E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.02 - June 1995

You like to watch, don't you?

By Robert Rossney

On a busy night, Brandi may do 20 shows. She flirts with her customers. She teases them with racy talk. She lets them peek down her top. As the show goes on, she moves around a bit, performing a bump and grind and bending over lasciviously. Eventually, once her customer is on the hook for enough money, she strips down to nothing. Like talk-to-a-live-nude-girl booths, this is not a glamorous or dignified line of work.

But Brandi has a definite advantage over the typical peep-show employee. If her client gets out of line, she can just hang up on him. When she does, the window on the screen of his computer will close and her slow-scan video image will be gone. All that will remain is the memory - and, in the program's scrollback buffer, the remnants of the sweet nothings they have typed to one another.

The phones at Virtual Connections Ltd never seem to stop ringing, and everybody who calls wants to know the same thing. Is this for real? Does it really work?

This drives Tom Nyiri crazy. Yes, it's for real, he says. Yes, it really works. Nyiri, who founded Virtual Connections with his partner Rod Roz-on, seems surprised that anyone would doubt this.

Nyiri and Roz-on are unlikely adult-entertainment impresarios. They both look like, well, programmers. Tom, who is tall, blond, and cheerful, could be an overworked systems analyst in a bank. And Rod, who is gaunt and dark-haired, has Jolt Cola-addict written all over him. Right now, he looks older than Tom, though at 23, he's nine years younger.

They're both a little on edge. The two have been putting in 120-hour weeks on this project since November. They've had to deal with cranky hardware, flaky models, unexpected office improvements, the vice squad, and a flash flood that totalled Rod's car and ruined the office carpeting. Making the technology work is a problem they solved so long ago they barely remember doing it.

It works, and it doesn't require much in the way of exotic equipment. If you want to hook up with Brandi, you need a fairly fast PC, a 9600-baud modem, and a graphics card that supports 256 colours. Your computer needs to be running Windows, and you need Virtual Connections's communications software. You also need some time alone between 2 pm and midnight, when the dancers are on the job.

Get all of that, and you can dial in for a session with Brandi. You can watch her cavort on your screen at two frames per second in the traditional teeny box of desktop multimedia. Type in a flirtation or two and she'll type right back to you.

And yes, if you ask nicely, she'll show you what's under that dress. But it will cost you four bucks a minute.

This is an alarming price structure if you let the computers and modems fool you into thinking of Virtual Connections as an online service. Even Lexis doesn't cost $240 an hour. But the price is competitive if you consider Virtual Connections part of a different industry, one the phone companies like to call adult-information services, but the rest of us know as phone sex.

As phone-sex services go, Virtual Connections is a bargain. Services charging $3.98 a minute for dirty talk are commonplace, and they don't have pictures.

They're beyond commonplace. They're ubiquitous. There's a reason: phone sex makes a lot of money, and it's an easy business to get into once you have the resources lined up. You need a phone switch, a voicemail system, billing software, a stable of work-at-home subcontractors, and ads in every alternative newspaper and men's magazine you can find. It isn't simple, but it isn't fabricating semiconductors.

The typical phone-sex start-up is a perfect example of the virtual corporation. There's no office, just a voicemail system in someone's closet. There are no employees, only independent subcontractors. As an organisation, it's lean, flat, and flexible - flexible enough that if the taste of the market changes, the business can vanish completely and reappear a month later with a new name, a new look, everything changed except the phone number. Re-engineering the corporation is not much harder than changing the outgoing message.

When you start up a phone-sex business, you don't have to worry about health and safety legislation, employer mandates, or anybody's pension plan except your own. And since you can pull up roots in no time flat, you don't need to worry too much about local community standards.

Virtual Connections is not a typical phone-sex business. It can't be. Because if there's one thing their office is not, it's virtual.

The office is in a shabby but strangely cheery complex in Sorrento Valley, a part of town often called San Diego's answer to Silicon Valley. Places like this, on the edge of the city, are the cheap seats of American enterprise. They're where small manufacturers get their start and new professionals first hang out their shingles. With a consulting scientist, several photographers, and a maker of snowboarding equipment for neighbours, Virtual Connections is in the right place.

