to her that they knew she would refuse in the real world?”

The authors said VR porn could provide an opportunity “to influence pornography and introduce some new rules” saying the future of the experience “could be more positive” if it was designed right.

“In our research we also saw suggestions that VR could deliver more embodied sensory experiences, with more emphasis on subtlety and the relational aspects of sexual experiences,” Mr Woods explained.

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