Well, this is awkward. (And also a little not safe for work, so don’t say you weren’t warned.)
Here’s the story: There’s a virtual reality event called the Adult VR Festa, because of course there is. People come to watch and demo a variety of “adult” VR products. Within the comforts of a headset, that’s fine—probably. Some experiences are surely better than others, but you can hardly say that’s unique to the virtual world. Anyhow, where things get weird is that you’re not really in a virtual world. It looks that way through the headset, but people can see you and that’s, yep, a little awkward.
This is… not great? The image of a man thrusting in the vague direction of a headless and limbless torso is a little weird, and VR Scout’s Photoshop machinations only emphasize this point. Mind you, the visual incongruity of this whole affair is not entirely without precedent; competitive air sex is a thing, but there the torso is wholly imaginary—air sex is performative. To wit, here’s the consistently brilliant Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the air sex circuit:
The best way to judge Air Sex is as an athletic and creative endeavor, which is why the stand-ups and sportswriters tend to do well. The porn stars make everything too porny. They should be the right fit—this is sex, after all—but in their excessive lasciviousness and their sexed-up wordplay, they come across as desperate and tonally wrong.
The issues raised by the Adult VR Festa meme are not really exclusive to adult content. In any context, it is not clear whether VR is a performative medium. When everyone’s wearing a headset, this isn’t really an issue—but how often does that happen? Waiting in line at a VR event is always a recipe for laughs. VR, if you’re not doing it yourself looks pretty dumb. And that’s fine. Maybe? There’s nothing wrong with a piece of technology that makes you look silly, but this meme is a reminder that the terms of engagement are not agreed upon when it comes to VR.
These are the limits of what technology can fake
This meme also raises the question of whether it matters when a VR controller looks a little dumb. If the thing you hold in your hand doesn’t look like a gun, does that really matter? It looks right in the headset. In that same spirit, it doesn’t really matter if the body in VR sex doesn’t really look like a body. But of course it kind of does. People can see that it looks weird. And before you put on the headset, you can too. These are the limits of what technology can fake. It’s a fun meme, but it’s also a design problem that needs to be solved.