For the most part, the office looks typical of small software start-ups. It has the whiteboards, the folding tables from Home Depot, the shelves full of documentation. There are computers everywhere, living and dead. You'd think they were developing e-mail software, like Qualcomm Inc, which is in the complex next door. Or at least you would until you happened on the blonde wig. Or you looked into one of the cybersuites.

The cybersuites were in part Stephen Sayadian's idea. Sayadian is best known as the director of two cult movies: the stylish, apocalyptic porn-flick Cafe Flesh, and the deeply deranged psychological horror-comedy Dr Caligari. He lent a hand in developing Virtual Connections early on, and while the freak-show end of his aesthetic isn't in evidence, he has definitely left his mark.

"We were just planning to get it working first and then make it look good," says Tom. "Stephen slapped us on the head. 'Are you planning on lighting the models?' he asked. Lighting them? We hadn't given it much thought. We were just going to stick them in an office, in front of a camera. Stephen told us what to do, and we did it."

These were regular offices, once, but that was a lot of renovation ago. Tom and Rod ripped out the false ceilings and slapped black paint on the walls. They put a 6-foot-square platform in the middle of each room and installed violet fluorescent lights around its base. There are props that look like football goalposts, made of sewer pipe and painted yellow. And everything - the platform, the computer and modem, the cabling, the walls - is draped in ratty purple cloth.

Each has two video cameras: one on a tripod next to the model's monitor, the other bolted to a mess of two-by-fours nailed to the wall. Up where the ceiling used to be, among the leftover standoffs, AC ducts, and ethernet cables, hang the key lights.

This is a cybersuite. The term came from one of Tom and Rod's early, sleep-deprived bursts of home-grown public relations efforts: "Our enticing performers bask in a sultry 'cybersuite' straight out of a sensual fever-dream. These 'cybersuites' are state-of-the-art, industrial environments of futuristic designs and vibrant colours equipped with two customer-controlled cameras... As the caller controls the action, the computer screen transforms into a carnal keyhole. Each peek provides a thousand volts straight to the libido." (They have since hired a real PR firm.)

In the flesh, it doesn't look like an indus-trial environment of futuristic design and vibrant colours. It looks unbelievably shabby.

But on the 2-inch screen it's another thing. The drapery, lights, and tubing look otherworldly. On the screen, you can't see the model's street clothes, the mirror behind the camera, or the spare pair of black pumps. You can't see the hole in the wall that Rod punched so that the photographer for their first brochure would be able to get a little more focal distance. Everything outside camera range may be an utter shambles, but within that special frame, it's movie magic.

With their real office and their real employees, Tom and Rod can't hide their operation in the shadows the way most phone-sex outfits do. But I get the sense they wouldn't, even if they could. They want to make a splash.

They succeeded in getting on the local TV news two nights running in November. In fact, they were the lead story both nights. This turned out to be not such a good thing.

The first night's segment was a typical smirker about "A new kind of sex - virtual sex". It featured one of the models dancing in a cybersuite, a couple of screen shots and some talking-head soundbites from Tom and Rod. The reporter was knowing and sly, and the anchors made jolly jokes with eyebrows raised when the segment was over.

The second night was also typical TV news, but of a different sub-genre. The same anchors presided, but now the reporter asked hard questions. The tease was: "A new company is selling virtual sex - and it may be against the law." A vice detective said: "Well, yeah, if they have underage people looking at this, it could be illegal." And for balance, a local attorney said: "Hey, remember we have a First Amendment."

Tom groans. "We wanted to go to vice before they came to us, but after that piece we had to rush things." Days later, they arranged a show with the local vice department. "It was a really weird scene," says Tom. "There were all these huge cops huddled around the tiny screen, watching a strip. They didn't have any problems with our content. They were concerned about underage viewers. But once I showed them how we verify their ages, they were OK with that."

Which is not to say that vice has written them a blank cheque. Virtual Connections still needs to conform to local licensing and zoning requirements, which have nothing to do with signing up. And they have to ensure that neither they nor anyone working for them breaks any law at all.

