The boundaries between sensuality and interactive electronic technology have dissolved.

Interactive Cybersex Fantasies Become Reality

If it’s springtime in Silicon Valley, there must be a computer conference going on. And there is: Hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees have converged in San Jose from around the world for the 1993 lnterMedia gathering, a business conference-cum-celebration of interactive electronics.

lnterMedia is the offspring of the Microsoft CD-ROM conference, which yearly charted the growth of computer programs on compact disc, a medium that offers huge advantages for storing sights, sounds, and moving images. After a slow start, CD-ROM began to take off last year, and judging from the size of this year’s lnterMedia, 1993 might be the year CD-ROM hits orbit.

But there’s something different. Something new. Something exciting to some, frightening to others.

For perhaps the first time in the public history of the computer industry, sex has reared its lovely head — specifically, interactive sex: Digital products that give you the opportunity to control the performance of computerized images and sounds. Electronic erotica, sex via computer. Products that you can not only look at and listen to, but also explore, command, and respond to — and that respond to you.

Even more specifically, the debut of Penthouse Interactive and Penthouse Online, the first two in a wave of beyond-the-next-generation electronic experiences being prepared in the Penthouse labs.

It’s a huge wave, and one that we’ll have fun catching. As the editor of OMNI, editorial director of Compute, and now “Cyberspace” columnist for Penthouse, I can tell you that it’s a wave of convergences: sexuality, computers, and the future coming together in one mad, sexy, technological, interactive, electronic tsunami. And if there’s one credo I hold most dear about the wave of the future that’s washing toward us all, it’s that you’re better off surfing on the crest of the wave than being swept away by it.

So grab your boards and hold on, because the wave of interactive erotica began to break in San Jose.

But if there’s Penthouse and there’s sex, there’s bound to be controversy. And in San Jose, there was.

Sexuality, you see, has only rarely been acknowledged by the computing community, and never in so public a forum with so much fanfare and media attention. And that made a lot of people uncomfortable. Indeed, only minutes before Penthouse President and Chief Operating Officer Kathy Keeton was to appear onstage and introduce Penthouse Interactive and Penthouse Online, which she had been formally invited to California to do, there was talk of censoring her demonstration — despite the fact that her speech was clearly labeled for adults, and was, furthermore, being given relatively late in the evening.

More temperate heads prevailed, after some debate, and the products were publicly unveiled to near universal amazement and approval.

What are the censors and moralists so afraid of? And why is everyone else so excited?

The answer to both questions is simple and identical: Nothing less than a revolution in technology, in personal freedom, and in the media available for sexual expression and exploration is taking place — and it’s taking place right now. In short, the censors are afraid of the future, even though it’s already upon us.

And the promise of that future, being delivered today, is why everyone else is cheering.

Let’s look a little more closely at the nature of the interactive multimedia revolution, and the part Penthouse Interactive is playing in it.

First things first: Interactive multimedia is the buzzword of the moment, meaning different things to different people. Basically, multimedia combines sights, sounds, motion, music, text, and assorted odds and ends into a single experience. Interactive means that you can control certain aspects of that experience — you decide what you want to see or hear, how characters in a multi-media product should behave…. You give directions and issue orders, and the computer program responds.

At Penthouse, the goals for interactive multimedia products were simple. For all that, achieving those goals was complex. Above all, the user must feel as though he or she is a part of the experience, not simply sitting back and observing. True interactivity involves more than just controlling the movement of images on a screen. There is a level of involvement or engagement, of naturalness, that a deeply interactive experience offers. You are doing things you could not do in any other medium, yet the activities have to make sense on a human as well as a computer level.

Next, the Penthouse Interactive experience must also be a true multimedia product, delivering full and realistic motion, sounds, music, speech, and color. Each of these aspects must be integrated with the others, seamlessly and organically, avoiding the sort of stop-and-start stuttering that disrupts the flow of too many interactive products.

Last but hardly least, Penthouse Interactive must hew to the same standards of elegance, wit, beauty, and sensuality as the magazine for which it’s named.

In other words, this would not be just one more video game, however sexy a video game it might be. Penthouse Interactive would break new ground, stepping beyond frontiers in electronics with the same facility as its parent has shown in print for almost a quarter of a century.

