OK Computer

When talking about “hands on” gaming, there are multiple avenues of respectable journalism to pursue, as my colleagues in this issue will ably demonstrate. There is, however, really only one road down which my own mind was willing to travel, and not because both road and mind are seedy, dimly-lit corridors bypassing all that is right and good with the world (which is nevertheless true).

Rather, it’s because the mechanisms and theories of force feedback and tactile-responsive videogame play – the vibrating motors, ergonomic designs and tactile response actuators – originated, or were perfected, for use in sex play. After over a century of advances in the science of masturbatory technology, modern vibrating massagers are now quite small and require very little power and practically zero maintenance to operate, making them perfect for insertion into a phallus … or a game controller. Or perhaps, as some enterprising minds have discovered, a game-controlled phallus.

First called “teledildonics” in the 1980s by Ted Nelson (the same man who coined the term Hypertext), the field of electronically-enhanced cybersex has more or less exploded in recent years. Encouraged by websites like Slashdong, outspoken columnists like Regina Lynn, online communities like Second Life and a number of singles-oriented web-based dating services (many of which offer “have sex toy” as a profile checkbox), more and more people are trying (or perhaps admitting to trying) teledildos. To cover every available device would require more space than we have here. So I’ve narrowed it down to the most stimulating of the bunch, and invited a few of my colleagues to help me get a grip on the subject.

We’ll start with the first teledildo, because, as with martinis, movie trilogies and love, it’s the one we usually remember.

All in the Suit That you Wear
Imagine a device combining three of the world’s favorite things: the internet, pornography and self-pleasuring. Imagine that it’s wearable and connected to your computer. Imagine that you can use it with an online partner and that your partner can control the device from afar. Imagine watching a pornographic video clip (try hard, some of you), and feeling the general effect of the acts depicted onscreen in the appropriate erogenous zones of your own body. Now imagine, doing all of the above – with the same device – all while having both hands free for … whatever. Sounds (if you’ll pardon the pun) quite stimulating, doesn’t it?

David James thought so. In the late ’90s, Mr. James, the founder of America’s most successful pornographic entertainment company, Vivid Entertainment, invested at least $180,000 in R&D for what his company called The Cyber Sex Suit. The suit was a wetsuit-like garment, enhanced with 30 or so tiny sensors, wired to a device that could be plugged into a DVD player or an internet-enabled computer and could be manipulated remotely to deliver tiny electric shocks to the more tingly bits of the wearer’s body; in other words, it was an internet-enabled sex simulator.

Kyle Machulis, founder of the website Slashdong and creator of the SeXBox teledildonic videogame peripheral, tells the story like this: “Rich guy decided he wanted a Lawnmower Man flavored sex rig.” According to Kyle, it “sounded kinda spiffy.”

Indeed. So where is it? According to Mr. James, the suit combined with phone sex services was to be “very big money in the future.” In reality, the device never made it to market, and outside of a few test subjects, and perhaps Mr. James himself, no one has seen it since.

Ultimately, in spite of the backing of the most powerful pornographer on the planet, The Cyber Sex Suit failed to pass the most basic safety regulations. The Federal Trade Commission feared that the electrical current running through the suit could lead to trouble for people with pacemakers, or people who got sweaty or secreted other fluids while using it to have sex. In other words, just about everyone was at risk from the suit.

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Vivid’s thrust to penetrate the market, therefore, was blocked, and The Cyber Sex Suit had to hit the showers. But cybersex and the so-called “feel-good internet” lived on, fed by consumer concern that, as Kyle Machulis adroitly surmises, teledildonics were long overdue: “Full body actuation of virtual environments is something we’ve seen in sci-fi for decades, so it’s probably coming at some point. Whether it will be next week or the same time as the flying car is a good question.”

I asked Regina Lynn, sex tech columnist for Wired, whether she thought there was still a need for a device like The Cyber Sex Suit.

“A need?” she responded. “No. But a desire? Yes. And I should not be so quick to dismiss it as a need, actually. We’re always finding new ways to have sex. I think the first application of a sex suit would be for parties and sex workers, though – too expensive to have just as a home toy, for the average person.”

But would she use one?

“Of course I would give it a try,” she replied. “Why not? As to whether I would buy one, I doubt it. For me, the stimulation of long-distance sex is almost entirely mental, emotional, spiritual – the physical kicks in at the end, but it’s a long delicious gradual building of desire and pleasure and want. I’d feel claustrophobic in a suit, I think.”

What about Kyle? As one of the foremost experts on teledildonics, I was curious to hear his opinion of the device, if he’d used it, would use it and why.

“There’s not that much to be an expert on, honestly,” Kyle points out. “This isn’t rocket science. Hell, it’s hardly high-school-level engineering. There’s very, very little that you could call technologically advanced about the current state of commercial teledildonics. It could’ve been done a decade ago, people were predicting it two decades ago, and yet, here we sit with the same ol’ boring hardware that’s existed for years.

“But, for all intents and purposes, sure, I’m an expert.”

