Mention the word “teledildonics” to most anyone in the tech side of the adult industry, and you’ll likely hear them emit a long, drawn-out, pained groan. Ditto for anyone familiar with copyright or IP law and patent trolls (patent squatters). Despite numerous attempts including wetsuits and suction cups, mysterious black boxes and hundreds of thousands of dollars, even the most notorious gold diggers in the sex tech field can’t get the masses to jack in and jack off — until recently.
Despite the squeaky-clean statistics you’ll read in mainstream technology’s industry reports, the sex industry is the most persistent and quick to adopt new technologies — led by millions of sharp and shrewd consumer users. The mainstream “adult” market and like-minded opportunists (read: not sex-positive or particularly women-friendly) staked an early claim on DVD technology, and the gambit paid off handsomely. Uh, remember DVDs?
Anyway, the emergence of broadband and streaming media on the web quickly transformed into lucrative content farms, yielding haystacks of cash. Cell phones — especially app-friendly ones — are porn cash cows, and have been utilized as portable porn transmitters, wi-fi and bluetooth sex devices, and with attachments morph into buzzing insertables.
Web theorists such as myself universally agree that one of the first things humans want to do with new technology is sexualize it. So why, now that anything can be wireless, browser interfaces have exceeded (or rather, become) our fantasies with touch and smarts, anyone can send live video through a cell phone onto a web site, and more, hasn’t adult made true cyber sex — teledildonics — a reality?
“Teledildonics” refers to sexual encounters via a web interface with a virtual partner. The term has become a catchall term for anything from virtual reality suits to remote-controlled vibrators. Teledildonics was a term originally coined in the 1980s by Ted Nelson, however, the term is best associated with Howard Rheingold‘s 1991 book Virtual Reality. In a chapter entitled “Teledildonics,” Rheingold describes his fantasies of having virtual reality sex over the Internet, but wisely mentions the difficulties in making a virtual reality sex suit.
Crash Test #1: Vivid’s Cyber Sex Suit
In 1999 David James at Vivid Entertainment Inc. develops the “cyber sex suit,” a neoprene bodysuit equipped with 36 pads that deliver sensations to the wearer at the click of a mouse. The sensors utilize electricity controlled by software to produce five sensations — tickle, pinprick, vibration, hot or cold — to specific sensors within the suit.
James predicted that the suit will change the online porn biz dramatically. He says it “will … virtually revolutionize the 900- and 800- number-type business.” He also plans to market DVDs (then practically unheard-of by consumers) with interactive programs specifically for suit-owners’ satisfaction.
Collision: Before issuing a permit to sell the suit as a consumer electronic product, the Federal Trade Commission demands that the suit be safe enough for pacemaker wearers, and guarantee against potentially dangerous electrical surges — not to mention operation with moisture involved, as a successful encounter wearing the suit would surely entail.
No one wants a shock from their wet panties — it would be aversion therapy at its worst. And are wetsuits lined with suction cups a turn-on for anyone but rubber fetishists? The reportedly cumbersome suit is never released, and with a predicted retail price of around $170 and little to no available new tech in consumer’s hands to support it, the suit is destined for the scrap heap.
The wealthy, sensually indulgent, or sci-fi fetishists might want a full-on suit like the one Vivid tried to make, to immerse themselves completely, becoming the interface itself — holodeck, meet porn. For early 1990s visionaries, the question remained as to whether the future of sex and computers should be a Rhinegold-esque suit, or some sort of scaled-down, plug-and-play interface.
Plug-and-play teledildonics users might have more practical applications for people who go online for sex. Think Facebook with glory holes, add sex toys and connectivity, and you’re on the right track. Anonymous sexual encounters in chat rooms, long-distance sex, virtual master-slave relationships, and “virtual” sex with cam girls might all someday be possible — if someone can come please come up with a good idea.
But there have been plenty of ideas, just not necessarily good ones. The field of teledildonics was exciting in the early 1990s with everyone from artists and university professors to adult entrepreneurs. It seemed like the new frontier of sex was here. There was a cloak-and-dagger arena of secrecy and private funding around every corner for anyone with a good idea that might make two people into a feeling, full-on fucking love sandwich in cyberspace. It seemed that in late-century teledildonics, there was no such thing as a bad idea — or maybe it was just a bad idea contest.
