Easy Chair — From the April 2016 issue

Crossing the Valley

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Like campaigning politicians, pornographers — who are also in the business of galvanizing tired nervous systems — face one problem that never goes away: cutting through the numbness caused by prolonged exposure to their products. With sexual imagery in every imaginable configuration available instantly on any phone or screen, the audience these days quickly builds up resistance. But here at the Adult Entertainment Expo, the industry’s annual trade show and convention in Las Vegas, Holodexxx, a small Canadian company, thinks it may have the ultimate tool for rousing jaded libidos on demand: walk-around, life-size virtual reality.

I strap on a pair of V.R. goggles, and the area where I’m standing is flooded by invisible laser beams that register my movements and feed the data back to a computer. Sensors in the goggles track my shifting gaze. I will not be easy to impress; moments earlier, at another booth, I sampled a less advanced, more passive form of V.R. porn and found it underwhelming. It resembled an ordinary movie projected on a curved, distended screen that stretched beyond the corners of my vision. Though the naked actors appeared gigantic and there was a strong illusion of perspective, I felt disengaged, a witness rather than a participant. Morgan Young, a cofounder of Holodexxx who came up through the gaming industry, assures me that he can provide a fuller experience.

When the goggles switch on, I find myself in the middle of a simulated theater. Just inches away from me, close enough to touch with a glowing pair of virtual hands created by two game controllers I’m holding, a woman appears — the 3-D likeness of the actor Lexi Belle. Her body has been scanned by special cameras and mapped onto a moving human figure such that I can view her image, her avatar, from any angle, depending on where I stand. I can walk behind her and see her backside, and if I crouch down, she seems to loom. When I go up on tiptoe, I look down at her scalp; I even glimpse her bottom molars glinting inside her open mouth. Virtual Lexi, a lifelike ghost, is dancing in place and trying to seduce me. She rolls her hips and sways her fleshy torso, but because she has no will, no inner life, she seems like a sort of metaphysical slave — imprisoned in an inferior dimension, which I can see into but she can’t see out of, let alone escape. It’s disconcerting. Along with a keen sensation of male dominance, I feel a sense of existential dominance. It gives me little pleasure. I wish it gave me more.

Lexi dances for me, my digital harem girl, soliciting a response I can’t quite summon, in part because I refuse. When her human analogue was scanned, she gave permission, I suppose, for people to virtually grope her (my luminous hands pass right through her when I touch her), but the polite Midwesterner in me can’t overcome the notion that, as my captive, she deserves my mercy.

Such scruples conflict with the spirit of the expo, whose unofficial theme is dictatorial control. Dirty movies, those canned displays, are out, and interactive cam girls are all the rage. The sharing economy rolls on. Like Uber drivers, the women are independent contractors who set their own hours. They can be hailed at will by clients who give them orders over the Internet. Turn around. Remove your stockings. Touch yourself. America’s public preoccupation with the fine points of sexual consent, with properly negotiated encounters, is apparently a daytime matter; in the shrouded nighttown of the Web the fantasies are of mastery, omnipotence.

I take a bolder tack with virtual Lexi: I fix her with a stare. It changes everything. As I look into her eyes, the computer aligns and matches our gazes until she looks into mine. When I shift my focus, she or it shifts hers. Contact. Convergence. My wife would not be pleased. My intellect, which suddenly feels weak and distant, reminds me that I’m communing with a nonentity, but my lizard brain sounds the intimacy alarm.

The weird psychological space I’ve happened into has a name: the uncanny valley. First articulated in 1970 by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, the term refers to a specific range on the spectrum of human responses to humanoid objects. As the simulacra become more lifelike, they elicit greater identification and empathy. But there is a point on the path toward perfect similitude at which objects trigger revulsion instead. Wax-museum figures have this effect on me, as do cadavers posed in open caskets and certain animated-movie characters. Synthesized voices spook me in the same way. Once, driving with my teenage son, I heard a faint voice from inside my glove compartment. The hairs on my neck stood up. “What’s that?” I said. My son, more accustomed to sharing his existence with artificial creatures, reassured me: “It’s Siri. It’s your phone.” He spoke her name casually, almost warmly.

When I take off the goggles and look around the trade show, I find myself in a new uncanny valley. It’s the people who seem spookily unreal now. My confidence in my discernment has been shaken. A few booths down, a nearly naked cam girl is signing photos for male fans. Heavy makeup. Forced smile. Augmented breasts. To me she seems cartoonish, but her admirers are truly smitten. It is not for me to judge them; a moment ago, with my defenses in place, I nearly swooned over a hologram.

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