[Note: Two editors were initially interested in this story. One editor vanished, because of a few unexpected changes in his life and career. But the other editor bought it, and ran it on his site, in a heavily edited form. Anyway, here’s the entire unedited version of the story. Enjoy. -Scott]
Meet Ela Darling. She’s a porn star. She’s a pioneering phenom in the burgeoning virtual reality [VR] sphere of the porn sector.
I first contacted Ela over the Internet. Then I discovered that she was speaking at a VR conference in NYC that I, coincidentally, was also attending. I met her there, in person, and sat with her for a little over an hour in a dimly lighted coffee shop on the Lower East Side. This was March 2016.
About a month after our initial interview, I visited her studio in Los Angeles, which was actually her modest apartment. It was located on a bland strip of industrial-looking row-houses in North Hollywood. I met her business partner, James. I met Ela’s roommate. And I met her two dogs. (Yes, porn stars have roommates and dogs.) I saw the bed where Ela shoots some of her live-cam VR videos. And I saw the cobbled-together VR equipment that her partner, James—a.k.a. the boy genius—had built.
The equipment was disappointingly small and delicate-looking. I don’t know what I was expecting to see—something more grand, or more futuristic maybe. After all, VR literally is the future—a future that nerds have been dreaming about for the last five or six decades now.
The story that Ela told me about how she began making VR porn reminded me of the underrated 1985 John Hughes movie Weird Science. Though, later on, I wondered if the story was designed to make me think of Weird Science. Ela is smart, so it was difficult for me to deduce if this was a somewhat fabricated story or if this was the actual truth.
Here’s the gist of the story: James and his college roommate had built a makeshift virtual reality camera out of a couple of GoPros a few years back. They posted a note on Reddit looking for a pornstar. Like Kelly LeBrock’s “Lisa” character, Ela Darling spotted the post on Reddit and showed up at what turned out to be James’s dormroom. Were James and his roommate wearing bra-hats on their heads when Ela arrived?
They were not. Though they certainly could have been.
Here’s the rest of my conversation with Ela Darling.
You are the first porn star who has gone in the VR direction.
That’s the truth, actually. I’d been interested in VR, and, more specifically, in the way that VR would impact the adult industry, for years. But I didn’t think that I’d be the person who could actually make it happen. I’m a nerd, sure. [Note: Ela loves D & D.] But I didn’t have the tech-y background.
Also, I wasn’t a big name performer. I figured that VR porn was going to be pioneered by one of the big companies, like Wicked or Adam & Eve—someone like that, using their contract stars. Then their lesser-known performers, like me, would end up getting to do VR porn after it kind of took off.
Then, randomly, I saw this guy on Reddit talking about doing VR porn, and I was very excited. I reached out to him immediately. [James and his roommate, aka “the guys who posted the Reddit notice”] had called a couple agents to try to get peformers, but they had no luck. Why? Because they’re 20-year-old kids who’d never done porn before.
I started talking to James. And I shot with him in his dorm room and…
So you were both kids at the time?
I’m still a kid. [LAUGHS]
You look like you’re 19.
Bless you, kind sir. I’m 29. I’m going to be 30 in July. James [Ashfield] was 20 when we met. I was 27. I almost asked for his ID when I first met him because he looked so young. It just so happens that the two of us have completely opposite skill sets. He had everything that I needed, everything to get into the virtual reality realm. James is a programmer. He’s a coder. He does all of those things. And, on the other side, I had all of the adult industry connections. And, also, a very positive reputation in the industry, because I do activism and advocacy. And I don’t burn a lot of bridges. I’m a really nice girl. I’m very welcoming to new performers. I make sure they’re taken care of and have whatever resources they need.
But James has a comprehensive understanding of the programming involved in virtual reality. He did calculus to design our new [VR] camera that we use to shoot the latest version of our live-cam stuff. It was a really great balance.
Is that the entire company? You and James?
We have a couple of silent partners. One of them is James’s friend, who I initially started talking with [on Reddit]. He didn’t mesh with the company. He didn’t bring much to the table, so he kind of stepped back.