Each of their models is presented with a set of written guidelines, and the release that the models sign includes an agreement to abide by them. "We don't make these rules," says Rod. "We're following the FCC's basic guidelines, the ones that Playboy and the Spice Channel use." And if a model gives her phone number to a customer, he adds, "we'll turn her in to the police ourselves." The last thing they want is to be accused of procuring.

Their wariness extends all the way down to software licensing. "This may be the only company this size you'll ever see that has one copy of every program per machine," says Rod. "There are people who would fry us if we gave them a chance. This is the least corruptible industry I've ever worked in. Everyone's afraid of getting caught."

It's between shows, and Brandi is on the huge green sofa in Rod's office, taking slugs from a big plastic jug full of orange juice. Rod is ransacking his desk, looking for a missing diskette with increasing desperation, oblivious to the voluptuous young woman in the maroon-velour teddy sitting across from him.

Like most of Virtual Connections's models, Brandi came to the business from another sector of the adult-entertainment industry. "I was dancing before I had this job," says Brandi. "But this is better for me. It's just less commotion. Also, at a club I'd be drinking a Bloody Mary instead of my Sunny D."

What does she tell people she does for a living? "I don't. Oh, it'll be great for my high school reunion. 'What do you do?' 'I'm a sex surrogate.' I just tell people I work for my friend's computer business. I don't want to be judged." Tom comes in with a model worksheet. A customer has called in to set up a show. He hands the sheet over to Brandi. "He likes to be called Boyd." Rod looks up. "No kidding?" "Really. He asked to be called Boyd." "Cool," says Brandi, and she's off to the cybersuite.

Telling the family what they do for a living is a common problem around the office. Not for Rod, whose parents know enough of what he's up to that his father calls from Las Vegas asking if Rod wants to be introduced to an agent that he knows. ("John Bobbitt?" Rod asks him. "What the hell am I going to do with John Bobbitt?") But it's an issue for everyone else.

"I almost told my mom," says Tom. "She still doesn't know. I was two sentences away from telling her, and something about condoms came on the TV. She said," - and here he slips into a thick Hungarian accent - "Vat is this country coming to?" He shakes his head. "I was that close."

Naturally, I had to try it myself. This is the next step in the boys-and-their-toys phase of the digital revolution. It's boys and their toys and the toy God gave them. I couldn't pass it up. Mom, I'm sorry you have to read this.

I can't claim that my encounter is truly representative. Phone sex is best approximated by stacking several dozen dollar bills on your bedside table, setting the pile on fire, and watching it burn while you masturbate. You can put out the fire when you're finished. My call was a freebie, and so was missing this essential frisson.

What first grabbed me, nerd that I am, was that it was cool. Two frames per second is a long way away from the illusion of true movement, but it didn't matter: each picture showed a total stranger, hundreds of miles away, responding in real time to what I said. It wasn't movement, but something even better: feedback.

Sexually, the video image of the woman did little for me. The mediascape is so cluttered with images of jiggling breasts and jutting pelvises and girls licking their lips that they scarcely get my attention anymore. So this particular avatar of the babe-in-the-thong-bikini didn't turn my crank.

This is also a matter of taste. My own seems to run to small-featured brunettes in thick glasses who read Apollinaire in the original and phone at two in the morning threatening suicide, a type woefully underrepresented in the iconography of American adult entertainment.

But feedback is trumps. It's one thing to look at a picture of a scantily clad woman. It's another thing entirely to ask her to remove an article of clothing and see her respond by whipping off her panties and flinging them aside. It gets your attention.

But strangest of all was this: nudity and salacious talk notwithstanding, what stuck with me after the show was the way she brushed the hair away from her face as she bent to type a reply.

It was a casual, unscripted, honest, and oddly intimate moment. The glimpse of her face as she concentrated on entering her response hit me with an unexpected pang of longing. I carried this frozen frame in my head for days after breaking the connection.

This is what the digital revolution was waiting for. They've eroticised typing.

Robert Rossney (rbr@well.com) writes the Online column for the San Francisco Chronicle.