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Here’s Why We Need More Open Source Software For Buttplugs

It’s a triumph of back-end engineering.
Image: Morderska/Wikimedia Commons

Internet-connected sex toys have been on the market for a while now, but the software that operates these very personal devices remains mostly closed, meaning it's not shared with users in a way that allows them to tinker with it. In practice this means toys ship with either a smartphone app, desktop application, or web interface designed by the manufacturer, which gives users a set of built-in settings to try, but no under-the-hood access that would allow them to modify the device.


That's why one developer, Kyle Machulis, has created Buttplug: a "sex toy control standard" that will let developers build software to control sex toys with a range of programming languages. Instead of writing custom code for each device or operating system, developers will be able to use Buttplug's standardized set of commands—which he hopes will allow diverse communities to customize the toys' interfaces and functionality to their needs, since most are designed for able bodied, heterosexual people.

To understand the significance of the project, we need to look at the current paradigm for computer-controlled sex toys: Currently, if someone wants to control a connected device in a way that is not supported by the manufacturer, they need to understand how to communicate with Bluetooth APIs in languages like C# (on Windows) or through Google Chrome's new Web Bluetooth, as well as a specific device's own communication protocols.

But if developers are able to write simple code that works across a range of devices, even though each device takes different commands at the hardware level, they can spend more of their time doing the fun stuff: figuring out new, unexpected, and hopefully even more pleasurable ways for toy owners to interact with these products. (A more detailed explanation can be found in the Buttplug documentation.)

Machulis has been writing both articles and software code related to sex technology for years—in fact Motherboard previously reported a story he uncovered about dildo patent trolls—and is passionate about using his background in robotics and engineering to unlock some of the mysteries of new devices on the market for a larger audience.

Machulis told me in a phone interview that the inherent contradiction of sex tech toys is that they are at the same time very intimate and also mass produced. This makes it hard to design products that can accommodate every individual's specific desires. In this respect, opening up the source code of a platform like Buttplug also has another important democratic aspect: letting developers create functionality for users from marginalized groups, whose needs may not be met by the standard design.

"We're really interested in inclusive interfaces—things the LGBT community might be interested in, or the differently abled community might be interested in—and the reason this tool is built [as open source] is because we don't have these answers.," Machulis said. "We want to help these communities build their own tools, they're the ones with the experience to take the tools and build what they need."

As he pointed out, we're at a strange crossroads where mainstream media will vigorously debate the future of sex with robots, while ignoring more immediate questions related to how we should be able to access the software and hardware of the many kinds of connected toys that are already on the market. In light of that, it's important to support efforts like Buttplug, which help keep the software and hardware behind sex toys in the hands of the people.

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