Phoenix Forum Tech Panel Tackles VR, 4K Digital Media Challenges

Phoenix Forum Tech Panel Tackles VR, 4K Digital Media Challenges
Alejandro Freixes

PHOENIX — As the adult industry capitalizes on rising demand for VR, 4K and livestreamed content, data-intensive distribution will increasingly rely on unique hosting solutions, as well as a multi-faceted approach to website optimization. The Phoenix Forum shed light on this complex and ever-shifting dynamic during the “Tech: Arriving Early to the Party, Again” panel, where accomplished luminaries Brad Mitchell, Steven Daris and Anna Lee delved deeply into a variety of relevant topics.

Mitchell, the owner of MojoHost, kicked off the panel by imploring the audience to share their own backgrounds, lest he fail to tickle their fancy with the coming conversation. “When I moderate, I like to figure out who’s in the audience, to provide a more valuable experience,” he remarked. “So, by a show of hands, who’s got paysites?” A few raised their hands. “Any billers?” None moved. “Nope. Advertising networks?” Several nodded. “Who does affiliates?” Another smattering identified themselves.

Satisfied with his informal reading of the room, Mitchell dove headlong into the demands of quickly delivering high visual fidelity footage. “A lot of content is done in 4K, with substantially-sized files,” he said matter of factly, before turning to Daris, CEO of Red Apple Media. “Steven, talk to us about delivering content like that. It’s not easy to serve it off the shelf, because everybody has different qualities of internet connections. I know site owners are faced with the challenge.”

Daris replied, “It’s really unusual to have content that is perfect for everyone in every location. Here, I have an iPad in front of me, an iWatch on my wrist and an iPhone in my pocket. Each of those devices requires different things to produce the content you want.”

Lee also concurred. “And delivering content on VR hardware has its own challenges,” she relayed. “Who knows what VR is? Everyone?” The audience chuckled. “Cool. You all check out VR content?” Quite a few had. “We are the makers of HoloGirlsVR and we are also distributors of Kink and Burning Angel,” Lee offered, by way of introduction. “We started off in the VR world of business when we realized people were interested in exploring VR with adult performers, and my background was in film so we branched out and started making live action productions. We’ve been doing so since 2015, and it’s been growing by leaps and bounds. The technology is definitely sticking now, even though people were asking if it was a fad or if it was actually going to stay. It’s had that staying power and a lot of people are looking to get involved now.”

With the sheer size of delivering content like VR, Mitchell pointed out it presents unique problems. “Even if it looks like a bandwidth issue causing buffering, it could be issues with encoding, and there’s definitely some choices to be made that can affect buffering for the user experience,” he illumined. “You may not want to store your content locally, since it’s an asset you’ll find yourself re-encoding over the long-term. It’s one of the differences between hosting with GoDaddy or one of our companies. You can get on the phone with us and we’ll tell you what our other clients use, because we have other CMS platforms like Elevated X. So, while some people may use WordPress for cost efficacy, if you don’t know how to properly use it, it won’t serve you well.”

Daris chimed in, then, about the subtle considerations involved in optimal encoding. “Yes, you have to test and test again,” he advised. “Re-encode, experiment with different formulas. And, that’s one area where we’re making progress. You have to work into your budget that whatever you’re using today, you’ll have to change it in five years. But, when we deal with technology stuff, it’s not just videos you have to redo. It’s your CMS, your databases… responsive designs need to be implemented. As different devices and resolutions appear, you need to keep up with it. At this stage, what I see as the challenge is people upgrading to a faster CMS to support better video… adaptive video... upload multi-bitrate. I agree that WordPress drove this issue. Easy publishing meant that the smaller the page size, the quicker the delivery.”