But what about The Cyber Sex Suit?

“I only deal,” he claims. “I don’t partake. I’d probably rip it apart and figure out how it worked. Then use it for something non-sexual.”

“I’ve noticed that many teledildonics aficionados suffer from a certain level of schizophrenia,” says Lara Crigger, a technology and game industry journalist who’s extensively researched the subject of teledildonics for both the web and print publications. “Some are the kind of people who do it just to get a kick out of shocking the naïve or closed-minded. People who see prurience as like an art form. Something to be embraced, even celebrated.

“But then, there are others who like to pretend that their hobby isn’t about sex; or, at the very least, that the sex is some First Principle that they try to move on from. It’s almost like they’re trying to transfer the kink from the maker onto the observer; that is, should you focus on the toy’s sexual possibilities instead of its schematics or design, well, then you’re the one with the dirty mind.”

So it would seem that one of the major roadblocks to mainstream success for teledildonics, in addition to fear of electric shock, is the acceptance gap: the perception that online-enabled sex toys are just for pervs. To bridge that gap, one would have to convince people that the toys themselves are safe for non-perv usage. After all, it’s not like having rubber genitalia lying around is exactly acceptable in polite society. A new generation of toys, however, promises to help remedy that.

Next stop: masturbating with an iPod.

Groove is in the Heart
“Everyone loves music. Everyone loves sex,” claims Suki, the maker of the stylish-looking iPod accessory, OhMiBod. The device is, in essence, a sleek-looking vibrating dildo that plugs into an iPod or any other device with a headphone jack, and then vibrates to the rhythm of your music. It even comes with a splitter so that you can have your iDildo and headphones plugged in at the same time.

Suki offers the device for $69, as well as a host of accessories and a community site called, appropriately, Club Vibe, which lists a growing number of DJs who are spinning out music specially crafted to hit just the right spot and a slew of user-submitted, iTunes-enabled playlists. With OhMiBod, Suki promises more than just a one-night stand – they’re selling the idea that sex play is cool, and are hoping that users will see their device as a gateway to a larger community of Jacks and Jills who are into getting off on their music.

And it seems to be working. The OhMiBod is (at the time of this writing) currenly listed as “out of stock” on the OhMiBod website due to “orgasmic demand,” and has been covered by practically every blogger on the net, as well as such mainstream outlets as the supermarket-friendly Redbook.

According to Regina Lynn, while playing country music, “the vibrator almost leaps out of my hand with its full-speed-ahead buzz, only easing off for a breath between verse and chorus.” One can only imagine how it would respond to electronica.

As with the iPod itself, the fact it works as well or better than similar devices is beside the point; it looks cool, which, if the success of its parent device is any indication, could do more for the field of dildonics than rechargeable batteries.

See Me, Feel Me
So, if a stylish, iPod-colored magic wand has the potential to entice a whole new generation of sexual beings to pick up a dildo, what would it take to get those same people into a teledildo? I asked our three “sexperts” what lies in the mind of those seeking cybersex. What kind of person needs a teledildo? Who’s the target audience?

“No one needs it,” says Regina Lynn. “But it’s a fun addition to have. I’d say it appeals to three groups:

1. Long distance lovers. You and your partner live far apart and don’t get to see each other every weekend. Teledildonics becomes one of the ways you stay connected. Not every day, but something fun to pull out of the closet once in a while.

2. Online lovers. You and your online lover can’t get together in the flesh for whatever reason – or you don’t want to and the relationship is entirely online – but you add teledildonics as one of the ways you play.

3. Online sex work. A performer, whether a cam girl or a Second Life escort or porn star, can offer teledildonics to her clients as a way to increase her earnings. And clients can take advantage of the opportunity to touch the professional (by proxy, anyway) without worrying about STDs or getting arrested.”

So, basically: those who have sex for love, those who do it for fun and those who do it as a job? Sounds like everyone. Why isn’t everyone using a teledildo?

“I dunno,” says Kyle Machulis “Really, I don’t. Sex is a very personal matter. There’s gonna be the obvious answer of physical actuation for distance relationships, but there’s also going to be people who want to sit in rooms in the same house and use it.”

“I do think it’s unfair to dismiss teledildonics as purely the product of pervy miscreants,” says Lara Crigger. “That would be really oversimplifying the matter. I think it all comes back to the human need for affection, acceptance and love.

“These days, it’s completely acceptable to try to find love online – as long as it’s just the emotional kind. The moment you try to express love through physical means – teledildonics, emergent sex, cybering, whatever – you’re seen as creepy and weird.

“But sex is a natural, genetic impulse. In the real world, no truly fulfilling relationship can work without at least a little skin-to-skin action. Why should virtual worlds be any different?

“So, in essence, teledildonics is just an attempt to reintroduce that physicality back into digital search for love. It tries to act as a sexual liberation of sorts, a fumbling attempt to free our libidos from self-imposed inhibition. Sure, it usually doesn’t work. But at least it tries.”

