This article originally appeared on VICE US.
You can buy a belly button online. It can be an innie, outtie, twisted to the left or the right, and placed on a virtual body. You can also buy a variety of penises, pubic hair, breasts, and tongues, all of which can be tweaked to look however you want. Cobble these together, use a photograph to algorithmically generate a person’s face, and you might be able to make a 3D avatar of someone who is walking around in real life. Import them into another program, and you can have sex with them in virtual reality, without that person ever giving consent.
On forums like Reddit, marketplaces like Patreon, and on standalone websites, communities of anonymous users are making, selling, and getting off to the computer-generated likenesses of celebrities and other real people. The 3D models that emerge from these communities can be articulated into any position, animated, modified, interacted with in real time, and manipulated in ways that defy the constraints of physical reality.
Today, the results are mostly crude. Unlike the most sophisticated deepfake videos traded online, no one is going to mistake any of the 3D models Motherboard has seen during our reporting for actual images of a real person. But the technology to create photorealistic 3D models of real people is rapidly approaching—and it's getting easier for the average user to access those tools and programs.
Some software that's already available automates much of the process for creating the 3D likenesses of real people. Rendering a realistic human is a process which historically required the specialized technical knowledge of teams of artists in game and special effects studios. Those studios, traditionally, have to obtain the rights to use someone's likeness before rendering them, but many hobbyists seemingly make avatars of anyone, with or without their consent.
"I use it to fulfill my sexual fantasies or replicate sexual encounters with my ex-girlfriends," one user commented on a subreddit dedicated to creating 3D adult content with Virt-A-Mate (also known as VaM), software for creating adult VR games and simulations. The user was specifically talking about Foto2Vam, a program that uses a photograph of a real person's face to automatically generate a 3D model with the same face, which can then be used in VR.
"Foto2vam has enabled me to literally feel like I'm there again, i.e. getting a handjob/footjob from my ex looking at me with a smile, or having another ex ride me on the floor in reverse cowgirl in front of a mirror...the possibilities are endless," the user said.
Another user on the same thread said they also use Foto2Vam to render ex-girlfriends performing sexual acts. They wrote that some 3D models turn out better than others depending on how many quality photographs of the person they can work with.
"From now on, we need to make sure we ask girlfriends to pose a few different angles with a blank expression and flat lighting for a few photos and then import them into VaM," they said. "Oh, and I find it amusing to alter reality and give them boob implants, etc. ;)"
Another user explained that they've previously created adult content using Daz 3D—a software for creating 3D models of people that is popular with hobbyists because it's free—but that VaM has fulfilled their dream of interacting with that content in virtual reality. They explained that they recreate real people using a combination of well known, commercial, or free software like Photoshop, Daz 3D, the digital sculpting tool ZBrush, and FaceGen, software similar to Foto2Vam which also generates 3D faces using photographs. These tools aren’t secret; they’re widely used for creating video games, special effects in movies, and other non-pornographic content.
"My biggest wish for the future is to get even [more] photo-realistic girls! Better hair creation, better clothes, shaders... there are still a lot of things to make it even better!" that user said. "I want to say 'thank you' to MeshedVR [the creator of VaM] for this!"
On a Discord channel dedicated to VaM, one user explained that there's nothing people can do to stop VaM creators from making adult content using their likeness, especially public figures:
"Everyone jacks off to everyone, it's human nature, you can't stop it unless you just stay off grid and never go anywhere or show anywhere and nobody knows you even exist...It's our world and freedom, they can't stop us from jacking off, nobody can, they can merely choose extreme privacy," that user said.
None of the users posting publicly about making real people replied to our request for comment, but some deleted their posts after we contacted them.
An example of an interactive Virt-A-Mate experience using a generic model from one of the more prolific creators in the community.
Inside the world of bespoke, 3D-rendered porn
There's nothing inherently wrong with 3D-rendered porn. People have been using computer graphics to create adult content for decades. Second Life still has a large community focused on adult content, and video game assets are often modified to create porn, sometimes featuring the likeness of real actors. Sites like Pornhub are filled with 3D-rendered porn videos.
But VaM and the community around it, including the 7,600 members of its active subreddit, are different because they make it relatively trivial to create a 3D model that looks like someone who exists in the real world and share it with others.
Users can then use those 3D models to create still images and animated videos, or have sex with them using a VR headset and a connected sex toy like the Fleshlight Launch, which automatically strokes the person's penis in sync with action on screen. The communities that are currently trading in these 3D models prove that there is an audience for this type of customizable adult content, a creator class that is willing to do the work to provide it, and an online infrastructure for both creators and bigger corporations like Patreon, Reddit, and Daz which already profit from it.
There are many ways for a person get custom 3D-rendered porn. According to a community wiki, the free version of VaM gives users access to a single "scene" and model, whose body they can modify with a series of sliders, and position by manipulating different body parts in real time. Users who contribute to the VaM Patreon get more interactive and customization features in VaM, like the ability to download scenes made by other creators in the community, customize hair and clothing, and "manually undress models by pulling the clothes off with your in-game hands."
