For more than a decade, the tens of thousands of gadget nerds and tech geeks who converged upon Las Vegas every year for the Consumer Electronics Show were exposed to more than just the latest technology. Until 2012, the colossal electronics trade show coincided with the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, which often occupied a space in the same building. The overwhelmingly male CES attendees could peruse the latest flat-screen TVs, then slip across the hall to mingle with porn stars.

It’s no coincidence that the two events coexisted for so many years. The pornography expo was born out of the adult-video section of CES in the 1990s, after its participants grew tired of being relegated to a dark basement of the convention center. In 2011, an AVN representative estimated that CES and AEE shared about 40 percent of their attendees. (The 2012 split was driven by the rising travel and lodging costs of holding two large conferences at the same time; the events are now held at separate venues one or two weeks apart.)

CES attendees who crane their necks into the pornography-filled exhibition hall next door have reasons to do so other than to ogle at scantily clad adult performers. If they’re attending CES to get a sense of the next big communications technology, they’d do well to visit the adult expo as well: Over the past few decades, the porn industry has played instrumental role in driving adoption of new technologies.

Porn’s outsize influence on technology had its first big part in the early days of the VCR, says Patchen Barss, the author of The Erotic Engine, a book that chronicles the history of pornography’s effects on mass communication. Before VCRs started making their way into living rooms, people had to sneak into shady theaters to watch adult films. The prospect of watching them in the privacy of their own homes helped create an early market for home-video equipment, Barss says. Without porn, “there’s a very good chance that the VCR might never have taken off.”

Some of the same forces that helped along the VCR also had a hand in the proliferation of cable television, Barss said. Cable TV allowed for more suggestive programming, which became one of the factors that convinced people to pay for “premium channels” despite getting broadcast channels for free.

With VCRs and cable TV, the adult industry drove a crucial wave of early adoption. “Pornography exerts a disproportionate influence over technologies at the stage when they are new and glitchy and expensive and difficult to use,” Barss said. “They create an initial market that allows them to develop to the point where they’re ready for the mainstream.”

The main consumers of adult content—young men—also tend to be more willing to take on the expense and risk of adopting early, says Jonathan Coopersmith, a professor of technology history at Texas A&M University. If they gamble on the wrong technology, their newly purchased equipment can quickly turn into expensive hunks of plastic and metal.

The pornography industry isn’t creating new communication technologies, Coopersmith said, nor is it particularly prescient about what technology is likely to take off. It’s simply taken advantage of new developments before others, and has enough of a draw that people are willing to follow it.

Its position on the leading edge of technology comes partly out of necessity. “There’s a nimbleness to being in the marginalia,” Barss says. Once technologies and platforms reach mainstream status, they may become less friendly to adult content, and the social stigma attached to porn has repeatedly drawn consumers to new, largely untested technologies that provide better privacy.

The ultimate in private access to pornography came with the internet. On the web, not even the checkout-counter guy at the video store has to know what you’re up to. But even though it was another step toward isolation, Barss says the internet also injected porn with a sense of community. Early online bulletin boards and forums allowed people to share user-generated erotica and pornography, while maintaining distance and anonymity. For once, it wasn’t a porn company luring people to a platform with promises of smut; it was people creating and sharing it themselves.

Of course, people had been able to make their own porn at home for decades. The boom of home pornography came with the spread of the camcorder in the seventies and eighties, a device that Coopersmith says “really changed the world of pornography by destroying the traditional distinction between producers, distributors, and consumers.” Once the internet made transferring data simple—whether from a home server, via BitTorrent, or by online streaming—the general public could participate in generating, sharing, and even making money from explicit content.

That social aspect is what most surprised Barss during his research. And whether the next frontier is in virtual reality, haptic feedback (“teledildonics”), or another new invention, the adult industry will likely be ahead of the game—and a new community could spring up around it, he says. “Pornography driving  technology has been as much about people finding new ways to connect to other people as it has been about people finding more private ways to consume pornography.”