To achieve all of these goals-and, with luck, exceed them — would require lots of storage space. A decision was made early on to put Penthouse Interactive on CD-ROM — computer discs that look just like audio CDs but are capable of storing vast amounts of digitized video and audio information.

For development purposes the product would first be produced for the Apple Macintosh, using a new piece of software called Quicktime, which makes it much easier to store and display full-motion video images. Once completed for the Mac, Penthouse Interactive could then be converted to run under Windows in IBM PCs and compatible computers.

It’s not enough, even today, to simply select your medium. You’ve got to allow for its quirks as well as its capabilities. Too many CD- ROM products simply consist of materials from other media shoveled onto the compact disc. Penthouse Interactive would be different. Achieving the Penthouse Interactive goals would also require a talented production, design, and programming team.

Enter James Ehrlich, president of ICFX, a California-based interactive multimedia studio. Working with Matthew Ferro, managing director of Penthouse Video, Ehrlich, programmer Clark Higgins, and designer Bert Monroe helped refine the company’s vision, even as ambitions for the product grew.

“We wanted to add a truly interactive hook to Penthouse’s traditional material,” Ehrlich says. “And we wanted to put together a piece that really showed what the new media could do for adult materials. No one had really done anything good yet. We wanted to be the first.”

Despite that, there was an unwillingness on the part of the Penthouse Interactive team to rush the project. Penthouse Interactive would be done right or not at all.

Doing it right, for Ehrlich, meant starting from scratch. There’s a vast technical difference between video for display on a computer monitor and videotape shot for TV. The video footage for Penthouse Interactive would be filmed specifically for its ultimate appearance on the computer, ensuring that the images take full advantage of the computer display while minimizing its drawbacks.

And what exactly would those images be? What would make Penthouse Interactive truly interactive, an experience unlike anything you could achieve anywhere else?

“The goal,” Ferro recalls, “was the creation of a virtual photography studio where the user could stage and take photographs.”

Photographs of what? Come on — this is Penthouse Interactive, after all! The “virtual photography studio” would include some of the world’s most beautiful and sensuous women. And because the product is interactive, you get to issue instructions and requests, which the girls then fulfill. In short, you become the director of a photo shoot for Penthouse, the most sophisticated and famous men’s magazine in the world. With Penthouse Interactive you’re on the set, behind the camera, and in charge of three separate photo sessions with three different and delicious women.

Three Pets were chosen to be the stars of the Penthouse Interactive CD- ROM: 1993 Pet of the Year Julie Strain, Natalie Lennox, and Dominique St. Croix. In the course of an intense 17-hour day in Los Angeles, all three were filmed in various states of dress and undress, much as they would be in the course of a shoot for the magazine.

The interactive shoot itself proved to be quite different, according to Julie Strain. “It was a very exciting experience to be aware that my audience would be able to interact with me,” she recalls. Exciting — and demanding. “In order to give the viewer lots of interactive choices,” she says, “I would stop and go through several different routines, movements, or gestures at each step. It was different from a continuous shoot — more challenging, but also more exciting.”

Exciting in several interesting ways, she found. “I felt like I was already in contact with the viewer,” Julie says. “Maybe it was the awareness that, through the CD-ROM, they would be able to have me do what they wanted that helped me to feel I was already looking through the computer screen at them. It became a very personal experience.”

And a very futuristic one. The idea of interactivity appealed to Julie’s sense of adventure. “I like to be a catalyst,” she says. “I like the idea of bridging two worlds — computers and sexuality — with the result that something completely new is created.”

Behind the scenes, as the Pets went through their motions, Ehrlich and the ICFX crew went through theirs, carefully monitoring lighting, camera placement, and a host of other technical details, mindful of the effect Quicktime would have on the footage. Every item in a photograph is information, and in a digital product, that information must be processed. Details that might enhance a print photo — sparkling diamonds, for example — can slow down the speed of a computer image, especially an animated one. Any extraneous information was eliminated: The focus for the cameras was the Pets and their scintillating performances.

The footage was converted from filmed images into digital information; those lovely 36-24-36s, among others, transformed into the ones and zeros that computers understand.

An interactive product’s interface is crucial, perhaps more so in an erotic product than any other kind. The interface — through which you make your preferences known to the computer — can be either a doorway to a compelling and believable fantasy experience or an Achilles’ heel over which the product stumbles.