Despite these oft nuanced challenges, Lee has witnessed an overall reduction in the cost of producing and distributing data-heavy content like VR.Fortunately, overall costs and technology have improved for faster content delivery, but VR was very expensive at first,” she recalled. “While production costs for the set, girls and everything else was the same as usual, figuring out how to shoot VR content and do post-production involved making expensive mistakes. But, three years later, we figured it out. Besides the expensive lessons, something we learned that was very important, was that the customers were more interested in a girlfriend experience. The standard cameras off the shelf couldn’t provide that, but from the VR explosion in porn, something that emerged is guys really wanting those sweet, intimate, girlfriend kinds of films instead of the usual in your face, outrageous gonzo stuff.”

Underscoring the necessity for appropriate hosting, in light of more unwieldy visuals, Mitchell delineated,Technology like VR is great, but if it’s not implemented well, then it doesn’t work out. Industry-specific hosting companies tend to give our customers a lot in exchange for what they’re paying versus mainstream and enterprise space, where it’s upward of four to five times more expensive. It’s also not just about being on a good platform, but having good page and image optimization, via compression that reduces size without loss of image quality.”

Among these many considerations, Daris made a distinction between videos and other content on a page that can contribute to less than ideal speeds. “A lot of us forget to reduce not just the videos, but also the page itself, to reduce it into a small efficient piece of code,” he confessed. “For small site owners, lots of your surfers are looking at things on mobile devices, so if you have lots of thumbnails and HD images, do you really want to display those in a smaller local format? Or would you rather have it rendered in multiple sizes? On faster loading sites, there’s a correlation between having an effective page size, design and delivery, that can all impact search engine ratings.”

Lee likewise noted the impact that tweaking a site into top-notch shape can have on a user’s experience. “Yah, site optimization is key, especially because we’re putting out every scene we shoot in six different formats,” she contributed. “Right now, honestly, people are using Samsung Gear a lot and their Android phones. Visual quality depends on what kind of device you’re using, since you download specifically through it. If it’s an HTC Vibe, then it’s definitely 4K. As far as what we use to shoot with, we’ve developed our own proprietary rig. If it’s a super close shot, it’s a different rig versus what we use when shooting something far away, for a wide shot.”

Observing that VR gear is not yet as widespread as other hardware, Mitchell interjected, “Technology is changing on such a rapid schedule these days; I wonder how many years it will take for massive consumer adoption of advances like VR,” he mused. “Who knows? But, there’s really a shortage of content produced in those formats, so there’s lots of customers that are hungry for that.”

And those customers have yet to fully seize 4K content, Daris offered. “For 4K, even though companies like Netflix offer ‘4K,’ it isn’t true 4K,” he cautioned. “It’s compressed, since the massive size of the files takes a lot. You need at least 25 Mbps, with no one else using the internet. 720 and below performs best on iPhones. So, when we’re dealing with clients on the hosting side, they ask questions about how to encode their video. When I first started, our clients did JPEG push, then there was the war with Flash, MP3s and MP4s, WMD files... and now, most of the content today is H.264. However, it’s H.265 that’s really built for 4K. It’s going to be the next thing that pushes 4K to the mainstream web.”

Lee agreed. “With easier 4K distribution, there will be more opportunities for tech crossovers like livecam VR,” she said. “There’s a bunch of companies that get involved with that side of VR, like CAM4 and Terpon. They’re all quite good. The customer base is growing exponentially and people who own VR hardware are willing to spend good money for their content. Terpon does it on a rental basis, and if you’re a VR cam model, customers will come looking for you, so if you’re wanting to get in, now is a good time! On the horizon, a lot of companies will take advantage of evolving VR technology by including augmented reality (AR) on top of it. Like the Pokémon game. They’re looking into having performers appear in your own environment virtually, like your own home. And I think that’s where everything is going as well, with the addition of haptic technology like Kiiroo.”

