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Will interactive sex tech replace the human touch?
09.27.12

Will interactive sex tech replace the human touch?

One day in middle school, a boy - call him Matt - asked if I wanted to hear a joke. He giggled for a moment, and looked around the hall to see if a teacher was coming. Then he asked me: “How do you give yourself a blowjob?”

I responded: “What’s a blowjob?”

Matt walked a few steps further down the hall and asked another kid the same question. “You stick it in a vaccum!” I heard him whisper. Everybody laughed, then he turned around and pointed at me. “This kid didn’t know what a blowjob was!”

Somehow, Matt and I became friends. When I finally learned about blowjobs, I became convinced that I needed one. So a few weeks after asking Matt what a blowjob was, I asked him how exactly one did that.

“You just stick it in a vacuum.”

“Shut up. Seriously.”

“It feels so good,” he said. “Trust me.”

The next day, I sat on the couch in my living room staring at my vacuum cleaner with sticky apprehension. Was this what guys did before they could meet girls?

Before I could continue that line of thought much further, my cat walked into the room and gave me a look that said, “you’re thinking about having sex with that vacuum cleaner, aren’t you?”

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Flash forward several years. Instead of Middle School, I live in New York City. And instead of vacuum cleaners, there are now "fucking machines", and they are referred to by the technologically-minded as teledildonics or cyberdildonics, depending on whom you ask.

The similarities between pornography and videogames have been endlessly discussed by critics and industry insiders alike. As I’ve argued before, many of these comparisons fall flat precisely because they ignore the social value that pornography can provide for many people.

The new sex tech, with its focus on user experience and device design, is the closest the experience of pornography has ever come to the actual haptic experience of gaming. Every gamer gets a basic course in industrial design - solicit gamer opinions on the first Xbox controller if you don't believe me. In both cases, the feel of the device in one's hands takes on a surpassing importance.

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The new sex tech extends as far back as the 1980’s, but it didn’t really gain mainstream recognition until the release in 2008 of a male masturbation device that eventually came to be known as the RealTouch.

Scott Rinaldo is the product manager for the RealTouch, which is made by a company called the Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network. Rinaldo is a cheerful, vivacious man, and he is downright evangelical about his device. RealTouch, he says, created "that first virtual experience where someone could actually slide something on their penis, push play on a video, and everything they were watching was being transmitted to the device in real time—so as the guy in the video is penetrating in and out, in and out of whatever he’s penetrating, the device would also replicate those same exact motions.”

The initial idea for the RealTouch came from a man named Ramon Alarcon, who was working as an engineer for NASA.  “This guy introduced us  brought us a wooden prototype about six years ago,” Rinaldo says.

Rinaldo admits that RealTouch is still stuck in the outer fringes of the world of pornography. He accepts that the device is far too expensive ($330) for many, and simply verboten for others. But he’s hopeful that the RealTouch’s can become a sort of sexual luxury brand.

“The Fleshlight is the Toyota Camry,” he says of the most popular male masturbation device. “It’s the best car on the market, gives you the most bang for the buck. Tenga, which makes a single-use sleeve called the Egg, is like the Honda Accord—small and cheap." The RealTouch, meanwhile, is a Benz, decked out with all the best features. 

Rinaldo tells me that many people think RealTouch too ridiculous to believe, or too good to be true. But when I first saw the device, I thought something completely different. I thought it looked just like a videogame controller.

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The RealTouch Network’s next big product is called the “Joystick”. It’s a RealTouch for a woman, a vibrator that responds in real time to cues directed from someone using a RealTouch. The two users don’t need to be in the same room, or the same state. The Joystick has already been developed for AEBN’s webcam services, where women use similarly phallic objects to sync to men’s RealTouches. Of course, Rinaldo adds about the webcam workers, “Their job is not to get off. Their job is to service guys all day.”

Rinaldo says that the company has already invested millions of dollars in the product and commissioned a larger design firm than the one that developed the RealTouch itself. The future of adult toys isn’t in porn, he explains. It’s in couples. “We’ve taken porn out of the equation and hidden it, because it’s taboo.” With a couples site, with a site catering to military wives, with a swingers site, “we can go on Oprah now!” he exclaims.