Penthouse lnteractive’s interface evolved over several months into just the sort of doorway that invites users inside. Its primary feature is a simulated camera, through which the user frames, focuses, and photographs the Pets as they go through their routines. When a photo is “taken,” the computer notes its digital address and grabs precisely that frame for later perusal as part of a computerized contact sheet.

But the camera is not the interface’s only feature. With more than 45 minutes of digitized video, there’s plenty of action that you, as the photo-shoot director, must control. Simple dropdown menus serve as your instruction sheet, letting you tell the Pets what to do, how to pose, and what movements and actions you want to include as part of your session.

When the session is ended, your photographic work is evaluated by Bob Guccione himself, whose eye for excellent, sensual photography is as acute on disc as it is in the magazine.

“This is a breakthrough product,” Matthew Ferro says. “And it’s only the first generation. The company is committed to remaining on the absolute cutting edge of technology, and with a starting point like this, there’s no doubt that that’s where we’ll be.”

Penthouse Interactive is currently available for Macintosh CD-ROM computers. The PC version will be available in November.

Penthouse Interactive was not the only edge-of-tomorrow product shown at lnterMedia. Penthouse Online, an adult-oriented telecommunications service available to users with computers equipped with modems, a device that permits transmission and reception of data over telephone lines, is already up and running, providing thousands of users with the chance to view full-color images of Penthouse models, to “chat” with Pets via the keyboard, to exchange electronic mail (email), and to adjourn to private electronic “rooms” for more intimate conversations.

From the beginning there was a conviction that Penthouse Online be unlike any other online service extant. “Penthouse’s reputation for graphical excellence had to be matched online,” says William Tynan, vice-president of technology and information services. “And that proved to be quite a technical trick.”

The challenges included rapid transmission and reception of high-quality color images, enabling a user to receive— “download,” in computer-speak-both color images from the magazine and images previously unpublished. Among the many features that distinguish Penthouse Online is the fact that you can shop among the hundreds of photos available, previewing them before selecting one or more for downloading.

The technological innovations extend to email as well. With Penthouse Online’s email service, you can attach electronic images to messages you send out and receive electronic images from other email correspondents. The difference is that these images can be viewed on the computer screen during the online session, unlike other services in which image viewing tends to take place offline.

“The overriding goal was to make this a very personal service,” Tynan notes. “To the greatest degree possible, we have pushed the telecommunications envelope with Penthouse Online. And we’re working constantly on new innovations and improvements.”

Perhaps the most popular of the service’s features are the regular chat sessions with Penthouse Pets. System operator Bruce Bowden observes that the chance to “speak” by way of the keyboard with a Pet brings out a great diversity of questions from users — and brings out the best in the Pets.

“We have a lot of fun during the chat sessions,” Bowden says. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere, more than a little playful, more than a little flirtatious. This really is a case of using advanced technology for very human interaction.”

November 1992 Pet of the Month Alexis Christian has participated in several online chat sessions and is delighted with the diversity of questions and comments she receives. “You get to talk to all sorts of people,” she says, “and you get to answer all sorts of questions. I was surprised and pleased to find that there were females as well as males online, and thrilled at how personal the conversations became.”

The online conversational experience is different from, say, telephone conversations in that the online interface seems to melt inhibitions in a way that even voice-to-voice contact cannot. “You never know what you’re going to hear online,” Bowden points out.

Like Penthouse Interactive, Penthouse Online is still in its infancy, not only constantly growing, but also constantly evolving.

As are so many of the emerging electronic technologies and interactive erotic arenas. For all that the interactive revolution is moving full speed ahead across the computer and telecommunications landscapes, there’s no doubt that the best is yet to come. Bear in mind that when Penthouse made its debut, the personal computer lay a full decade in the future. In fact, when OMNI was born in 1978, the Macintosh was still six years away from its initial, quite primitive model.

If the past decade, then, has witnessed a silicon transformation of virtually every aspect of our lives, what will the next ten years bring?

We’ve learned enough to know that when it comes to interactive electronics, even the wildest of predictions have a way of seeming all too conservative, of quickly being eclipsed by reality. Still, the temptation to predict is strong, so a few speculations will be hazarded.

First, sexuality is now a full part of the interactive revolution, and it’s not going to go away despite the best efforts of self-appointed censors, regulators, and moral arbiters. Sex has always flowed with technology: printing, photography, motion pictures, videotape. As far as being a medium for sexual expression, the computer is no different.

