Meet Ela Darling: Porn Star, Activist, Tech Pioneer

A former librarian is fusing porn with virtual reality and leading the next generation of adult films

Ela Darling traded a career in library sciences for a life as a porn star – but wasn't content to just stick to performance. Credit: Lindsey Byrnes for Rolling Stone

In 2013, Ela Darling tried VR and watched her world explode. Called Blue Marble, the experience sent her in to space, listening to David Bowie and watching asteroids go by. Soon there was an alert: "Oxygen – 50 percent." She kept floating, mesmerized by the combination of "Space Oddity" and the asteroids before her eyes. Another alert: "Oxygen – 10 percent" The asteroids hit the earth, earth exploded and she was the only human floating in space. Then she ran out of oxygen.

In the case of Darling, watching the world end was just her beginning. Four years later, Darling is not only the first live VR webcam girl, but the co-founder of VrTube.xx, the world's first VR webcam software. "I knew VR would be great for porn," she says, reflecting on that first experience in space. "It conveys so much story with so little. Perfect for constructing something sensual and erotic."

Originally from Texas, Darling, 31, is a porn performer, activist and tech entrepreneur. By 21, she'd received her masters in information science from the University of Illinois, spent a year working as a librarian in Boston, and been an active member of the Wizard Rock community, a scene centered around Harry Potter-inspired music. Bored with the East Coast after a  brief stint in bondage modeling, in 2009 she moved to Los Angeles to act in porn. Outside of performing, Darling has served as president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, moderated the Women in VR Facebook Group and even found time to get second place in her run for Democratic Assembly of North Hollywood. 

After her first experience dying in space, Darling knew she wanted to work in VR but didn't know how. Without the tech expertise, VR seemed like an impossible market to enter as a porn star. That is, until she saw a Reddit ad seeking adult performers for a VR project. After messaging with the post's author, Darling flew to Washington, D.C. to meet 20-year-old James Ashfield, a junior studying physics at the University of Maryland, College Park. When she walked into the dorm, she encountered some of Ashfield's friends playing Dungeons and Dragons in his common room. After discussing D&D for a bit, Darling walked in to Ashfield's room and performed her masturbation scene in front of two 180-degree 3D cameras. "I pretended I was webcamming and talked to the camera like it was someone I wanted to fuck," she says. "Because that's what works."

Ashfield was blown away. "[He'd] never felt such a connection to someone in a porno," Darling says. Plus, she had a lot of questions. "I had been expecting someone who was uninterested in the technology," Ashfield admits. "Who would be trying to finish her work as quickly as possible." Instead, Darling asked Ashfield how his cameras worked, how the experience would be structured and what the market looked like. She wanted to know everything.

Most importantly, Darling asked Ashfield if he had any paperwork for her. He said they were fine. Darling stopped him and brought out all the forms he needed, telling him if he didn't have them he couldd go to prison. "I sort of saved his ass in that regard," she laughs. Soon after, Ashfield reached out and asked if they could continue as business partners. "It was clear that we needed someone with more experience in the industry and insight into the performer mindset," Ashfield says.

After their first attempt at 180-degree footage, the duo decided to try 360. "Being able to see all around you," Darling says, "is a small thing that you're not really gonna pay much attention to when you're in the experience, but when it's not there it's noticeable."

Looking to differentiate themselves in the industry, the pair thought it would be cool to start making content with position tracking, so viewers could move around the room while the performance was going on. Working with ConnectV2, a device for the Xbox that contains a time-of-flight depth camera, the duo realized their capture was flawed. "If someone was sitting cross legged [the viewer] could see right through," Ashfield explains. "It wasn't really good enough."

They scratched the tracking idea to pursue interactive porn. Flying back and forth from L.A. to College Park, Darling worked with Ashfield to develop The Dating Simulator, a VR experience where viewers talk to Darling as though they're on a date. "We wanted to do something that wasn't obvious," Darling says. "It was sort of behavioral, like a social learning tool."

In the experience, a user sits across the table from Darling as she introduces herself, talks a bit about her childhood in Texas then lets her date know she's a porn star. The user then clicks on a response: "So tell me about Texas," or "Texas must have sucked," or "Pardon my saying so, but you've got a bangin' body."

Though it was closer to their goal, the stimulator still didn't feel real. "If you're flirting with someone, the conversation you have is actually incredibly complex," says Ashfield. "It takes intelligence and the ability to hold innuendo." They ditched the stimulator and in turn realized their company mission: make VR interactions feel real.

"The best way to have a really high-quality conversation was to have a live person," Ashfield says. This led the pair to create their VRTube.xx software, now partnered with webcam site Cam4VR. Instead of recording performers, their program lets talent perform live.

For performers, Darling describes the experience as "a crowd-funded group show." Relying on tokens, performers can set their rates. If you want a performer to flash their breasts, they might ask for 10 tokens, masturbation might be 100. The talent can then get as close as 6-inches from their camera, closer to a conversation in bed than a performance. The software then immediately stitches their content, allowing the talent to focus purely on their viewer. Just to get to this point of learning the software and setting up the camera is brief: all under two hours. "I care more about catering to the performers and making them successful than I do about making some dude with a boner jizz," Darling says. "When you take care of the performers, they will make a better product."

That said, the product they deliver is tailored to every viewer. Unlike other VR porn companies that place viewers into the legs of a white female to watch a pool boy come over for sex, Darling wants her users and her performers to voice their desires. "White guys are gonna be fine. But people of color, people of different body types, with injuries, with disabilities," she stops. "I want my product to be inclusive as possible."

This inclusivity can then be applied to the entertainment and medical industries. "There are a lot of barriers for entry [when it comes to psychiatry]," Darling says, listing hefty prices, social stigma, unwelcoming offices and travel time. "[Imagine if] you could book an appointment but not have to leave your house. You could do it in a place where you're comfortable and feel safe."

Next up, Darling plans to launch a non-adult platform before she begins focusing on the other verticals. While going from porn to medicine may seem like a jump, their plan is evidence that Darling can speak to anyone. Whether it's tech CEOs, porn directors, international performers, or users, Darling knows how to listen. "I have a very palatable persona," she admits. "I'm a porn star and a sex worker. But I have a master's degree, and I'm a feminist, and I'm very articulate."

In just three years working in the VR industry, Darling has utilized the technology to protect performers and prove that taste can't be mass marketed. We don't all want the same thing. Instead, Ela is using VR tointroduce inclusivity through a new level of intimacy and communication. Whether it's a sexual fantasy or a visit to the doctor, Darling's work proves one fact: the future of virtual reality will only bring us closer.