Then there was this early investor who was kind of like a family friend. The family friend is also our mentor. Any business deals, any contracts? We’re like, “Hey Chris, what the fuck are we supposed to do here?” He’s like our dad’s age. So Chris is kind of like having a “business dad.”
But mostly it’s just James and me.
The biggest decisions in the company are just the two of us. Honesty, respect, and trust: those are the three things that are like the foundations of our business. Last summer we were talking to each other and I said, Hey, how serious are you about this? Because James was a quantum physics major. He’s done research in condensed matter.
Fucking nerds, man.
Fucking amazing nerds, right? We both wanted to work together, but neither of us was sure how ride-or-die the other one was. That’s another thing. “Ride or die” is like one of our catchphrases. Ride or die, bitches! He asked, “What are your expectations?” And I was like, “James, I don’t really have any expectations for this. Maybe it’ll be a cool thing we do. But maybe it’s not going to work… I don’t know.”
Then I thought about it some more over the weekend. I said, “You know what? I spoke too soon, James. These are my expectations for our business. Respect. Honesty. And trust. These are the three things that I expect from you. These are the three things that I expect from the business.”
He was like, “Fuck, yeah, that’s perfect.” So those are the tenets that we hold each other to, for a positive business space.
It’s fantastic. All the people that we bring into the fold? That’s what we expect of them, too.
My impression of porn is that it’s inherently a smash and grab industry. Everybody comes in, they get whatever they can, and they get the fuck out. Or else, they hurt whoever they have to hurt and then they get the fuck out.
It’s really important for me to be an advocate for performers and to make sure that performers are being represented in a positive way. To make sure they are given opportunities that are going to actually help them. It’s very easy to start a company that benefits rich white dudes. That’s who runs a lot of porn.
Why do the white dudes have all the money still? I don’t get it.
That’s a larger discussion for another time. [LAUGHS] But, in my opinion? Sex workers are putting more on the line. Our bodies are being put at risk. We’re at risk. But it’s a risk that we’re willing to accept, so it’s fine. We’re the stakeholders in the industry.
But you’re still gambling.
I could get chylmydia tomorrow and not be able to work for a week and not be able to pay my rent.
Every time I watch porn I think, Everybody’s gambling here. Oh well. I guess I’ll jack off to it.
But the thing is, not once in over six years have I contracted an STI. I never once tested positive on any of my tests.
Most [porn stars] I know are the same way. The people who work way more than I do, or who have been doing boy-girl for much longer [than I have]? A few of them have had chylmydia maybe twice. And the person who told me that she’s had chylmydia twice? She’s been performing for 10 years now. So having an illness that you need to get antibiotics for twice in 10 years for your work? Man, if I worked in a school—and I used to actually work in schools. I got sick all the fucking time.
Kids are filthy. Fucking jam hands everywhere.
There is a risk with this, yes. But when I look at the track record of our testing protocol, nobody’s gotten HIV on a set where our testing protocol is in place in, what…? Twelve years now? Every instance of HIV that’s been contracted on a porn set has been out of the country, or in some part of the U.S. where they don’t follow the protocols that we’ve outlined.
And those protocols work. And most performers want an equitable measure of safety, and most of them consider our testing protocol an equitable measure of safety. Because if they want the option to use condoms, and they decide to, they want that to be a real option and not a phantom option that’s like, Oh, you want a condom? Well, listen. Bad news, girl. Your scene just got cut today. Weird, right?
They want a real option. So that’s what I would advocate for. I really don’t feel like I’m all that at risk. Me, I work a few times a month. I worked twice yesterday morning before that VR conference.
Yeah. I did two scenes in the morning. [Note: When I’d met Ela the day before, she did, in fact, look a little worn out. Sex scenes do that to you, I guess.] But, yeah, it’s certainly high risk, though it’s not as risky as people think. Not much [riskier] than most jobs.
I remember when the first HIV crisis happened in the late ’90’s. Porn was all condoms for a little while. Then, not long after that, porn went back to being no condoms again.
Condom porn does not tend to sell as well.