This is the future," Rinaldo says. "It’s not some guy bending over some device, or the guy from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Rinaldo chafes at the term “cyberdildonics” despite the future-sex philosophy of his company. At first I’m confused by this, so I ask him if they’ve ever considered more full-body toys like a sex doll.

“We’ve always felt that dolls…” he replies, pausing. Then, finally, he adds: “it’s a little perverted, a little weird. Look, I’ve been caught by my mom using the RealTouch device. She walked right into my house, right into my office. There I was, sitting in my chair, watching a scene. She literally had no idea what I was doing, because it’s hand free. Then she said ‘hey what’re you doing?! Don’t do that!’ And then I showed her this was my new product, this is what it does. And she turned around and said ‘that’s the coolest thing in the world…you’re actually not masturbating, you’re being serviced!’ And I said, ‘that’s what makes it so hip!’”

“This is the future," Rinaldo says. "It’s not some guy bending over some device, or the guy from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

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The development of advanced sex tech poses another question entirely: will haptic technology evolve beyond the physical limits of the human body to actually increase human pleasure, to replace human experience in the same way that gaming can?

Ethan Imboden is the founder and creative director of the San Francisco-based sex-toy company Jimmyjane. The Daily Mail called him “the Steve Jobs of the sex toy industry.” The Atlantic featured his vibrators in a cover story, saying that they may very well “inspire an age of great American sex.” Jezebel extended the Apple connection, wondering if “someday buying a vibrator will be as boring as buying an iPod.”

Yet Imboden thinks phones are a bad comparison for his devices. In designing a phone, he says, the “constraints are a bit more contrived.” The ergonomics of button positions, the flat, rectangular shape of the device itself, are all taken as standard. Whenever phones pop up today with more complex features, facets, or unique shapes, he sees a lot of that as “just making a case for differentiation” in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Imboden gives a lot of credit to Apple’s innovations. But he is quick to point out that the iPhone is “not an ergonomic triumph.”

In the “realm of the body,” Imboden says, “there are a lot of real drivers.” For starters, every surface of his products is designed to come in contact with the body. And the “user experience” is, well, slightly different.

Years ago, as a young designer, Imboden, out of sheer – call it curiosity - walked into a trade show and what he saw there shocked him. The products he saw were poorly manufactured, with rough edges and made of toxic materials. They resembled, he says, “severed human anatomy.” And, most worrisome, the technology didn’t have any sense of its own identity, relying instead on porn stars for a brand name. “This was the only industry I’d come across that really hadn’t yet benefitted from the transformative impact that design can have.” 

Jimmyjane is not without its critics, who argue that the devices, as Scott Rinaldo puts it, “look like anything but a penis.” The new shapes and sizes “cater to mainstream America,” sure, but male masturbation – and the male organ - continues to be shown the sidelines.

Imboden denies the claim that his toys ignore the shape of the human body. “We are celebrating the body,” he says. And his product “looks like what it needs to look like to do that,” instead of just looking like a disembodied penis Really, he says, sex toys “impinge more on human sexuality when they try to emulate it.”

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You don’t have to look much further than the orgiastic bliss with which the internet views anything related to Apple to understand how much people have fallen in love with their devices.

Imboden doesn’t necessarily see this as a problem. The error people make when decrying the rise of the sex machines, he argues, is that “they assume the human body is the most effective means of creating pleasure or stimulation.” The penis, he says, was never “optimized for pleasure,” only procreation.

Jimmyjane, on the other hand, has the opportunity to “evolve more quickly than the penis or the vagina.” One of its most popular and acclaimed products, for instance, is the Form 2, a vibrator whose shape alone confuses people. Fitting in the palm of your hand, the device works as a sort of two-pronged pincer. 

The diminutive size of the Form 2 and its amorphous design also helps make it non-threatening to men, Imboden adds.

“We’re shifting from the perception of the vibrator as interloper or challenger in the bedroom to seeing the vibrator as an ally,” he says.

Whether more advanced versions of toys like the Real Touch and the Form 2 augment or replace human sexual agency remains to be seen. Perhaps the stigma involved with buying a mechanical sex toy will never wear off. One thing, though, is for sure: for those people who want to move their sexual experiences beyond the flesh, there will be no lack of options.