Robot sex is having a moment. Just a couple of weeks ago I "made" my husband try out a brand-new "blow job robot." Then last week OhMiBod premiered the blueMotion, an external vibrator that can be remotely controlled by an app, and which BetaBeat announced might "bring us close to computer-engineered orgasms." Obviously, it was my turn.
The vibrator is thin -- like original-iPod thin, not latest-iPhone thin -- and slips into an included pair of "one-size-fits-most" lace underwear. The idea being that you could inconspicuously wear the blueMotion out to a dinner party and your partner could tap on his or her iPhone screen under the table, making your fellow guests wonder at your inexplicable squirming. How devious, I like it! But that idea was quickly squashed by the volume of the vibration.
The coolest feature is that partners can use the blueMotion with Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth to connect across long distances, although it requires a one-time in-app purchase of $4.99. Also, you have to use Google+ to do this and, alarmingly, the default setting is to make your OhMiBod activity public. In other words, get that part wrong and, presumably, anyone in your circles -- including your boss and co-workers -- could see just how often you masturbate. A non-minor issue (unless you're me and your boss is the one aski...
The app allows you to choose from a handful of pre-programmed vibrational patterns, the strength of which are controlled by the volume buttons. Then there are settings that allow the app-controller to get creative: The way you touch or tap the screen, or the way you tilt your iPhone, create corresponding changes in the blueMotion's intensity or pattern. The "voice" option allows your partner to record audio that is then converted into vibrations. Thing is, "fuck me" feels a whole lot like "duck tea." The sensations are entirely detached from the meaning of your partner's words and the unique sound of his or her voice. In general, the vibration patterns seem crude at worst and random at best.
Look, it's a fun product! Sleek. Cute, even. The problem, perhaps, is the many years of hype around teledildonics as the future of sex. My expectations are just too high.
I remember the first time I encountered that word, which at once seems of the distant future and ancient past. I was reading Damon Brown’s “Porn and Pong,” a book about the history of sex and video games, and the idea was introduced. The concept of a computer-controlled sex toy, especially one that could be controlled remotely via the Internet, was mind-blowing. Immediately, I flashed to visions of computers programmed to deliver the kind of perfectly engineered pleasure that no mere mortal could. People having sex with with robots. People preferring sex with robots. This will change everything, I thought.
Some six years later, I’m not so convinced. There has been hype about teledildonics for at least three decades now, ever since the term was coined in the 1980s by Ted Nelson, the tech innovator who also came up with the term “hypertext.” In 1991, the book “Virtual Reality” by Howard Rheingold predicted that “portable telediddlers” would be “ubiquitous” by 2020. That seems highly unlikely. Certainly sex toys in general have been mainstreamed, but teledildonics have not lived up to the early hype. We're a long way from his vision of being able to "whisper in your partner’s ear, and 6000 miles away, an array of effectors are triggered, in just the right sequence, at just the right frequency, to convey the touch exactly the way you wish it to be conveyed.” The technology for whispering across great distances exists, of course, but not with the physical sensation and finesse that Rheingold imagined.
It’s safe to say there have been more teledildonic disappointments than innovations. As onetime “telediddler” optimist Mike Mosher wrote in 1998 about Rheingold’s vision, "Nearly a decade later, the speed and processing power required by sensors in responsive body gloves still don't exist." A year later, Vivid Entertainment -- this was prior to its fame as a purveyor of celebrity sex tapes -- created the Cyber Sex Suit. It looked like a wetsuit and boasted 36 electronic sensors that transmitted sensations all over the body. Exciting, right? But, it wasn’t long for this world: The suit couldn’t get FDA approval because of this pesky concern that it might give people with pacemakers a heart attack.
Next up, in 2004, was the Sinulator, which allowed people to connect sex toys to their computers for online play. As Wired’s Regina Lynn wrote at the time, “A man can be thrusting in Cleveland while a woman is penetrated in Seattle, and the cybersex experience gets one step closer to the holodeck.” Five years later, Lynn wrote that the product was no more. “Sinulator was a growing thing … but you know how it is with those tech start-ups, particularly SEX tech start-ups.”
The years that followed brought a series of products that either failed to make a lasting impression or soon disappeared entirely: Virtual Hole and Stick, Xcite! Touch, Real Touch and the Wii-ready Mojowijo. Just picture Web-connected version of your average vibrator and Fleshlight. Last year, the makers of the sleek and beautiful teledildonic prototype Elaico launched an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign. They were only able to raise $360 of their $380,000 goal. Most recently, we’ve seen the premiere of LovePalz, which proclaims itself "the world’s first love accessory applying motion-sensing technology that allows you to send your body actions to your lover and feel theirs too." Then there's FriXion and Kiiroo, both of which are ambitious social networks for teledildonic play, but the former is unique in that it employs compact mechanical arms to move a sex toy according to one's virtual partner's movements.
So why has innovation in this realm been so sluggish and disappointing? Lux Alptraum, a sex educator and former CEO of Fleshbot, says, "First and foremost, the development of any hardware is expensive, and hardware like this especially requires a lot of R and D," she says. "Since venture capitalists aren't lining up to fund teledildonics ventures, it's hard to get the funding required to really do something like this properly." Indeed, that's why, as I've written about before, sex toy innovators are increasingly turning to crowd-funding. Of course Kickstarter doesn't allow sex toy fundraising, so they have to turn to indie platforms.
Beyond that, says Alptraum, is that fact that "teledildonics is, at the end of the day, a product for a niche audience." She explains, "When you really think about it, there aren't that many situations where a person would be having regular remote sex," Alptraum says. "Maybe if they're in a long-distance relationship, or getting intimate with a webcam performer, but generally speaking, most of us look for sex toys that we can use by ourselves or in the same room as a partner -- and the limited number of times when most people would need a remote sex device probably isn't enough to justify them ponying up $100 or more that the product would require."
Brown, the author who first introduced me to the concept, points out that the hype around teledildonics arrived before the iPhone or iPad even existed, and our expectations have consequently been raised. "Today, it's not enough to just have a remote-controlled dildo or a cloud-connected device, but to have real-time HD video, surround sound and zero latency between thought and action," he said. Brown suggests that we've "crested" on teledildonics, at least for the time being. "Dirty pics can be sent via SnapChat, devices like the Ohmibod can provide discreet pleasure, and even the most basic tablets can do video calls with a lover," he says. "If there were a next level of teledildonics, it would be us actually taking the devices as much out of the equation as possible."
Brown adds, "I do see the future of teledildonics as us having machines so brilliant, and so immersive, that we actually forget that they are even there." It's just that the future is further away than we thought.