Crash Test #2: Intimate Friends Network and SafeSexPlus.com
A banner year for teledildonic wreckage, 1999 also saw the debut of “cyberdildonic devices” through the website SafeSexPlus.com, owned by Allen Hadhazy, founder of iFriends.com (then-named “Intimate Friends Network”). Rather than a suit, the vibrational speed of sex toys was allegedly controlled via the web, with two-way handshaking capabilities, meaning that two users could play with each other. Cam girls were excited to have more to offer clients; iFriends users could screw around a little more interactively than usual. According to Hadhazy, suggestions for the teledildonic interface came from iFriends users who wanted the future in their pants, now.
Collision: In order to make the devices truly cross-platform (and prove compatible for any web-enabled computer), the device controls were… unusual. A photo diode was attached to the user’s computer monitor with a suction cup, and would respond to screen brightness. That’s right, brightness. The remote user would control the brightness of a section on the device user’s computer monitor; the brighter the screen the higher the vibration or intensity. Darkening of that little corner of your screen would cause your vibrator to decrease.
The toys were priced right for consumers, between $29.99 and $99.99. The tech was cross-platform, required no software or downloads, and it catered to needs for plug-and-play web sex — scoring smartly in many marketing categories. But the devices were difficult to operate accurately, resulting an exercise in frustration — rather than masturbation. But with a crude rocks-and-sticks control interface, we wind up driving slowly by the smoldering wreckage, waiting to see something gruesome in the aftermath. SafeSexPlus.com is now defunct.
Crash Test #3: Digital Sexsations Little Black Box
Four ports on the Black Box offered simultaneous multiple toy usage. Users install the software, get their sex partners to install DS’ special chat software, and off you both go. A small number of accommodating sex toys were initially offered as separate purchases; the box only controlled vibrating devices.
Collision: Major device and software malfunctions. Many users had to buy adapters for the 9-pin cable (and soon, USB would provide both power and a connective port, eliminating the need for a 9-pin/power-supply combination). The Black Box had big power issues; it would shut off or reset itself while in use to conserve power.
Software conflicts with web browsers caused crashes, and the chat software was buggy. The thought of having system crashes while jacking off is just too stressful, and having a sex toy fail at a crucial moment is one of the most profoundly frustrating experiences in our modern age. The Black Box is now a discontinued item, a crash test dummy destroyed.
Teledildonics seems to be a catchall for failed ideas. In a surprising turn of events, a few inventors and entrepreneurs refused to give up, and inspired by Flash interfaces and wifi innovations, they stumbled upon a few common-sense breakthroughs in teledildonics. Emerging tech might just lend a hand to make our cyber dreams come true, but in the tale of the adult industry and teledildonics, innovation may just arrive via an expected route — from inventors outside “the industry.”
For new technologies to be successful, the must follow a certain set of loose rules: take existing tools, spot a consumer need, introduce breakthrough technology, and meet market factors of price, timing and displacement of old technologies to adapt users quickly. This is the driver’s ed test of new technologies. Until recently, teledildonics has failed on almost every count — for too long, the ideas and inventions have pre-empted available technologies. Or, they’ve simply been half-baked attempts to make money without putting enough consideration into the end user. Welcome to the new era of teledildonics, ushered in by inventors and innovators with backgrounds in robotics and Silicon Valley.
Crash Test #4: VR Innovations and the Virtual Sex Machine
At vrinnovations.com, the Virtual Sex Machine is a computer-controlled penis pump that connects to a little black box, which in turn connects to a PC. The suction toy (also called a “tugger”) operates in tandem with mini-movies available through VR Innovations; the masturbation device reacts to appropriately timed signals embedded in the data stream of VR Innovation’s own CD-ROM or DVD movies. The device attempts to simulate the fellatio or penetration being performed on your monitor — as the performer swallows the penis onscreen, or the dummy cock enters her other orifices, VSM’s sex toy provides suction to tug on the user’s penis. VR Innovations claims on their website that it is designed to “exactly duplicate the real world.”
Prices began at $396.69 plus shipping and handling, and the basic setup includes the suction toy, black box, power supply, cables, lube, toy cleaner, software and a starter set of videos. The device plugs into the SPP port (Standard Printer Port) on a PC only. Each subsequent volume of porn costs $39.69 each, and includes around five scenes.
Driver’s Ed Score: The VSM only worked with a certain set of existing tools currently in use by consumers — a PC and Windows interface; Mac users would still have to simulate virtual sex the old fashioned way. Software downloads would always be viewed dubiously by computer users unless it comes from an established, trusted company. In the consumer needs category the VSM makes a slim entry; this is a one-user device, it is for men only, as of now it has no two-way “handshaking” capabilities for web sharing and use is limited to videos provided by the company.