If I find a scene, and I think, Oh, this girl’s hot. I can’t wait to watch this. And then if there’s a condom involved? I hate to admit this, but I find something else to watch. I’m not going to sit here and watch a sex scene that feels like a PSA.
[The condom] pulls you out of the fantasy. You want real and raw, right? You want that no-inhibitions-quality. Stopping to put on a condom is, by definition, an inhibition. So, yeah, it’s kind of counter to the fantasy that we’re trying to sell.
Let’s go back to the beginning, with you and James in his dormroom…
Sure. So, I go to his dormroom. I met his roommates. Some of his roommates were playing D & D…
I’ve been playing D & D since I was 16. It’s my fucking jam. I keep my dice with me at all times, because if my DM [Dungeon Master] says, Hey, we’re rolling today at 3 pm, I’m getting an Uber downtown so I can go fucking roll in D & D. So I get there, and his roommates are playing D & D and I’m like, “Dungeons and Dragons? Fuck, yeah!”
This was in College Park, Maryland. Me, I grew up in Texas. I kind of lived all over. My first VR porn scene was in James’s dormroom at the University of Maryland. So I meet him at the train station. He’s 20, but he looks much younger than that. I’m like, “Are we shooting at an apartment or at a studio?”
And when we get there, we’re clearly walking towards a campus. We ended up going to his dormroom. He has roommates. I see his roommates playing D & D, and I’m like, “Fuck, yeah!” But they were acting strange. I used to be an RA [Note: Another somewhat startling fact]. It was towards the end of the spring semester, and that tends to be when roommates in college dorms fall apart and [begin to dislike] each other. So I don’t know if it was that, or if they knew that I was some weird porn chick who’d just flown in from LA…
They were terrified of you, I’m sure.
Possibly. Yeah… Usually I’m on set and I’m like, Hey, person! Human connection, human connection. These guys were like, Oh, hello. Mumble, mumble. And this was just like a typical college kid don’t-give-a-fuck kind of attitude.
I didn’t know how we were supposed to shoot yet. [The camera] was two GoPros, in this little wooden box that they’d built, held together with duct tape, basically. James had designed this thing. I don’t even know how he’d adhered it to the wall. But he basically stuck it to the wall in front of his bed. Because it’s 180-degrees and it’s stuck to the wall, the only place for a director to be is behind the camera. And the camera’s on the wall. So there is no “behind the camera.”
So I get there, and we talk about what to do, talk about wardrobe. I end up settling on an R2D2 swimsuit with some thigh-high socks… Because it works, you know? I knew that the people who were going to be consuming this would appreciate [these choices], and it’s also my jam. They said, “This is 180 degrees, so there’s no place for us to be in here. We’re kind of hoping that we could leave you alone and you could just kind of do it….”
I was like, “But what do you want me to do…?” They were like, “Um, you know. Do it…like a porn.”
I said, “Uh…OK.” I thought, Fuck it. Asking questions clearly isn’t going to achieve anything at this point. I’m just going to wing it. They can like it. Not like it. If they hate it? Bummer.
They start the camera, and they were like, “OK, well, good luck! Bye!”
I basically treated it like a live-cam situation. Because I used to do a lot of camming. But I just talked to the camera like it was a cam client, and I was really flirty, and I made it into a “first date” kind of a thing, which is how I usually approach cams. With, like, a lot of camraderie, and a lot of conspiratorial talk like, [sexy voice] Oh my gosh! Isn’t this SO crazy that we’re here doing this thing together…?
[Steam begins burbling over the collar of my shirt.] You’re a good actor. That’s impressive.
So I did it, and then I ended up hanging around with them. We hung out, and I drank with them and we just chilled. I mean, I drank. But they were 20, so they didn’t drink obviously… Because that wouldn’t be OK. [Note: Ela winks at this point. Interpret the wink however you want to intepret it.] But we bonded. It was great.
James wrote me an email that night that said, “So I watched that video and it was unlike any porn I’ve ever seen. I felt like I was really interacting with another human, not just an actor on a screen. I felt like I was really having a personal experience.” It blew him away.
So I came back for two more shoots that week. The other two shoots didn’t work out. Thank god the first one took.
