High tech sex toys are nothing new, and some are even household names – Sex and The City brought the dual stimulation Rabbit vibrator into public consciousness, and had a separate episode that showed a handful of women shopping at Sharper Image for “back massagers;” 50 Shades Of Grey caused sales of kegel balls to increase several-fold. But if you talk to a sextech developer today, the vibrators in SATC and on the shelves of many stores are from the dark ages: huge, penis-shaped, resembling animals, and often marketed to men for partnered use rather than for solo masturbation and other use cases. Even at female-owned shops, sex toys can be inaccessible or intimidating for some – many of whom are looking for a more customized experience.
A growing number of startups are attempting to fill this void with high tech, DIY, and upscale devices that target people who aren’t intimidated by bringing new technologies to private places. Entering into the multi-billion dollar adult toy market may pose a number of unique challenges, but several developers and executives think the time is ripe for a sexy sea change.
“I think it’s people being way more honest and curious. I think there’s a lot more people talking about sextech and innovation in the sex industry, which is awesome because it means people are talking more about sexuality and expression,” said Jen McEwen, co-founder of adult app store MiKandi. “More people are comfortable talking about sexuality, which means technologists are comfortable making it.”
Paul Clifton, co-founder of Georgia-based open source vibrator startup Comingle, believes the increasing social acceptability of “alternative” sexualities will drive a new market for high-tech devices. Add to that the coming of age of so-called digital natives and the availability of cheap development hardware, and you have a perfect storm for a creative climate.
“There’s the coming of age of millennials and digital natives, people who are used to technology and use it in every single aspect of their lives. There’s the acceptance of diverse sexuality plus acceptance of technology,” Clifton said. “It’s a brave new world, [and] they have to figure out for themselves what sexuality means to them.”
The excitement around exploring sexuality online might be the result of pubescent implanting from the generation before digital natives – people in their 20s and 30s now who grew up sending sexy messages in chat rooms and continue to sext today.
“I think as we communicate more and more online and through our phones, we will continue to and have more sex totally virtually,” sex and tech writer Emma McGowan said. “Right now it may be dirty texts, or dirty chats, or dirty Skype calls, but I think that will continue to evolve.”
Connectivity Everywhere, Especially *Down There*
Sextech – a term that’s only recently come online (pun and double entendre intended) – has broadly taken off in a few directions. The largest trend involves adding sensors and Internet connectivity to vibrators/dildos to track arousal or create a custom device, while longer-term work on teledildonics targets remote sex or remote-controlled devices. Clifton places Comingle somewhere in between; his company has developed an Ardiuno-based multi-vibrating dildo called Mod and a simpler vibe called Zildo. Comingle offers DIY kits for both, which can be purchased online or tackled in person at conferences such as Ladyfest Atlanta.
“Sexuality is so diverse and there’s so many different needs and desires that probably go unmet all the time. Making open source hardware and software in a way that anyone can engage with makes it possible for a whole lot of those sexualities to be supported,” Clifton said. “Hopefully people learn a little bit about the value of open source tech and how the technology they’re engaging with works at a different level.”
Berkeley, California-based SmartBod wants to engage techies and luddites alike with a vibrator and app that tracks arousal. The Arduino-based platform is slated for production in 2016 and combines statistical machine learning methods with temperature, moisture, and pressure sensors to track time to orgasm and when sex would feel best based on a variety of factors. Users can then program their vibrator based on their unique sexual preferences and have data to facilitate a conversation about sex.
Other companies such as Vibease want to mentally stimulate users with a wearable vibrator that hums alongside audio erotica, but also dips into the realm of teledildonics with a remote control feature. The idea is to help keep intimacy over long distances — many users of the wearable device are military couples where a person serving overseas controls their partner’s vibrator back home, Vibease co-founder Hermione Way said.
Our increasingly connected world makes it easier to maintain sexual relationships over long distances, and might be pushing people to teledildonics.
“People who are under 30 overwhelmingly get it. This is a generation where their partner moved away to go to a different college and they wish they had this – they were on Skype every night. It’s something they almost expect and wish was readily available,” said Seth, a co-founder of teledildonics company FriXion. “It’s a technology that I think will trickle up. I don’t think it will take an entire generation to age.”
FriXion has developed software to provide haptic feedback – a technological response that recreates a sense of touch, like how a video game controller vibrates when you shoot something in a game – from one sex toy to another using a 3D-force feedback joystick. FriXion aims to attach any sex toy to a virtual sensory network that feels and responds like in-person sex – contractions, vibrations, warmth, and all. The company hopes to eventually include virtual reality eyewear like the Samsung Gear VR or Microsoft HoloLens to create true augmented reality.