The VSM was certainly the only device of its kind, and barring software bugs could have been a respectable breakthrough in technology; it’s a shame my gender prohibited a test-drive for this article. When new technology sinks below a critical price threshold, the tech moves from early adopters to the mainstream — around $400 might be a lot to ask for a computer-controlled masturbation device. Many people won’t even pay $300 for a digital camera. Currently, there is no existing technology for the VSM to displace, giving the VSM a tough task: forge a new road in sex toy usage. Is the timing right for the VSM? Only if there is a consumer need, something else the VSM will have to create.
If you don’t figure out what consumers are seeking to make their computer fantasies come true, and assess how to best use what technology they’re already using, your product will take a Rodney King style beating in the market. And timing is everything. Sure, you’ll get media attention for making a nifty new fuck gadget, but unless your toy becomes a commodity your bank balance is still zero — and so is your credibility. A sex toy commodity makes something that seemed previously frivolous, such as silent, wireless vibration at the tip of your fingers (best-selling Fukuoku 9000), a hot-selling everyday item.
Crash Test #5: The Sinulator
Over at sinulate.com, Sinulate Entertainment licenses a U.S. patent covering the “method and device for interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks.” Using a Flash interface point-and-click control panel, users of the Sinulate system and software operate toys via the Internet. Their little black box and screen controls are called The Sinulator; their endeavor is to develop a set of devices and software for two-user operation of a variety of wireless sex toys. A vibrator attaches to a wireless transmitter using a short cord, while another wireless transmitter connects to a PC through USB. Each toy gets a unique user name and URL. The operator controls the toy from the web page of the person with the Sinulator toy, and pilots the toy’s intensity by clicking and dragging their mouse on the Flash interface.
The Sinulator claims wireless capabilities up to 50 feet from the transmitter, so toy users have the freedom of masturbatory mobility and no wires to tangle in. Currently, sales and marketing of the Sinulate units are in the cam girl arena, where cam clients control a vibrator used by web cam performers. The Flash interface resembles an airline cockpit that operates a Rabbit Habit vibrator in a variety of ways, with a throttle (rotate), slider (vibrate) and three buttons that execute combined rotation and vibration programs. Sound and visuals are the client’s proof of successful transmission.
It works like a video game, except the operator can run the vibrator on any Internet-connected device with a browser, such as a Treo, to control the Sinulator vibe used by a woman or man, anywhere. The inventors cleverly created a control panel for the person on the vibrating end of the deal, where she or he can limit the intensity of the vibrator — so while their client is maxing out the rotate function thinking that more is better, the person with the vibe receives the maximum amount of rotation that they find pleasurable.
Driver’s Ed Score: The existing tools for the Sinulator are in place — a web browser, Flash capability and sex toys. Taking Macromedia’s common Flash protocol and giving it a sexualized push allows users to play around with applications already in hand. Flash allows users spontaneous opportunities to play with the interface. The receiver box arrives in a tasteful pillow with a very simple quick start guide (supplemented by a detailed startup brochure). The USB connection both powers and connects the transmitter; the Sinulator is FCC compliant. The UI looks like it was designed for 14-year-old boys:
The Sinulator’s price is right to make consumers willing to experiment — with the price of DVD players under $200, the DVD displaced the VHS in seconds. Cam sites may certainly want to offer toy-control memberships for users willing to pay a bit more, to get more interactivity; even more so if Sinulate can get the sexual interaction going in both directions. Currently SE has thirteen of penetration toys available for women and men, ranging in price from $29.95 to $49.95 and including adapter cables. The base price for the Sinulator power supply and box is $149.95.
Could it be possible that someday social networking sites will offer a premium adult membership for a price that includes a Sinulator-style rig? If so, a setup like the Sinulator could become a consumer expectation that displaces the usual online sex practices. Sinulate Entertainment is currently building a database for users to connect with each other, slowly heading toward the popular fantasy of merging a social networking site with glory hole capabilities.
In terms of spotting a consumer need that can be produced affordably and possibly converted into a commodity, SE is on target. People want anonymous sexual encounters in chat rooms, long-distance sex, virtual master-slave relationships, and “virtual” sex with cam girls, and these plug-and-play users currently go online for sex — regardless of whether they have supplementary devices or not. This crowd will be the first to adopt new sex tech if it is priced affordably and doesn’t crash their computers, and they comprise a huge, untapped market.
Steve Rhodes, president of Sinulate Entertainment, cites his background in the Silicon Valley tech field as one of the guiding forces behind making more than a remote-controlled vibrator. Rhodes says about his company, “we’re not sex toy manufacturers — we want to work with pre-existing toy makers whose market is already mature; that’s also why we’ve concentrated primarily on toys for female users.”
