Archive for February, 2005

New Technology’s Dirty Secret?

Monday, February 14th, 2005

There is much debate in the editorial offices of TechWatch about a rather hot topic – namely, does the adult entertainment industry have any influence on technology trends?

A number of past observations, some of which may or may not be urban legend, would seem to indicate that adult entertainment is indeed influential. For example, the outcome of the VHS vs. Betamax battle – in which Betamax was ultimately banished to obscurity, and VHS came to dominate the consumer video tape market – is one commonly attributed to adult videos (a.k.a. porn flicks). The reasoning behind this widely held belief is fuzzy at best, however. Some say that it was due to Sony wanting to maintain some control over content for their technologically superior video technology, while others point to perceived higher cost of Betamax equipment and tapes, as well as VHS tapes being able to hold hours more video than Betamax tapes (sacrificing quality, of course). Either way, only a few blue movies made it onto Betamax, and thousands made it into VHS as the adult industry put its full support behind VHS as the alternative to 8mm film.

The next credit given to the porn industry is the proliferation of chat rooms. Brendan I. Koerner of Slate wrote last year that the Internet grew quickly thanks to erotic chat rooms and bulletin boards. And certainly while discussion fora of all sorts were available via dial-up BBSes, proprietary on-line services, and USENET, adult-oriented chats and discussions were pervasive and numerous.

And one should not forget the swapping of scanned images on CompuServe and a huge variety of BBSes, in poor-quality or overly large GIF, BMP, or PCX files in the later 1980s. In the early 1990s, the JPEG standard completely revolutionized the distribution of adult still images, and the availability a few years later of digital cameras allowed anyone – amateur and professional alike to quickly and discreetly shoot and distribute all sorts of images to their heart’s content.

Of course, that’s all anecdotal.

However, I remember visiting AdultDex, the protest spin-off resulting from when COMDEX management kicked out a bunch of exhibitors from the COMDEX/Fall show in the early ‘90s, and seeing a number of new uses of technology that mainstream vendors were only starting to try and find a use for.

For example, the first published and widely available MPEG-1 video CDs I saw were adult titles. These were designed to be played back on PCs with speakers and hardware MPEG-1 decoders (which a couple of vendors at AdultDex were selling from the floor at the same time as companies at the Las Vegas Convention Center were announcing next year delivery of such products). At the time that such content was being promoted and sold, discussions were still on-going in the PC industry as to how to design and define an “MPC” – multimedia PC. But here were entrepreneurs, many with gold chains and slicked back hair, pushing new technology as a way to promote their wares, and apparently finding enough buyers will to pay bleeding edge prices for such new prurient uses of technology,

The first shipping use of QuickTime VR I saw in a product was in an adult CD-ROM title, and the developer of the product raved about the new found interactivity this offered (even joking that the software was designed so that you only needed to use one hand to control the software).

And, the first use I saw of real-time video codecs was also at an AdultDex, featuring live video chat (tiny little image, jerky and highly artifacted) using Intel’s Indeo codec, with a live adult actress on the remote end of an ISDN connection, and conversation being digitally transmitted along the same channel so that a person at the paying end of the conversation could interact with said actress, and give her direction. And this type of use of the technology ultimately appears to have given rise to the widespread use of web cams.

Moving on to the present, I spent my last half day in Las Vegas after CES a few weeks ago visiting the Adult Entertainment Expo at the Sands Expo Center, purely for research of course. For years, the CES show featured an entire adult entertainment exhibit area at the Riviera hotel in Las Vegas, but a few years ago that went away, and the Adult Entertainment Exposition was born. It floundered at first, but this year Adult Video News (AVN) put its not insignificant support behind the show, and it appears to have helped significantly.

In any event, while Microsoft was touting a deal with SBC Global for their radically new IPTV IP-only set-top box back at the Las Vegas Convention Center as the new and upcoming thing, back at the Sands XTV was selling (and had been shipping for a couple of months) their own adult-themed IPTV solution. The XTV box sells for $179 plus a $29.95 monthly subscription, and features a real-time program guide for dozens of adult video channels (sorted by content type instead of a channel number), pay per view, live chat, and a few other rather innovative interfaces. Unlike the Microsoft IPTV solution, the XTV box requires no specific ISP, working off most any moderately decent high bandwidth Internet connection (http://www.xtv.com)

Similarly, while the latest hot PC games like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 are generating millions of polygons a second, adult software developers aren’t being left behind. XStream3D, a Canadian company, was demonstrating its rather versatile 3D sex simulation software on the latest PCI Express enabled graphics hardware, and still bringing it to its knees at times (http://www.xstream3d.com).

And finally, no discussion about the impact of adult entertainment on technology would be complete without mentioned the raging battle between the Blu-Ray and HD DVD camps. Adult video companies are in the middle of this battle – a handful of porn studios are publicly leaning towards Blu-Ray, but if sales flyers and banners at the Adult Entertainment Expo are any indication, HD-DVD is the wave of the future for the majority. I saw close to a dozen adult video companies touting HD-DVD product lines, with a number of titles already shipping. Again, that was in contrast to technology demonstrations on the main floor of CES, but no mainstream titles yet widely available. Of course, whether anyone needs to see that much detail in an adult video is a question one must ponder.

It is interesting to note that in none of the examples I gave above was the adult entertainment industry the actual developer of the technology. Instead, that industry was and still is an early user and promoter of the newest technologies. And with the adult entertainment industry estimated to have revenues in the $5 to $10 billion dollar range in the U.S. alone, it’s not an industry that technology companies should ignore lightly.