“We’re kind of adding a higher ceiling to online flirting. It gives it somewhere to go between a video chat and actually being in the same room… beyond just masturbating at each other,” Seth said, adding that users could network FriXion-enabled devices for parallel group sex. “Think of [porn star] James Deen – it’s very possible with our technology that he’s able to mirror his interaction across a dozen, a hundred, a thousand different people at the same time.”
Seth hopes the technology behind FriXion could reach beyond the sex toy market to medical arenas, where doctors could do remote surgery using the joystick’s millimeter-accuracy.
Comingle’s Clifton also sees a future in teledildonics and sensory control that would translate sensor data into meaningful stimulation like vibration or warmth. “The more research that gets done, the more people realize that sex isn’t just about stimulating genitals, it’s about mental and emotional state, about various erogenous zones.” Still, while such easy connectivity technology would be unimaginable 10 years ago, Seth said people get anxious when presented with the idea of using existing virtual networks to have sex. “Their defensiveness limits their imagination,” he said.
Busting Through Barriers
Defensiveness, reluctance, and social pressure are not only issues to acceptance of teledildonics, but to smart sex toys as a whole. It’s incredibly difficult for a sex toy startup to get funded by traditional venture capital firms – even in the progressive Bay Area – because investors don’t want their names or firms associated with sex. The only sex toy startups that get funding outside of angel investment are those that go the medical route, MiKandi’s McEwen said. MiKandi’s Tits & Glass app for Google Glass was shut down weeks after its inception, and Google subsequently added a development clause that prohibited porn.
“It seems there’s a big disconnect between the public who seems to be more and more supportive of sexual identity and exploration and the people with the money. Google is afraid of media and morality, so they banned all porn in Google Words,” McEwen said. “Other people’s sexuality is terrifying to people. It’s very frustrating to experience this – we see it all the time with gay marriage.”
Sextech companies have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously, she said, adding that these startups must have an “unrelenting commitment to transparency, as well as honest and great technology.” Sextech startups face other traditional startup challenges, including manufacturing difficulties beyond the prototyping phase (which is increasingly done with 3D printing.) Still, many vibrators are manufactured by Chinese companies that are making it easier to plug and play.
“I think what the sex toy industry needs is a better way to manufacture and produce smaller batches. When I worked in China, it was expensive to invest in a new sex toy. The minimum order had to be 25,000 pieces. It makes it hard for a small business,” McEwen said, adding that cultural barriers made manufacturing overseas difficult.
Privacy also plays an enormous role in the rollout of higher-order sextech, especially for those devices that are controlled remotely. FriXion’s Seth said his company has put extra effort into encrypting and credentialing communications between networked devices, and added that safety is still a real concern.
“It’s kind of challenging to think, what if someone was eavesdropping on your partner and they have a parallel experience without you knowing about it?” he said.
The reality is that emerging sextech also means new attack vectors for predators and abusers, and sextech platforms need to confront issues of privacy, anonymity, consent, sexual assault and even rape in the new sexual landscape they’re creating.
Clifton notes that making communications as anonymous as possible through browsing software like Tor (which reroutes Internet traffic through thousands of relays) may be helpful in thwarting nonconsensual virtual sex, or preventing a “man in the middle” attack of connected sex toys.
Sextech: The Next Generation
Conscious of the emerging opportunities (and risks) of a new sextech landscape, the industry sits at the dawn of a new era: “I think sex toys will continue to get more and more acceptable unless we have some enormous social upheaval that turns our comfort with sexual discourse gains backward,” said sexologist, author, and sex-positive activist Carol Queen, nodding to conservative politicians. “If sexuality becomes a more accepted locus of technological innovation and brainstorming, the next thing will certainly be more of teledildonics and technology where the brain-body connection is exploited.”
The industry must also forge ahead in developing technology for older people, LGBTQ populations, and for people with disabilities. Mainstream company Sportsheets recently unveiled custom toys for veterans with disabilities. [See Vice article “This Company Creates Custom Sex Toys for Disabled Veterans,” by Erin Meisenzahl-Peace.]
With so much technology at their fingertips, and even more sextech to come, Queen said it’s of the utmost importance to give kids and teens a thorough sex education.
“Young people are growing up so technologically enabled to look up whatever they want, to get turned on to whatever they find if they’re wired that way, and they’re still living in a culture that refuses to give them good sexual education,” she said. “If you don’t know a little something, separating the wheat from the chaff in the Internet world can be detrimental.”
Sextech companies are forging ahead despite cultural, funding and manufacturing hurdles. There continues to be community interest in creating and hacking sextech — from sex toy hackathons to mountains of letters from users eager to get their hands on a programmable SmartBod that will help them overcome sexual challenges. If society continues on this trajectory, smart sex devices won’t be just another flash in the technological pan.