He believes that keeping costs low to consumers and building a business model for a diverse segment of users will make his product accessible to more users, and had plans for a Linux-based interface in the works for Mac users. But Rhodes isn’t just thinking about his own creations, one of his primary goals is to work with other teledildonics inventors — the competition — toward creating standards for Internet-connected sex toys.
On the phone with me he mused, “Remember what it was like when you had to decide between a BETA machine and a VHS? If we can all agree on basic standards it’s like when the water rises, all the boats rise — if everyone can use the toys interchangeably, then we’ll all be successful.” He’s not the only one seeking a set of standards for web-enhanced toys, or the only one who has finally created a usable, marketable Internet sex toy. Interestingly, another company called High Joy has emerged promising the same servics as SE, and smartly merged with a social networking/dating service web site. You can try the High Joy for yourself, if you shell out $225 at Eros Boutique.
Crash Test #6: The Thrillhammer
Over at thethrillhammer.com, Daphna and Allen Stein have worked with a team of twelve engineers and roboticists, Sybian (sybian.com) and Advanced Medical Robotics (erotichine.com) to make the web-controlled Thrillhammer. The Thrillhammer is designed to appeal to an exclusive clientele and utilizing business-to-business revenue models. It is a giant, sci-fi-looking adjustable chair that is a cross between a dentists’ chair and a gynecological exam table, which in its most basic incarnation includes a thrustable, rotating and vibrating dildo, and controllable webcam.
The female user relaxes into the chair while operators employ the functions of “thrust,” “rotate,” “vibrate,” “camera zoom, tilt, pan” and advanced options such as predefined preset patterns. The control interface is Flash, so it can be operated from any computer or OS that has a browser. End users, like with the Sinulator, can control the maximum amount of stimulation so they can still enjoy a pleasurable low volume of vibration, thrust or rotation, while the controller can get their rocks off by jamming the volume up to the max.
At this time, end users are limited to participation through the partnerships of The Thrillhammer Inc., a woman-owned company. Currently there is a Thrillhammer at the Moonlight Bunnyranch in Nevada, a Thrillhammer in Portland, OR that has seen extended work for charity donations through Darklady’s Masturbate-A-Thon (masturbate-a-thon.org), and another machine at a business location in Florida. Daphna Stein has plans for a retail version, which was the machine unveiled at the Masturbate-A-Thon (though this version was temporarily disabled for web use to keep in line with the masturbation theme).
They plan the consumer model to be “custom machines for kinky people who might also have a medical fetish” and for a high-end sex toy market of private clients. Indeed, their roboticist hails from making machines for the sophisticated tastes of House of Gord, “The home of ultra-bondage… the ultimate in restraint, trussing, cocooning, human furniture, packaged girls and suspension.” Estimates for custom machines start at $7500 to $12,000 each and can be modified with “anything the client desires.” Their consumer machines will seek a tamer audience, and are priced “just below $3000.” The first consumer models will be available through the Thrillhammer website and through Seattle’s xxxpresstoys.com, furthering their desire to partner with as many women-owned businesses as possible.
Driver’s Ed Score: On the retail end, this is an exclusive machine for people with money — and that’s fine with the Steins. “Sinulate has the commodity end of the market nailed; we want to compliment them and appeal to the individual buyers who want a tailored experience, and businesses that want to offer something more to their clients.” For now, setup is limited to custom installation, though clients such as Darklady and her erstwhile masturbators run it smoothly on their own after startup. An air compressor supplies the rhythm, so noise is a consideration, yet the entire unit is powered on regular electricity.
It was noted at the Masturbate-A-Thon that a vaginal squeeze of the Kegel muscles slowed the machine’s thrust, which may be desirable for controlling the pace, or a frustrating delay to orgasm when arousal causes the vaginal muscles to constrict. This journalist would have to either travel or find a bag of money in the street to be able to test the Thrillhammer, so reports of orgasmic efficiency are limited.
The Thrillhammer has a similar non-adult background as Sinulate Entertainment, and both companies are friendly entrepreneurs looking toward their shared future in the teledildonics field, pushing for standardization in web-controlled sex toys. At least four other companies are currently working on prototypes that incorporate much of the same Flash and wifi technology — because in the field of sex tech invention, if someone has thought of an idea, you better bet that five others are making mock-ups for investors.
Teledidonics’ hope lies in each of these entrepreneurs’ ability to make toys that play well with each others’ technologies; we’ve seen in the sex and technology junkyard that random, thoughtless, fast-buck approaches wind up scrapped. Perhaps outside inventors will make our cybersex dreams come true with their inventions and the evolution of sex and tech a reality by building business models that pass the test.