I imagine that’s one of the challenges of doing what you’re doing. You’re always coming up against a technical wall that you’ll eventually find a way around.
And since you have to find your own way around, the path isn’t there yet. So you get to be one of the frontrunners. But working with a bunch of GoPros was challenging. Later, when we got into the 360-degree 3-D, there were twelve GoPros that were all synching up at the same time. That was really tough. I would do a 20-minute scene, and by the time I was done, four of the cameras would have shit the bed halfway through. So I’d have maybe 10 minutes of actual 360-degrees before something crapped out.
By the end of the trip, we basically realized that we work really well together. That was in April of 2014. And by July, we had officially formed a company. He made me an equal partner with him by the end of the summer.
How are you the pioneer in this field?
So here’s fucking why. The first thing we did was 180-degree 3-D. Ultimately, it doesn’t take all that much skill or technology; all you need is two GoPros. I mean, he’d made this camera set up in [James’s] dormroom in less than an hour. And we knew that porn is obviously going to get into VR.
So with the 180 3-D VR, that’s really easy. Then we tried the 360 3-D, because that’s much more complicated, and it’s harder—it’s actually kind of a bitch, because, when you really get down to it, you can’t have true 360 3-D—the apex and the nadir are always going to be immersion-breaking [note: I got a wee bit of wood when Ela said this]—so you have to accomodate for that somehow. And it was cool, sure, but I just feel like for 360 3-D, if you’re doing a Caligula-style orgy, where everywhere you look there’s carnal meat? Then that’s great. But for most porn, it’s two people. And you just don’t need 360-degrees.
I don’t need to know what’s going on behind me.
I don’t care what your PA bought at a yard sale to decorate your wall with for $2. That’s not what I’m here for. So, we tried [360 3-D]. Then we moved on to doing volumetric capture using a temoflight depth camera, to shoot holographic porn. That’s a really fancy way of saying that we got a Microsoft Kinect and we started making porn with it.
But it was basically capturing a performer’s body in space, placing her in a 3-D, digitally rendered environment. And that was really cool, but [bodies] are still very artifact-y. And when you look at the people, the sides of their bodies are very blocky. That’s the problem. [The tech] is just not fucking there yet.
If you’re very, very forgiving, you can enjoy it. But most consumers are not watching VR apologetically. They’re watching VR because they want this new, next-level experience. And you’re promising a next-level experience, but you’re delivering this beta-type, poorly constructed experience.
There’s so much promise… But promise isn’t delivery. Promise is, This will be cool someday, but it’s just mostly weird right now. It wasn’t what we wanted to deliver. And we didn’t think consumers would invest in that. I think they would accept it; I think they would tolerate it. But I’m not looking for tolerance. I’m looking for immersion. I want people to grab onto this and love it.
From there we started making a dating simulator. Which was really cool. We dreamt it up in a few days. James spent a week or so developing it. It was cool. It was very immersive. It was very gripping. But ultimately the best part about it was it was like you were really talking to a performer. And then we thought, Why don’t we actually let people talk to someone?
So then we did the live-cam thing with the green screen, and from there we realized there were a lot of problems for the performers themselves…
What sorts of problems?
Well, I can’t ask a veteran performer to give up her whole revenue stream and come and cam in VR and give up all of her existing clients. She has to cater to those clients; she has to keep working with them to keep them. So we found a way to do this in a way that allows her to maintain her current clientele, while also appealing to the VR fan-base, and while also shooting her own VR 360 content, and 2-D content.
So, she can profit in four different ways from one performance. And that was really big for us.
Helping performers succeed and become their own entrepreneurs is really important to me. We get paid a day rate. We don’t get residuals. That’s what we’re working on. What we’re doing, what the new VR Tube Live Program does, is instead of having a bunch of rich white dudes profiting off of sex workers, we’re giving performers the option to enter the VR sphere on their own, without having to go through a studio. Which, at this point, if you’re a performer, and you want to do a VR performance, you basically have to go through a studio. You have to find someone who has the equipment, and the post production technology, and the software, everything. But with this? It’s very easy for a performer to make her own content, and sell it, and benefit that way.
