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January 2019 saw MIT’s Media Lab hosting the Reality Virtually Hackathon, during which developers took part in a 5-day event intended to showcase a range of different real-world applications for augmented reality. Magic Leap sponsored the event and has since released a series of videos showcasing the various winning teams’ work, most of which also serve to highlight the potential uses for augmented reality (AR) headsets (which, entirely without coincidence, Magic Leap manufactures).

The company is by no means alone in seeking to showcase the various wonders that AR can enable (Google, Apple and Facebook have all launched platforms to encourage developers to create AR content). Magic Leap is, however, in a more vulnerable position than its gigantic counterparts. Having sunk millions of investors’ money into developing its first generation product, the company has a long way to go before seeing a profit, and what’s more, seeing a profit from a market that nobody’s sure exists and, if it does, exactly how big it might be.

The term ‘compelling use case’ is a tech industry shorthand for a technology that actually does something people want beyond the basic novelty of things like being able to talk to Alexa on your smart toilet (yes, that’s a thing).

It’s a pretty low bar to clear and is essentially a prerequisite for producing a sustainable marketable product. And yet so much of the emerging technology at events like CES seems to be the culmination of developers looking at what they ‘could’ do rather than what is truly driving demand.

The tech sector’s awkward relationship with sex is the epitome of this awkward reverse thinking.

In 2010, Steve Jobs wrote in an email exchange with Ryan Tate (then a writer for Gawker Media) that he wanted to give people freedom, including “freedom from porn”. But this might not be a “freedom” that everyone necessarily wants. In terms of compelling use case, it’s hard to think of one more widespread than getting off, not only because lots of people enjoy it, but a large portion of them will happily pay for something that makes doing so easier, quicker, more fun or just kind of novel.

Crowd in Japan VR Festival

In 2016 Japan’s first VR porn festival, “Adult VR Fest 01” gained considerable media attention when the number of attendees far exceeded the organisers wildest dreams, or perhaps worst nightmares, and police brought in to control the crowd of enthusiasts that came to admire the state of the art.

The state of the art in this instance being a lot of first-generation VR headsets coupled with a variety of inventive but rather unpolished feedback mechanisms.

Let that sink in, thousands of people travelled to an event for a glimpse of technology on a par with something that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Wallace and Gromit adventure. Just think what the demand would be like if a well-funded tech juggernaut was behind it?

Even venerable scientific magazine New Scientist concurs that the demand for sex tech is very real. In 2016, it published a story stating that when you retire your only carer may be a sex bot. The simple reason being that despite most western countries sitting on a demographic time bomb, there’s seemingly more interest and funding available for developers looking at sex robots than those developing robots to care for older people.

And yet most major tech companies continue to be either ambivalent or actively hostile to adult oriented technologies and content. It’s easy to rattle off a list of major platforms that discourage adult content, but naming and shaming isn’t particularly helpful. First up because these are giants in their field and it’s relatively understandable that they are risk averse in a world that can be quick to generate waves of outraged publicity. But also, calling giant companies out isn’t as important as analyzing why they’re adopting these positions, and what can be done about it.

Show me the money

The problem isn’t some neo-puritanism, but in the basic financial model of tech startups. Under the current paradigm, the way to be a tech startup is to come up with an idea and then seek private investment. This makes sense in an industry where developing a new product can be extremely expensive, but brings with it some truly punishing mathematics.

Adding up the costs of development, marketing and sustaining a product through to commercial success means that companies are often in the position of needing to cast their net as widely as possible for their eventual customer base. For a fledgling company, this often brings with it an aversion to anything that might not be seen as wholesome family friendly fun.

Which brings us back to Magic Leap and the wider field of Augmented Reality.

Adult VR entertainment can be tremendous fun, don’t get me wrong, but adult AR could be even better. On a base level, not having to isolate yourself from your surroundings can be super helpful in avoiding embarrassing industries, or perhaps spotting that a family member has entered the room. With more advanced applications, imagine a dating simulator that works in augmented reality, or as a tool for people into fetishes that are difficult to realize in real-life, like shrinking or vore.

The markets are out there, but a business model that pushes only for the safest and widest of nets seems more likely to give us Talkie Toaster than Jude Law gigolo bots or anything you’d find in WestWorld.

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