Is virtual reality the future of online pornography?

Woman wearing a virtual reality headset
Image caption Warning: This page contains some graphic description of sex

Without pornography, the internet as we know it today, would not exist.

It's a bold claim, but some experts credit porn with popularising many online activities we take for granted.

These range from video streaming and webcams, to credit card transactions to opt-in email subscriptions.

Virtual reality is one area the technology industry is looking to make big money - and the developers of sex toys, cam sites and porn videos are already staking their claims.

But these new "immersive" forms are causing concern for the therapists treating people who say pornography use has caused them emotional and physical problems.

And they raise questions about what the future of our relationships will look like - both on and offline.

Kiiroo is just one of many companies whose future success rests on the increasing popularity of virtual reality sex.

Based in Amsterdam, the team launched their business with interactive sex toys for long-distance couples.

But they soon realised their products would be compatible with the new breed of virtual reality porn films.

Their devices enhance virtual reality pornography by adding physical sensation to an already "immersive" visual experience, according to Maurice Op de Beek, the firm's chief technology officer.

Pornographic videos are shot from a first-person perspective. They are then coded so that the images seen on-screen correspond with movements made by the toys.

Maurice Op de Beek being interviewed on camera

While there are more videos shot from a male viewpoint, there are also many aimed at women.

The companies sales figures suggest that young people in their 20s and 30s are one of their main markets.

Both men and women buy the products but Maurice acknowledges the sex toys designed for women are more limited.

While the device for men works independently, at the moment the one for females requires more input from the user.

"That will change," says Maurice. "We will have a new product coming out that will be much more immersive."

All the devices are going to be "much more realistic" in the future, he adds.

"There will be all kinds of toys connected to movies, so you'll have an entire experience, [with devices] moving in all kinds of ways."

Virtual reality headset

Newsbeat's special investigation into the effects of porn on young people has found that more men in their late teens and early-20s are suffering from erectile dysfunction.

One of the UK's top psychosexual therapists puts much of the blame on people becoming addicted to watching online porn.

Others have told Newsbeat porn has made them feel bad about their bodies, not be able to relate to members of the opposite sex and affected trust in their relationships.

Psychosexual and relationship therapist Sarah Calvert says she has grave concerns about the repercussions virtual reality pornography may have on viewers.

They definitely feel a very strong connection with me
Ela Darling
Web cam model and entrepreneur

"Your self-esteem can have a really big knock if you're in these virtual reality experiences and you're looking down and seeing ripped abs, big penis and then you come back to reality and that's not the case," she explains.

Sarah worries that "loneliness" can drive people to use internet pornography, but that virtual reality won't alleviate that feeling.

Like Ela, Sarah is aware of people who feel a really strong connection with the porn stars they see performing on screen.

"These viewers are trying to escape an unhappy [real] life for a happy virtual life," she says.

"The issues they're trying to escape from are still there when they finish that experience and they could be exacerbated because the person becomes isolated in virtual reality."

Ela Darling

Ela Darling is a webcam model, who uses virtual reality and devices, to perform to and interact with viewers all around the world.

Your self-esteem can have a really big knock if you're in these virtual reality experiences... and then you come back to reality
Sarah Calvert
Psychosexual and relationship therapist

She's also co-founded her own virtual reality business.

"From a virtual reality perspective, the experience is so much more present and intimate than anything before it," Ela explains.

"It's like a Polaroid compared to an Imax film. You're entirely immersed in the world that I have cultivated for you to consume."

Virtual reality creates a far more intimate experience.

"If someone just wants to see a girl be naked, there are many, many ways they can do that for free basically," she says.

"What this [cam modelling] offers is human connection and virtual reality exponentially increases that connection."

Sex toys

But Ela acknowledges that the relationship between her and her clients can lack balance.

"I've had a couple of people at this point who will experience my VR chatroom and they start to feel comfortable and safe," she explains.

"Do I feel safe and trust them on the same level that they feel that with me?

"Certainly not. I don't actually know these people, I don't have the same experience they're having. I'm not in their virtual bedrooms with them.

"On that level there's definitely a skewed reciprocity.

Warning: This video contains explicit content

Find us on Instagram at BBCNewsbeat and follow us on Snapchat, search for bbc_newsbeat