I’m the pioneer because I’ve done it all. Because we were some of the first people in [VR]. Because we’re definitely the first to do holographic porn. We were the first to do live-cams. And it’s because, from a business perspective, James and I don’t have some big investor holding a checkbook who’s telling us what to do. We’re self-funded. And part of it is because we started doing it early, and we had the necessary insight and the connections to make it work.
So where does VR porn go from here?
We just got our Vive dev kit [note: a “dev kit” is a unit that’s specifically designed to build software on]. They sent us a free Vive, which is so incredibly validating for us.
What I’m excited about is the democratization of the medium. I mean, that’s kind of what we’re working on anyway—allowing performers to produce the content, taking it out of the hands of the elite, and putting [the content] in front of everyone. But I also feel like the, and I’m going to say this… [HESITATES]
…It’s very easy to exploit people. Especially when you’re trying to show the world what these marginalized people have experienced. That’s something that I try to avoid. Because sex workers are marginalized people. Women are marginalized. Trans people are marginalized. You’ve got these marginalized people on top of marginalized people. It’s like stacks on top of stacks. Letting those people speak for themselves? Giving them a voice? While not speaking for them? That’s so fucking important.
And if you want to use [VR] to communicate the experiences of people that are not in your general sphere of life, you have to do it in a way that gives ownership of the voice to them. Rather than speaking to what their experience is.
The only people at the beginning who are going to be able to afford an Oculus or a Vive are the 1-percenters. You have to be able to afford all of this incredibly expensive stuff.
Our company has mostly been funded by my porn work. I’m doing porn to support us. But the computer that we use? I’ll tell you something: it wasn’t powerful enough to support the Vive.
And we fucking develop for this shit.
So, it’s not only affording the headsets. It’s also affording the computers that are necessary to support the headsets, and also affording the level of Internet connectivity that is required to engage in these experiences. It is so privileged, across the board. We have to recognize that privilege, and we have to find ways to overcome it. And we have to grant access to people who are not as privileged. I think that’s so fucking important.
But from a human standpoint? We all just want to put the goggles on and jack off. We want to be animals. We’re all like, Yeah, this is so sophisticated, we’re going to learn how to look at the world from a homeless person’s POV! But that’s not true. Mostly, 99-percent of us, we just want to jack off with it. That’s it.
And that’s great. But in order for the 99-percent to be able to put this on and jack off with it, we have to have the other content, too. Otherwise, it’s [deeper voice] “Oh, here’s my 700 dollar masturbatorium.” From a pornographer’s standpoint, that device has to have merit outside of porn. Otherwise people will just see it as perversion.
Especially in the beginning.
That’s why it’s so great that [VR] is starting as a gaming device. I still maintain that porn drives tech. But in this case, gaming really drove the tech. But the game devs don’t develop fast enough to provide the content necessary to keep people engaged. Porn is naturally low cost to produce….
Games are very expensive and complicated to make.
When I see mainstream film people who decide they want to do porn, they go, “Yeah, I only need like 120K to make this project, it’s super low-budget.” And I’m like, “Bro? I can get you 5K from one of the main lesbian porn companies to make a four-scene, 2-hour-long film. For five thousand dollars.”
Porn is used to shooting on shoestring budgets. They’re used to being pushed out the door as quickly as possible. They’re used to being stepchild-ed by everybody else, and are still thriving regardless.
I hate to call us the cockroaches of the film industry, but we…
Porn survives every apocalypse.
It does. We have such a capacity to survive and succeed. So, with porn, we’re able to create content—like, a lot of new content—very quickly and very cheaply, that other people can’t necessarily do. If you’re an independent filmmaker and you’re going to make your first VR film, you’re going to take months or years. And a lot of money. And you’re going to craft it very carefully…
With porn, we do the same, but we also know that whatever I’m doing today for this production, I’m going to have to do it three more times this month. To guarantee the subscribers. We largely operate on a subscription base; we’ve come from an era that’s still clinging to DVD sales. And VR is going to change all of that.
We have been forced by nature, by necessity, to be very low cost and to persevere. So we do that.