Actually, in many ways the computer is quite different. All of the predecessor technologies offered the opportunity to be a spectator, to watch, read, and study, but not — other than by extension in your imagination — to participate. Interactive electronics let you join in, shaping your fantasies to suit your own individual dreams, tastes, and preferences. Done properly, with respect for its audience, interactive erotica can be the most supple and elegant medium for sexual fantasies ever developed.

Today’s frontiers are tomorrow’s well-tilled fields. While Penthouse Interactive and Penthouse Online represent the very state of their respective arts and technologies, we will have a whole new universe of electronic wonders at our command within a decade.

Let’s go a step beyond tomorrow. Consider online services. Suppose you could assume an electronic identity quite different from your own. This is already quite common on many of the text-only services available today, with individuals furiously typing themselves into characters far removed from their real-world personae.

Now imagine the next generation of online ser vice, one with full-color, smoothly animated, completely controllable images to represent you and other online customers. This is already taking shape on one online entertainment service, the Sierra Network, which offers animated games over the telephone line.

The next couple of years will see this technology evolve, and with that evolution will come not only a deepening of the online animated experience, but also a broadening or liberalization of the sorts of experiences available to you. Create an animated representation of your dream version of yourself. Guide it through adventures, many of them of the erotic kind, no doubt, with other electronic alter egos. Fritz the Cat, not to mention Mickey Mouse, could only dream of this sort of animated amour — you’ll soon be able to live it.

We’re still primarily concerned with the mind, with imaginary adventures and adventurers. After all, the mind is the most powerful of our erogenous zones. But the body has its needs, too, and the interactive electronic industry is not about to neglect those needs.

Think about virtual reality — the use of computerized goggles, headphones, tactile feedback gloves that let you “feel” objects that exist only as digital images, and other appliances, garments, and appurtenances all aimed at making an electronic experience as physically real as possible. Teledildonics is the generally accepted word used to describe these devices and experiences, and the first teledildonic products are already in development.

Intelligent wardrobes, bulky at first but quickly becoming more comfortable and practical, will give you the opportunity to insert yourself more fully into the electronic world provided by the computer.

Again, fantasy and electronic reality will merge: In a virtual world, you will be able to assume whatever persona you wish… and you’ll also be able to interact with electronic fantasy figures ultimately indistinguishable from the real thing. Always wanted to have an affair with Cleopatra or Scheherazade? Virtual reality may well make that possible before the next millennium is more than a few years old.

But why stop there? The trick with any fantasy medium is to persuade yourself that the fantasy is real. Virtual reality will do this through sensors and feedback devices attached to your body. It should be possible, though, to bypass the body altogether and proceed directly to the seat of all fantasy, all desire, all sensation — to tap directly into the mind itself.

To do so one would use a bio-chip, a piece of manufactured — or, more likely, organically generated — technology that could be linked directly to your central nervous system, feeding impulses, images, and experiences into your brain. This would create sensations as intense as anything you’ve ever experienced — experiences that you will remember as real, even though they took place only in your brain.

Illusion becomes reality. This is the promise of the great technological revolution of the late twentieth century. Our erotic natures are as inextricable a part of our humanity as our urge to create or invent. In the world of interactive electronics, all three impulses can merge: eros, creativity, and technology. Welcome to the world of cybersex.

Next month in “Cyberspace,” we’ll look at the very real risks posed by would — be electronic censors, who are already putting programs in motion to limit what you can see, read, and experience via your computer.

Way, way before live cam shows and models with whom you could develop somewhat of a relationship (like, with, say … PenthouseCams, for example), the term “interactive” simply meant that when you put a DVD into your machine, various things could happen, depending upon your own interaction with the program on the disc. A mere 20 years later, it may be hard to believe that tech ever ruled as top of the art, but it did. Unless you lived through it, you might find it difficult to understand the thrill we got simply by choosing which door to click — or in the Penthouse case, when to click the shutter button. Every day was an adventure, as you could play over and over again and never quite have the same experience twice (well, at least very often). Then streaming came along and the women could talk to you live … and the world changed. If you want to get some sense of the times, we found a review of “Penthouse Interactive” put on the web in 1994. This is how things looked back then. Seriously.

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