As so many sectors converge in a data-heavy overlap, Mitchell foresees greater necessity for storage options. “As data needs increase, businesses may turn to things like cloud storage,” he offered. “As far as whether you should move into one now, the answer is maybe, because what we’re really talking about is virtualization. There’s a software layer of virtualization that’s allowing you to access resources. But for content publishers, at least in terms of Amazon and other cloud offerings, their bandwidth is five or six times more expensive. That’s the equalizer, especially in this content-rich space. Often they’re on oversubscribed servers. You sign up for a package that says two CPUs, 4GB RAM and 100GB of storage, but you’re actually getting scheduled access through a hypervisor to two cores. That can start to slow things down.”

To this point, Daris added,Ultimately, having a dedicated server is ideal once you get huge. But, a cloud is basically a virtualized environment. We’ve had clouds for 15 or 20 years, we just called it something else back then. But, be careful when they advertise free resources, because they’ll become oversubscribed. You have to read deeply, when you experience issues like your websites being slow at two or three in the morning. Dedicated clouds is what you really want. Also, keep in mind that as technology advances, you need to prepare for users with GB connections.”

Understanding those changing connections and desires from the user standpoint has aided Lee in targeting her content shrewdly. Still, GB speeds or not, the battle is uphill. “The file size on content like 360-degree VR is substantial, no matter how fast the connection is,” she mentioned. “360 VR is really cool, but it’s expensive. Production-wise, if I’m shooting in 360, I have to have a crew hide everything. Distribution-wise, 360 costs twice as much as 180. We shoot in 220 usually, since having black bars on the side in 180 can be annoying. But, if you’re a typical customer, most people are jerking off in their chair or bed — they’re not trying to spin around while doing themselves. There is a time and a place for 360, though. One of the very first we shot was a four-girl scene surrounding the user. So, you can have a different experience every time. But, until the players are able to shuffle the girl in front of you rather than having you move, it’s not ideal. Most customers are fine with 180 or 220.”

Mitchell nodded. “To make sure customers are getting the best experience, be sure to surf your own websites,” he explained. “That advice is as relevant now as it was fifteen years ago. You really need to put on a customer hat sometimes and try to surf your site from Starbucks, to get their perspective. Also, have a good handle on your analytics. Bottlenecks can happen via rate limiting software controlling how much speediness you have access to, which can screw up your hosting. So, know your data on every level.”

Affirming Mitchell’s advice, Daris said, “Yeah, do studies with clients on data — how long they spend on the site, what pages they surf and such. If you improve their experience, they’re more likely to become a return customer.”

Lee elaborated, “By studying my customers, I’ve learned that the biggest selling titles are the girlfriend experience… the hot wife, where she’s whispering to you. You don’t need 360-degree VR or ultra-fast speeds for that. We do things like changing the audio to match what ear she’s whispering into. In fact, we were one of the first VR companies to do a kissing scene. It was a first date setup, watching a movie on the couch together, then the date progresses and you guys end up banging. We had her sitting on top of the guy in POV and she leans in to kiss you. You feel like it’s happening, your brain goes ‘wait a sec, this girl is really touching my lips.’ Your brain tricks you into feeling that. So, with the right performer, lighting and scenario, you can imagine her smell, her taste.

“As you can imagine, dating would also work really well with VR cams,” she continued. “People would love a live VR experience, while getting to know the other person. If you could date someone in VR, that’s better than just chatting with them. You can see them and talk to them on a personal level, so definitely, I think that’s where things are headed. People have told me VR cams are where the industry will really start to push hard, along with haptics.”

Given the hard work that goes into producing and distributing content, Mitchell concluded the panel with a solution for password sharing. “If you want to protect content from being stolen, I recommend ProxyPass,” he said. “It’s an option that’ll help you easily identify and stop password sharing. As part of that, there are configurable options to figure out how your users use your site. This is the same in 2017 as in 2002. You don’t want to sell a trial membership, only to have someone log in and scrape your entire site.”

Daris concurred. “Most of our clients use ProxyPass,” he said. “It’s popular in the industry.”