Home video innovations always seem to lead back to porn.
The fingerprints of the adult-film industry can be found on the development of VHS and Blu-ray disc. Soon, the sector may teach us about the cloud.
Pink Visual, a porn studio with a history of embracing new technologies, appears to be among the first filmmakers in the United States to offer the kind of streaming-video features that Apple and Google were said to be considering last year.
Instead of storing digital movies they own on computer hard drives, Pink Visual customers will be able to store clips they buy from the studio on the company's servers, said Quentin Boyer, a company spokesman. For a one-time fee, buyers can access their films from PVLocker.com anytime and as often as they choose.
Computing done over the Internet is commonly referred to as "the cloud" and this is where the next generation of digital entertainment is supposedly headed. Sources in the movie industry told CNET last year that Google and Apple have spoken to some of the Hollywood film studios about providing "digital shelves" for which users could store movies, songs, and other media. Buyers can access their flicks from Web-connected devices.
With PC hard drives getting crammed, features like this stirred some excitement. Unfortunately for cloud fans, however, the Google and Apple services have yet to show up.
While cloud video and music services are packed with potential, say supporters, there are few success stories to support the claim. A smattering of music services have enabled users to store and stream songs on their servers, including Lala. Apple acquired the struggling company in December 2009 and later shut it down. A pioneering cloud music service, MP3tunes.com. was sued by EMI, one of the four largest record companies, for copyright violations. That case is ongoing.
In video, Pink Visual could help determine whether these cloud services are a slice of heaven or just vapor. The company will be among the first to tackle issues of pricing, copyright protection, and most importantly, gauge consumer demand.
Already, managers at Pink Visual are asking important questions.
There was a debate at the porn studio about whether it should store and stream content created by other filmmakers, according to Boyer. At least at the start, Pink Visual will handle only its own content but could open up its cloud later, he said.
Why the hesitation?
"We don't want to accidentally have a lot of liability," Boyer said. "We don't want to become fertile ground for copyright infringement [should users upload pirated content to the company's cloud]."
Another question that managers have yet to decide is what would happen to a customer's content should Pink Visual go out of business. Boyer said that the company would try to make good but acknowledged that this is a contingency that Pink Visual hasn't considered since the company is doing well financially.
This seems like the logical spot to address the suspicions that many Internet users have about cloud services. Skeptics argue cloud services could try to charge buyers every time they access their movies. They note that there are costs associated with streaming video and that someone has to pay it. But Boyer said emphatically there are no hidden charges.
He said that Pink Visual buys bandwidth at a low cost and there's no plan to trap customers inside a silo. He added that for people who don't like the cloud model, the company plans to continue to offer traditional downloads, subscriptions and even DVDs.
Unlikely tech ambassadors
That pornographers could become the film industry's cloud-video ambassadors shouldn't surprise anyone. Perhaps Hollywood should consider the adult-film market as a technology testing ground. Porn studios have typically operated on much slimmer margins than their counterparts in mainstream movies. The adult-movie business has earned a reputation for placing big bets on technological advances to help solve some of their unique problems, none the least of which has been providing privacy to consumers of their content.
Moving the adult-film experience out of shabby porn theaters and into the home was a huge breakthrough for the industry. From VCRs to live Internet sex shows, the sector has proven itself to be a technology hotbed. Ground zero is in the steamy section of Los Angeles known as the San Fernando Valley--a 30-minute drive from Hollywood--where hundreds of porn studios are based, including Pink Visual.
Similar to other digital-media industries, adult film has been marked by white-hot competition and consolidation. Pink Visual didn't go untouched. In 2006, the studio went from a high of 130 employees to half that number, Boyer said. Managers there began looking to the cloud for answers on how to differentiate the company from rivals.
"Our strategy is when a new technology comes out, we need to do it first and best," Boyer said. "Everyone used to think that the secret to succeeding in this business was strictly about the quality of the porn. We know it is more than that. In the early days of Web porn, what separated [winners and losers] was the quality of hosting. People hated buffering."
Whatever happens at Pink Visual, Josh Martin, a senior analyst with Strategy Analytics, cautioned against coming to any hasty conclusions about cloud video. He says we're still in early days and nothing close to a successful business model has emerged.
"Ultimately, you still have lots of people trying lots of different things," Martin said. "I don't know how you can introduce a simple, easy and elegant solution into such a fragmented world."
Update: 7:30 a.m. A representative from a company called HotMovies.com e-mailed to say that they've had a version of the cloud available for years. They sell unlimited rentals, which enables users to access films anytime from the company's servers. The HotMovies.com rep said, however, that most of their customers prefer to use a system that enables them to buy access to the company's films for specific units of time. I don't think that this kind of plan would work for mainstream viewing but it's interesting that adult-film has already begun wrestling with these issues.