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COLUMN ONE : The ‘Seedy’ Side of CD-ROMs : Computer pornography has reignited an old debate in a high-tech arena. Critics worry that the privacy and interactivity that make the sexually explicit discs a hot seller also make them dangerous.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Smiling out from your computer screen, Dominique licks her lips, strikes a pose and invites you to “get interactive.”

You’re the “virtual photographer.” You click on the camera icon, zoom in and shoot. Later, you can order Natalie to pump iron, or click on the “strip naked” feature and snap Julie sprawled on the ottoman. At the end of your session, you print out your favorite images.

Penthouse’s newest product is brought to you via CD-ROM, the computer-readable compact discs that enable users to manipulate masses of video, audio, text and graphics. It is part of the revolution that has inspired optimistic talk of a digital golden age.

Interactive Pets and Playmates are not what the prophets of multimedia tend to dwell on. But sex--pornography, erotica or “adult material,” depending on whom you talk to--is a fast-growing and profitable segment of the nascent industry. Interactive learning, shopping and less-than-X-rated entertainment are heralded as a virtual end of the rainbow, but the prospect of interactive pornography has reignited a complex and age-old debate in a new, high-tech arena.

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Discs with such titles as “Virtual Valerie,” “Night Watch Interactive” and “Heavenly Bodies Vol. 3" are selling like hot cakes. Near-riots erupt at trade shows when adult offerings are shown behind black-curtained booths. And with the inevitable arrival of interactive television, such titillation will not long be limited to personal computers.

Playboy recently tried a “virtual photographer” game on cable subscribers, and Time Warner’s experimental stretch of the information highway will include erotic programming when it goes on-line next year. It appears there will be significant demand for it--even in the firm’s conservative Orlando, Fla., test community.

Some critics worry that a medium that allows users to exert control over its subjects may be more harmful than any of the myriad passive forms that pornography has assumed. Others complain that the realism of these “seedy roms,” combined with the game-like interaction, builds on the idea of sex-as-conquest, where the only point is to win. Parents fret that computer-literate children will gain all-too-easy access to the shiny, sexually explicit discs.

“It says something about us as a society that we pay lip service to all these lofty ideas, but in fact this stuff is selling,” said Robin Raskin, executive editor of PC Magazine, whose pages have attracted so many advertisements for erotic CD-ROMs that a new policy will banish them to a limited space in the back next year.

One thing pornography says about us as a society is that, for all our flashy gadgets, we may not be that different from the societies that came before us. From Pompeii, where paintings of bacchanalian orgies were splattered across ancient walls, to the printing press, which upon invention immediately was used to spew out mass quantities of sexually explicit literature, no sooner has a new mode of expression come into being than pornographers have draped it around themselves, and usually quite profitably.

Indeed, sex has a venerable tradition of propelling new technologies, a proposition whose favorite proof among new media developers is the videocassette recorder, which owed many of its initial sales in the early 1980s to consumers’ desire to watch pornography in the privacy of their homes. Laser discs, 976 calling and pay-per-view TV all got a healthy boost from pornography, and the new media industry seems to be following suit.

In his upcoming book “The Guide to the MacIntosh Underground,” computer columnist Bob LeVitus suggests that “Virtual Valerie” saved the multimedia business for Apple Computer, which sells hardware and development software.

Hardware makers such as Apple deny that sexy CD-ROMs are helping to sell the disc drives and game players necessary to use them. But no one denies that the new equipment is being used for pornography, which was “one of the first stunning examples of what the medium could do,” LeVitus said.

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To be sure, of the 6 million or so CD-ROMs sold to consumers this year, fewer than 10% fall into the “adult” category, according to InfoTech, a Woodstock, Vt., firm that tracks sales. Video games, reference books and training applications make up the bulk of the $3-billion-a-year worldwide market in CD-ROMs. Broderbund Software’s “Just Grandma and Me,” an educational title for children, has sold more than 100,000 copies.

But in the CD-ROM market, adult discs are more important than they first might seem. For one thing, most CD-ROMs intended for consumers are bundled with CD-ROM disc drives, so adult discs account for a higher proportion of discs sold separately. Many computer stores will not sell erotica, some computer magazines refuse advertisements for it, and several of the major mail-order firms decline its distribution. Most hard-core CD-ROMs, in fact, are manufactured abroad; most U.S. disc-pressers will not do this work.

Moreover, although the CD-ROM market is still tiny, the technology is seen as the forerunner to interactive television, which will have a far broader reach. Unlike earlier forms of pornography, interactive versions offer viewer control.

“I think there will be quite a big market for it,” said Diana Hawkins, of Interactive Associates, a Portola Valley, Calif.-based consulting firm. “Interactivity is a compelling concept, and it’s certainly a powerful fantasy tool, if you can get it when you want it.”

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Instant gratification in this department will only get easier. When data--pornographic or otherwise--is converted into light pulses and sent over fiber-optic cables, it will be much harder to control. Said one new media developer: “This is going to be a Supreme Court issue because it’s interactive. In a few years, it’ll be possible to touch up video at home and send it out to whoever you want. Say you’re divorcing your spouse. You put your spouse into an X-rated movie and send it out to your friends.”

The rise of pornography in this new form has produced the same old strange bedfellows, from radical feminists to the religious right.

