A crowd of a hundred or more had gathered in the Panorama Ballroom on the penthouse floor of the Andaz hotel in West Hollywood. It was a Thursday afternoon, and we were all attending the XBIZ 360 sex industry conference. Onstage was the Shockspot, once dubbed the "Rolls Royce of fuck machines" – a mechanised contraption of hard lines and metallic finish with a dildo affixed to its arm. Next to it, a man was gripping a Fleshlight, the famous ersatz vagina.
The Fleshlight was outfitted with a special attachment called a Vstroker. "What it does is it monitors your motion and transfers it to your USB drive that's plugged into your computer," said Vstroker COO John Ruskin, who was demonstrating from the stage. He explained that the company has partnered with the webcam porn site Flirt4Free to provide an interactive service – a virtual sex experience that would let customers get physical (well, "physical") with cam girls via the internet.
And with a jiggle of the tricked-out Fleshlight, the Shockspot's dildo arm jerked back and forth, each thrust punctuated by a robotic wheeze.
Is this kind of technology the future of sex toys? There's been a lot of buzz over the years about the growing field of " teledildonics," an ugly-sounding portmanteau that refers to the intersection of sex toys, electronics, and computers. And in an age when studies show that nearly one in ten Americans acknowledges using their smartphones during sex, the embrace of increasingly high-tech sex gadgets on a wide scale may seem inevitable. But as the technology gets more advanced – offering new options for long-distance couples, tech aficionados, and, yes, sex-cam customers – it's also apparent that translating sex to cyberspace is an immensely complicated feat rife with the potential for failed experiments, bad designs, unreliable technology, and insane-looking innovations.
"You have to basically translate all of human evolution's movement and gesticulations and everything else that involves sex and procreation into this tiny little piece of crappy hardware," said Kyle "qDot" Machulis, a robotics and virtual-reality engineer who runs the teledildonics blog Slashdong, when I asked him about the emerging field. "That's really hard. If you think about computers normally, most people are scared to install their printer."
The term teledildonics was invented in 1975 by the information technology guru Ted Nelson, and in the years since many have suspected that computers would revolutionise sex. "Some day your sex life could be shut off for failure to pay your electric bill," the Chicago Tribune declared in 1993. That same decade, the company Digital Sexsations released one of the first teledildonics devices: the Black Box, which connected up to four plastic toys to an old-school online chat interface, letting a user control the vibrations remotely.
The Black Box is hilariously crude by today's standards, but many toy makers have embraced the idea of remote connections, developing vibrators that can be controlled through WiFi or Bluetooth. The New Hampshire-based manufacturer OhMiBod is going one step further with a new version of its smartphone app that will let you sync their vibrators to the heart-rate monitor on a smartwatch, translating heart beats into vibration pulses. Meanwhile, the company Comingle is currently in the middle of a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign for the Mod, a "multi-vibrating, open-source dildo platform" outfitted with a Wii Nunchuk joystick, Arduino controller, and hacker-friendly programming options.
New toys are constantly being invented and produced by toy manufacturers as well as independent designers, and many of the latest developments get regular coverage on tech blogs (not least Motherboard's "Future Sex" series). At the XBIZ 360 conference, one of the hottest presentations of the day came from the Amsterdam company Kiiroo, maker of two products just released that represent a new frontier in long-distance lovemaking.
The first is the Onyx, an elegant black jack-off toy equipped with outside sensors, ten contracting internal rings, and a Fleshlight sleeve. The second is the Pearl, a soft-white silicone vibrator that, if stroked, licked, or inserted, sends signals through a Bluetooth connection over a video chat platform back to the Onyx, creating for the lucky fella a nuanced intercourse experience in real time.
"I tested it myself," said Toon Timmermans, Kiiroo's co-founder and CEO, after the company's presentation. Though the products hadn't been released on the market yet, he said the company had already received thousands of preorders, selling out over half of its first batch. "We need to figure out a way of bringing people closer together," he said.
Exciting though they may seem, the products are still relatively limited—while the male user can get serviced remotely, the Onyx can't control what's going on with the Pearl. But Timmermans says he plans to update the software to make the Onyx control the Pearl's vibrations, and eventually do even more. Some designers see much promise in this technology. Brian Shuster, CEO of Utherverse Digital and mastermind behind the virtual reality sex environment Red Light Center, imagines a time five years from now when devices like the Onyx will be in their fourth or fifth generations and can be paired with virtual-reality environments to offer what he expects will be remarkably complex, human-like sensations and experiences.
"You'll be holding hands. You'll kiss her on the cheek and she'll rub your shoulder. You'll be licking her vagina," Shuster says. "I don't want to do that on a Fleshlight. But when every sort of brush of the lips or lick of the tongue actually transmits the stimulation in both directions, of course— of course—people are going to do it. There's going to be consumer demand."
How realistic is this though, really? In the sex toy industry, some regard the teledildonics market with a skeptical eye.
"We're still trying to determine: Is it a trend or is it a fad?" says Robert Rheaume, president of toy manufacturer Jimmyjane, which specialises in elegant vibrators with a design focus. "For us, the jury's out right now. We don't have a definitive position on it. But we are looking at it and exploring it, for sure."
The truth is that not all teledildonics toys make sense. Just consider the Je Joue, a vibrator released in 2007 that came with its own programming language. As Machulis explained last year on the Slashdong blog, the product never managed to catch on because it was too expensive (it sold for for £225, or about $400, at the time) and too hard to use. Also, he wrote, many women didn't seem totally seduced by the programming concept, which let users create their own "Grooves" through a USB computer hookup and swap their unique vibrator patterns with other Je Joue owners.
Even more daunting was the A10 Cyclone. A Japanese jack-off machine for men originally released in 2009, it promised to change "the course of masturbation history" with the help of a powerful engine and 49 rotating modes, including several "ultra high" speed settings. But watching it in action might make you think more of an industrial-grade food processor than a fun sex toy. And even getting it to work was somewhat complicated by the fact that it required use of a special R-1 controller, which was sold separately. (The newer Bluetooth-compatible version of the Cyclone, released last year, looks friendlier, but still very heavy duty.)
All of which points to perhaps the biggest challenge of high-tech sex toys. When you can get satisfaction from a more straightforward toy – like Hitachi's high-powered Magic Wand massager, first released way back in 1968 and still wildly popular today – you have to wonder whether it's worth the effort of using a complex, internet-connected device.
Perhaps it'll let you get close to a loved one from a long distance, or experience a new palette of sensations. But as Machulis points out, simply setting it up could also be a mood-killing headache: "You have to turn on your computer, hook up the toy, hope the toy has drivers on there, hope the drivers will talk to the toy in the correct way, connect to someone over the internet hoping that your internet connection is not lagging, talk to the same protocol as their toy, hope that their internet is not lagging, and that they have a toy that will talk to yours..."
And in the end, you might just end up resorting to the simplest tool of all.
Follow Peter Holslin on Twitter.