The VaM community wiki also instructs users how to create faces using reference photos, create their own animations, and import full models or individual body parts created by other users. For example, the wiki instructs users how to give a 3D model a realistic vagina by downloading one from Renderotica, a community and marketplace for 3D-rendered porn. In 3D modeling this item is called a "morph," which broadly refers to a method for changing the shape of 3D models. A list of compatible morphs in the wiki includes "8 orgasm expression morphs," "a large balls morph," and "the cherry on top of your blowjob collection, introducing a brand new set of lip morphs." Users can also import existing, compatible 3D models created with Daz 3D into VaM.
Nonconsensual use of people's likenesses is a controversial topic in 3D-rendered porn communities.
"There are requests from some people in the forums that go along the lines of 'Hey, if I give you a picture of my wife or girlfriend, can you make a model look like her?'" a creator named Davos told Motherboard. Davos sells extreme fetish accessories and scenes on Renderotica. It's a site where creators like Davos sell adult comics created with 3D models, or 3D body parts that can be modify Daz 3D models.
"Nobody wants to be responsible for somebody doing something hateful or vengeful on a real person," Davos said. "My personal take is, it's okay if you change the name and are willing to take the risk of possibly being told to stop by a nasty letter from a corporate lawyer."
Another creator of 3D human models that are used in adult content and whose work is supported on Patreon was adamant that the VaM community isn't all about porn, and isn't all about recreating real people, either.
"VaM is really no different than any other adult-oriented game... and is one of the less controversial adult projects, a sandbox that allows users to create their own fantasies," he said. "VaM admins and the developer are one of the few I saw [who are] very very worried about keeping things under control and on a good reputation... Dark aspects have to be expected from porn communities but those can be kept under control."
Sharing 3D-rendered celebrities for interactive porn
The VaM community subreddit's rules instruct members not to post images, videos, or scenes "that could be considered illegal, strongly offensive, or immoral," but has no stated rule about posting 3D models or adult content of real people. In fact, the rules explicitly allow users to post 3D renderings of celebrities as long as they don't include real photos or use their real names in the post: "Abbreviations, nicknames and different names are perfectly fine," the rules state.
Not surprisingly, because of the availability of high-quality photos of them online, and simply because people love to fantasize about unattainable public figures, sharing 3D models of celebrities is one of the most common activities in the community. Motherboard has found dozens of 3D models of celebrities including Emilia Clarke, Natalie Portman, Emma Watson, and Nicki Minaj—most under nicknames, per the rules. The celebrities are recognizable on sight, and sometimes their fake name alluded to their real name, or their identity is referred to in user comments. Almost all the 3D models we saw were of women, but we spotted at least two 3D models of men: Joaquin Phoenix and Chris Pratt.
These posts usually include a link to a file sharing site where other users can download the 3D model and use it themselves, and sometimes a Patreon page, which some creators use to collect money for their work.
Studies show that women are the most common targets of nonconsensual porn, and abusive manipulated imagery like deepfakes. Experts and victims alike say that even if it's not "real," the experience of seeing one's likeness in nonconsensual porn spread across the internet is legitimate trauma, similar to sexual assault, and not very different from actual revenge porn or spreading sex tapes and nudes without consent.
One creator in the community who uses Twitter to share their work—including a 3D model of an almost-nude celebrity tied up, her face covered in viscous white fluid—said that he has been making 3D models and characters professionally for video games, television, and other commercial videos and simulations for 30 years.
"I mainly create VaM looks and scenes for myself, although I have shared screenshots of my creations, sometimes the full file, for free to the VaM community," he said. "My primary motivation in sharing my files with the community, has been to create interest in the software, [and] bring in more experienced developers who can help grow VaM into a robust VR sandbox."
He added that he has created 3D models of real people he knew, sometimes with their permission. He has also made nonsexual content, like being able to see what he and his wife would look like in a kitchen remodel they considered.
"I also created an ex-gf, just to be able to sit across the table from them one more time. Personally, I see it as nothing more than creating clay busts, or notebook sketches of fond memories and faces," he said. "I do not distribute any IRL content that I have created, with or without permission, as I prefer to remain anonymous."
But he did not have the same standard for celebrities.
"I enjoyed creating celebrity looks as an homage, and in some cases, in sexual situations," they said. "As sexuality is a universal human experience, I don't see a problem with it."
Mesh VR, the company that owns VaM, also collects money via Patreon. The founder of Mesh VR, who goes by MeshedVR online, told us they couldn't say for sure how many people use VaM, but almost 8,000 people support it on Patreon.
"It's not going to be absolute or perfect, but it's better than the Wild West situation we're in at the moment."