“All this is going to do is make it more acceptable,” said the Rev. Donald Wildmon, a fundamentalist whose Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn. has agitated against what it considers offensive content in the media. “Pornography knows no boundaries. Never has and never will.”

Even within the multimedia industry, the success of adult products is seen as a mixed blessing. Several of the computer programmers producing erotica insist they are only doing it to make money to put into general interest CD-ROM titles. And some have thrown in the towel, bowing to a combination of peer pressure and personal distaste.

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Yet the potential is not lost on those who hope to exploit the new medium.

“This kind of technology is the most sophisticated delivery system in terms of maximizing privacy,” said Michael Fleming, Playboy Entertainment’s senior vice president. “They don’t have to talk to anyone, they don’t have to go into a store, they don’t have to do anything that would potentially embarrass them.”

Lawrence Miller, one of the recent UC graduates who founded the Santa Monica-based CD-ROM developer Interotica last summer, said: “We wanted to do a rain forest title, but we looked at the market and we figured if we wanted to make money, adult material was the way to go.”

It worked: Interotica’s first title quickly became one of the 10 best-selling CD-ROMs ever. Company revenue has doubled each month since June and is expected to approach $2 million this year. (Interotica recently merged into a new company called New Machine Publishing.) And the firm is billing its most recent effort, in which a woman adapts her personality to users based on their choice of sexual fantasy, as a technological breakthrough.

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The folks at Interotica have calculated that their programming allows for 1.3 million experiences without duplication. And they note that the game’s female character, viewed on-screen in a series of interactive video clips, is non-judgmental and safe--all for $69.95.

“She’s designed to be man’s perfect mate,” Miller explained. “But she’s not designed to be a puppet. She has a strong personality of her own.”

“Dream Machine” will not inspire the same reaction in everyone.

Interactive pornography is “much more harmful in the sense that it’s much more actively involving the man in controlling the figure of the woman,” said author and anti-pornography crusader Andrea Dworkin. “One of the things pornography users hate most in video is how they have to fast-forward to the parts they like best. This lets them create the pornography object and the pornography act as well as the temperament of the woman, which I find really scary.”

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Phillip Robinson, a computer software reviewer and co-author of the recently released book “The Joy of Cybersex,” said many titles he tried were based on the concept of sex as a game, with “scoring” as the ultimate goal.

In “Virtual Valerie,” thought to be the best-selling of the adult genre, the player tries to arouse Valerie, a 3-D animated fantasy woman. A meter on the screen keeps track of the results. “Virtual Valerie 2,” due early next year, will allow for even greater interaction.

There is no guarantee of virtual satisfaction: “I finished the game feeling like a lousy lover,” Robinson said. “What a great way to experience the joys of interactivity.”

Still, dozens of entrepreneurs are finding the adult CD-ROM market a profitable one. San Diego-based Educorp, one of the larger CD-ROM distributors, will not sell adult titles. So company Vice President Suzi Nawabi has set up BodyCello as an exclusive adult-software distributor.

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Business is booming. At the Comdex computer industry trade show this month, the booths showing off X-rated CD-ROMs were the most crowded.

Husbands “use the children as a justification to buy the hardware,” said James Ehrlich, whose partner in CD-ROM production is Penthouse parent General Media. “They say, ‘Look, honey, there are all these titles for our kids,’ but what they’re doing is looking at the top shelf where ‘Penthouse Interactive’ is sitting.”

Because the market is so young and numbers are difficult to find, Ehrlich says he used electronic bulletin boards for his market research. He discovered that sexual images were among the items most heavily downloaded--computer parlance for retrieved.

“We looked at bulletin boards and saw the download of a beautiful graphic file of planet Earth had about 10 downloads and ‘my wife’s thighs’ had 1,200 downloads. We looked at that and we said, ‘There are obviously people who are hungry for that content.’ ”

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Indeed, sex has been a staple of computer bulletin boards for years. With a computer and a modem, men (nearly 90% of bulletin board users are male) can pay up to $20 an hour to “chat” on-line with professional hostesses or download photos of “long-legged models in lace.”

General Media, which has started its own bulletin board for Penthouse, is planning several more adult titles before it begins to explore putting its other magazines, such as Four Wheeler and Omni, on CD-ROM.

“The production cost of manufacturing them is less than a magazine and a lot less than a videotape--and it cannot be copied,” said General Media Vice Chairman Kathy Keeton. “The profits on this are incredible.”

There are some obvious reasons for this phenomenon. One is the demographic overlap between owners of computers with CD-ROM drives and consumers of pornography, both mostly male.

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But as sales of CD-ROM drives soar--worldwide unit shipments are expected to exceed 6 million this year, many of them to businesses--adult titles are likely to find a broader market. Most CD-ROM drives yield miniature, grainy video with jerky movements and, often, sound out of sync. But triple- and quadruple-speed drives, already reaching the market, will allow for even more realistic graphics and full-screen, broadcast-quality video.

All of which may mean more sales for sexually explicit discs. The spread of CD-ROM drives may even inspire someone to design a CD-ROM not aimed solely at heterosexual men. Technical advances will make the jump to television that much easier.

Given that adult videos account for about 10% of rentals nationwide, Hal Wolf, vice president for programming at Time Warner’s Orlando project, expects a proportional demand for adult programming in the Florida experiment. To keep children from tapping in, users must enter a code number before ordering.

“Let’s face it,” said Mike Saenz, the inventor of “Virtual Valerie,” “it’s human nature.”

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