Because of what you’ve accomplished, do any of the bigger companies—the Wickeds, the Vivids—do they offer to buy you out? Listen, we want everything you’ve built, so we’re going to buy that.
If someone wants to do that, we are all fucking ears.
I don’t know why someone hasn’t done that.
Porn has some baggage [when it comes to new tech]. I remember four years ago, right before Comic-Con, I shot for Penthouse. They paid me a very nice fee for the day. I did a solo cam scene, a girl-girl cam scene, a solo masturbation video, a girl-girl masturbation video, a solo 3-D thing, a girl-girl 3-D thing. We obviously shot a lot of content that day. They had spent a lot of money on 3-D back then.
People still carry [the concept of 3-D around] like it’s a cross on their backs. They also invested in 4K, too, and nobody cares about 4K anymore.
Nobody cares about 3-D anymore.
3-D and 4K are accoutrements to the porn they were already doing. It didn’t require any extra skills; all it took was a decision to invest in some new equipment.
But VR is different. The whole experience is different. You’re giving people something that they’ve never had before in porn. Even with 3-D tech, it’s like, OK, here’s a 2-D experience that you’re making shittier for me, because now I have to wear these shitty goggles, and I’m getting a shitty headache. The value change is negative.
But with VR? There’s a huge value change, and it’s positive. I’m immersed in this whole reality of this person in front of me. It is my entire reality at the moment. That’s so much bigger.
These people, these big companies, they’ve taken risks before, and sometimes it has benefitted them, sometimes not. A lot of [porn companies] are doubtful about VR. A lot of them think it’s a schtick. A lot of them think it’s [finger snap] a fad.
The most compelling experience I’ve found in the Oculus store and Gear VR is the chat program. Have you tried it? There are five people in a virtual room. You have an avatar—mine was a little skeleton-zombie girl.
Of course it was.
And you just talk to people. It’s so engaging, so enthralling. …It feels so cool sitting in my bedroom and talking to people that I would otherwise never talk to.
Now, if I can take that situation and extrapolate it out to something sexual? To something that’s personally rewarding for me? Then you’ve got an intrinsic reward system. A pretty girl thinks what I just said was funny. A pretty girl is acknowledging me. She’s saying my user name now. She’s asking me my fetish now. She’s indulging my fetish. Those are compelling experiences.
I hope you get so rich.
I already am rich. I mean, I don’t necessarily have dollars or anything. But I’m rich in so many ways. I have so much cool shit that I’m doing.
Recently I saw a VR demo that involved a bridge collapsing between two ridges of a mountain. It looked crude, yet I still was dizzy and clinging to the non-existant walls. In that situation, even though I had this big, heavy mask hanging off my face, and I am literally tethered to a computer, my brain was still filling in the gaps of the experience for me. From a porn standpoint, I feel like VR is built to exploit that gap-filling work that our brains naturally do. It’s built for fantasy.
Back to the holograms that I mentioned earlier. Like I said, the quality kind of blew. It wasn’t anything great. I mean, the guys who built it are geniuses; they did great work. But applying it to pornography? It wasn’t the best-use case of that technology. Why? Because of the depth, because of how close you wanted to be to that person, because of a lot of things. Regardless, people were still very forgiving. Very tolerant.
The thing is, right now? The VR users are incredibly forgiving. They know that we’re still developing this stuff. We’re still getting there. They know that they have to be forgiving right now, or else they won’t have any content.
But it’s not going to be very long before that forgiveness starts to wane. And new people who are introduced to VR will suddenly have the same expectations that they have for all the other tech out there. We really can’t rely on that forgiveness. It’s folly to do so. It’s great that [users] have that. It’s great that we’ve been able to use that [forgiveness] and move forward with the things that we’re working on.
The bottom line is this: they’re only going to take it until somebody else comes along and makes it so they no longer have to take it.
Early tech, like VR right now, is like an abusive relationship. Oh, she just doesn’t know any better, so she’s going to settle for your ass. And she will settle for your ass…until someone who doesn’t suck comes along and proves that there’s so much more out there. I always want to be coming from the so-much-more-out-there place, and never the shitty-boyfriend-that-you’re-settling-for place.