They said that they know people use the software to make characters from movies and TV shows and interact with them in VR, and feel that it's "OK" as long as the model is mimicking a popular fictional character like Batgirl, for example. But they don't condone creating real people without permission.
"I know people go beyond this and try to recreate real-life people, without consent," MeshedVR said. "For me that is a slippery slope, and is wrought with legal and ethical concerns. I don't include any look-alikes in VaM for this reason, and I have worked with moderators on various sites to help establish rules against creating look-alikes of real people. If someone were to post a recreation of an ex, I would ask it to be removed. On my Discord server, I would remove it myself, since I consider that to be an official server for VaM."
MeshedVR told us that while they are listed as a moderator on the subreddit, consulted on its rules (which allow sharing celebrities), and often browse it to see what the community has come up with, they're not an active moderator there.
"If I see something questionable (models too young looking, celebrity look-alikes, violent act recreation, etc.), I alert the mods, but most times they have already handled it if there is an issue," they said. "I view VaM as a creative tool, like Blender, or Photoshop. What people do with it is largely out of my control."
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the chief operating officer and general counsel for the actors' union SAG-AFTRA, told Motherboard that actors can take legal action against people selling 3D models of their likeness by invoking rights of publicity, which close to half the states in the United States currently have. But those laws vary by state, and for ordinary individuals who don't have a famous face, there may be little legal recourse.
"They have legal ability to challenge that, but we have to recognize that is quite burdensome," Crabtree-Ireland said. "They have to hire a lawyer, file a lawsuit, and if the performer has to spend $10,000 to file a lawsuit against each person who used their likeness, that's not the most effective way to address it."
SAG-AFTRA supported a law against deepfake videos that recently passed in California and hopes to pass a similar law in New York, but Crabtree-Ireland said that even new laws won't stop nonconsensual use of someone's likeness entirely.
"There will always be stuff that lingers around the edges and grey areas that are harder to deal with, but if we could make a dent in the rather extraordinary volume of stuff that's going on that will be welcomed and beneficial to the people who are the targets of it," he said. "It's not going to be absolute or perfect, but it's better than the Wild West situation we're in at the moment."
"Of course people are going to do that."
John Danaher, a senior lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland Galway and coeditor of the book Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, told Motherboard that images and representations like this could be viewed as a type of revenge porn if they're created or shared without consent.
"Is this something the other person wants? Is it mutually desirable/pleasurable? I don't think anyone should be creating representations of this sort without the consent of the real person," Danaher said. "I also think anyone who might want to make such an image of themselves should think about the possibility of the representations being stolen, shared, and used for malicious purposes at a later point."
Ultimately, a pornographic image created with VaM doesn't look meaningfully different than a drawn or Photoshopped pornographic image, or other 3D-rendered porn, all of which have have been used to create nonconsensual porn for decades. The difference here, much like it was with deepfakes, is that new technologies have democratized the tools for creating this kind of adult content, making them cheaper and easier to use.
"They're visualizing memories burned into their neurons, adding audio/visual (and now possibly haptic) reality to whatever scraps of time are left in their brain."
The plug-and-play nature of VaM makes it so a user doesn't need to make their own 3D model of a celebrity in order to have sex with it in VR; they can just download a 3D model that someone else in the community has made. Even tools and platforms that are not specifically for adult content enable this—Daz 3D, the popular and free 3D modeling tool, has a store where users can upload and sell their creations. It didn't take much searching to find 3D models of real people like Natalie Portman and Lupita Nyong'o (on sale on that store for $19.95 and $18.95, respectively). These models can be bought, downloaded, and combined with other tools like VaM to create nonconsensual porn. After browsing Daz 3D, we were also targeted with ads of generic, scantily clad 3D models of women that invited us to "get her now." Daz 3D did not respond to our request for comment.
Kyle Machulis, who creates open source software for controlling sex toys, discovered the VaM community because it was using his tools to connect VaM to a Fleshlight Launch, an automated masturbation device. This way, for example, when a character in VaM moved her hand up and down a virtual penis, the Launch strokes the user's real penis in sync, creating a more immersive experience.
Machulis asked users in the VaM subreddit how, exactly, they use the sex simulator. He told Motherboard that he was a little surprised by the answers.
"The fact that I was surprised people would make exes probably says more about me and my naivety than it does about the community," he said. "Of course people are going to do that. They're visualizing memories burned into their neurons, adding audio/visual (and now possibly haptic) reality to whatever scraps of time are left in their brain."
Some people in these communities told us they make 3D avatars of real people because it's cathartic, or because they just like the aesthetics, but they almost always do it to women's bodies. Danaher said that it is potentially unhealthy to hold on to the past in this way, but the people in this community that Motherboard talked to said that programs like VaM are a way to get back to a time or a feeling they can't get back to otherwise.
"Memories exist in [our] heads, memorabilia exists in our physical storage," Machulis said. "When those memories are brought into a digital environment like VaM, Second Life, etc, things get real complicated, real quick."