A Brave New World of Intimacy
"The virtual worlds, with their three-dimensional experience, are so much more useful than that flat, two-dimensional Internet," Shuster said. "In the future of adult entertainment, it's all going to be expressed in this 3D environment."
Shuster stops short of predicting that two-dimensional forms of adult entertainment, including Internet-distributed adult video, will fall by the wayside entirely — after all, there are still plenty of DJs spinning real vinyl, decades after the introduction of the CDs that were going to make records 'obsolete.' Shuster does, however, envision the virtual worlds becoming a dominant form of the adult entertainment experience.
"Virtual worlds introduce new formats for highly interactive experiences," Shuster said. "It's more than just adult entertainment — this is a new way for people to have sex."
Shuster said that his company has already seen couples engaged in 'long-distance relationships' as a "major component" of RedLightCenter's member base. That strong appeal to couples is evidence, Shuster believes, of the virtual world's appeal being broader than that of most forms of adult entertainment.
"The virtual world's appeal is an order-of-magnitude increase in scope over that of, say, watching a porn video, because it is interactive intimacy," Shuster said.
This is not to say that the virtual world environment doesn't have anything to offer customers who are looking for a less emotionally intimate encounter, however; for fans of adult videos, virtual worlds offer the prospect of living out the fantasy of knocking boots with their favorite performers.
"This offers whole new facets for porn," Shuster said. "For example, if a customer wants to have an experience that they've seen in a video, the 'moves' from that scene can be mapped right onto an avatar that looks just like the performer in the scene. You've seen it, you want it, and your avatar can do that."
Speaking to the virtual world business model's potential are the numbers that RedLightCenter already boasts: According to Shuster, RedLightCenter has seen approximately 1.25 million people register over the life of the product, and there are 250,000 users currently active on the site. Shuster said that he expects to see a lot of the currently inactive users returning to the site, following a marketing blitz that will trumpet improvements made to the service since its earlier days.
As compelling as the virtual world experience already is, Shuster said that what really has him excited are the technological developments currently on the horizon, which will add a whole new level of realism to the virtual experience — including incorporating the sense of touch into the equation.
Haptic technology — technology that uses vibrations and motion to communicate a touch sensation that corresponds to an avatar's interaction with physical objects in the virtual space — is something of a Holy Grail in the development of virtual worlds, and for the future of cybersex in particular.
Shuster prefers the term "teletouch" to "haptic," saying that he finds it "much more descriptive." As he envisions it, the development and improvement of teletouch technologies will bring the market around to something one might find in the fictional world of Star Trek.
"Teletouch just makes perfect sense," Shuster said. "It's the future of integration, where you can provide three-dimensional visual imagery of the sex act and transmit the touch sensation. Once you reach that, we're approaching 'holodeck' territory."
Scott Adams, the creator of the "Dilbert" cartoon, once wrote that the future will not be like Star Trek. One of the reasons he cited was that if the holodeck was ever invented, no man would ever leave his house; he would just stay in the holodeck, forever receiving massages from a team of Cindy Crawford look-alikes.
When presented with Adams' axiom, Shuster laughed, saying, "That's probably not far from the truth." It's also true, Shuster noted, that some people already spend too much of their time online or in the realm of fantasy; virtual worlds will merely present another escapist opportunity for such people.
"We're anticipating criticisms about people getting 'hooked' into this virtual world, and neglecting the real world," Shuster said. "But people who are predisposed to that are currently spending their time on Facebook or MySpace, and those are flat, not truly interactive environments. A virtual world is a very different experience for the brain — it feels much more real."
With all this potential, and all the opportunity that virtual worlds present, what could possibly stand in the way of their development? The short answer, according to Shuster, is logistics.
Asked about barriers to entry into the virtual world market, Shuster said that it might be easier to make a list of what doesn't stand in the way of a business that wants to develop its own RedLightCenter.
"There are a million little things that have to be done right in order for a project to be successful," Shuster said, "not just in terms of developing the technology that makes up the backend, but in determining the rule set and determining what you're going to allow the community to do."
As difficult as it is for law enforcement to police the real, physical world, Shuster said that policing the virtual world can be an even bigger challenge.
"You're balancing freedom of action for your members with not opening yourself up to problems," Shuster said. "How do you go about creating a community that is tight enough that it will police itself in some respects? How do you address the challenge of users who come in and stalk or threaten people, or threaten to commit suicide?"
The practical challenges extend into monetizing your virtual world, as well.
"In order for us to achieve profitability, we need to achieve better conversion and retention than what the traditional adult website has to generate in order to be profitable," Shuster said.
In establishing profitability, a natural path is to make use of the massive number of advertising possibilities available within the virtual space — which introduces another balancing act for operators of virtual worlds to consider: balancing advertising and other commerce with providing users a quality virtual experience.
"You get to the most fundamental issues, like what kind of advertising you can even permit," Shuster said.
"All kinds of advertisers want to come in, but you don't want consumers to feel bombarded. How do you avoid turning your virtual world into a spam area?"
That said, Shuster emphasized that RedLightCenter already presents significant opportunities for other adult companies to generate revenue within its virtual marketplace.
"We have a business development section of our website, which any business can go to and learn about opening a club and developing and integrating products within RedLightCenter," Shuster said. "There are so many advantages and opportunities. Retail businesses, for example, can display what they have for sale, just like advertising a DVD on a website. Unlike on a website, though, they can have salespeople working within the virtual environment — maybe a couple of hot girls doing signings and interacting with fans through their avatars. There is huge potential here."
Perhaps the biggest question when it comes to monetizing the virtual world, however, is the most fundamental one: how does one create a rich, extensive virtual world that is also accessible and easy to navigate for the users that will populate it?
"Creating a population center can be tricky," Shuster said. "Too much population density, too many people in any given place, creates confusion. How do you educate people about what's available in the virtual world?"
One possible obstacle to further development of adult virtual worlds in the U.S. could be a legal one; once the virtual worlds have developed to the point that they pop up on the radar inside the Washington Beltway, American politicians may well call for regulation of virtual worlds.
"We're seeing a smattering of it already," Shuster said of proposals to impose regulations that would complicate the operation of virtual worlds. "There will be a latency where the focus is on video games, because Congress won't understand the difference [between virtual words and video games]. We're prepared for all kinds of silliness from Congress."
Ultimately, though, Shuster believes that RedLightCenter will triumph over the challenges at hand, including any legal obstacle Washington might erect in its path.
"It's an inevitable, irresistible force," Shuster said. "It really isn't porn — it's intimacy."