Tries. But how hard? I wondered. To answer that question, I sought out information on what’s being billed as the most successful – or at least most-widely available – teledildo around: The Sinulator.

Radar Love
The Sinulator is more than a teledildo, it’s a teledildonics interface compatible with a number of different toys, including a male masturbation sleeve, which can then be used in tandem with the standard teledildo for true male-female cybersex – or the closest we’ve come yet. The company even offers connections to popular online dating and “swinger” services, through which you can find and cyber with other Sinulator-owning netizens.

“Here’s how it works,” reported Regina Lynn, in September of 2004. “Your Sinulator package includes the transmitter, a vibrator and a receiver. You download the client application from Sinulator.com. During installation, you connect the transmitter to a USB port.

“When you’re all installed and have the client running, you attach your toy to the wireless receiver and switch it on. Finally, you go to Sinulator.com and choose a name for your toy. After that, anyone who knows your toy’s name can set your toy a-buzzin’ using the Sinulator control panel. Neither of you has to register or divulge any personal information – not even an e-mail address.”

But does it work?

“I’m enjoying the novelty of it,” she says. “I can honestly say that the Sinulator beats the pocket rocket hands down.”

Wicked Game
Having satisfied the sexual cravings of audiophiles, long-distance lovers and the mildly curious, one then has to wonder what teledildonics will to do for gamers. After all, the success of Rez, its optional vibrator accessory and a host of websites dedicated to perfecting the use of rumble-enabled controllers as sex toys (teaching gamers everywhere how to hit just the right sequence of buttons to maximize in-game vibration) have shown us that there is at least a token demand for game-related sex play. So who’s feeding it?

Kyle Machulis, for one.

“I created the SeXBox back in February of 2005,” Kyle says. “Which was a joke. Xbox controllers vibrate, vibrators vibrate, put the two together, and … games become sexual environments, which was lots of silly fun. However, it branched out to be much more than that as I got interested in sex technologies and what was happening with them.”

Kyle’s original SeXBox was a do-it-yourself project requiring (among other things) a vibrator, an Xbox controller and a soldering iron. His technique has since been refined and expanded upon by others, but he continues to push the envelope, looking for the perfect hybrid of technology and prurience.

“[SeXBox is] an open source sex platform. People should be allowed to [have sex] how they want, even if it is computer-controlled. You shouldn’t have to deal with someone else’s idea of what’s a good UI for your sexual fantasies, nor should you have to worry about paying their monthly fee to use the hardware you bought.

“Outside of that, I’ve also become interested in the idea of intimate interfaces. Right now, we’re still on the UI paradigms PARC gave us in the late ’70s. These don’t translate well to software made to control sex. Once people can build their own interfaces, it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with in order to control what is considered to be one of the most intimate experiences one can have as a human being. Maybe it’ll be something we can learn from.”

Lara Crigger is not so sure.

“Even if we didn’t already have preconceived notions about the propriety of electronic sex toys,” she says, “I still think teledildonics would probably never take hold, or even make a noticeable dent, in the gaming industry. For one, it’s too much of a novelty act. Even regular, run-of-the-mill sex toys serve only a niche market.

“The fatal flaw of teledildonics is not that it’s weird. It’s that although the toys can stimulate most body parts and orifices reasonably well, they can’t stimulate the most crucial sex organ of all: the brain. Teledildonics tends to separate the mind from sex. But the mind makes sex fun, addictive. Without it, you just get friction, fluids and occasional release. So, I think that’s why the technology hasn’t succeeded yet; few people find anything mentally stimulating about an Xbox controller.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. If a sex toy were developed in tandem with a game release, then sure, I could see it succeeding. But the sex toy and the game would need to be closely interlinked. They’d need to work together, instead of parallel to each other, to satiate a player’s desires.

“Of course, I’m mostly speculating. Although I’ve been curious enough about teledildonics to write about it, I’m still too timid to have actually tried any of these devices myself. But the truth is, I can’t think of anything less sexy than gaming electronics. They’re hard, cold and plastic. It would be like masturbating with a coffee maker, or a steering wheel or a potted plant. Sure, you could do it, I guess, but why? And I think that’s the question that needs to be answered before teledildonics will ever see any mainstream success (if ever).”

“I’ve written about the human side of technology my entire career,” says Regina Lynn. “But since I started ‘Sex Drive,’ I’ve focused on the relationship between sex and tech. I have had long-distance relationships and cyberspace relationships in my life where these ‘intimate interfaces’ would have been a boon!

“In 10 years, everyone will know that you can control a sex toy over the internet. (It’s amazing how many people don’t know this already.) In 20 years, no one will care – or rather, it will have the same reputation that cybersex does now, because it will simply be another way that people have cybersex. Like now, some prefer webcams, some prefer avatars, some alternate. But I think it will take closer to 20 years … for intimate interfaces to become that ordinary. The technology develops faster than Americans’ ability to handle it.”

Kyle Machulis, as one might expect from the quirky creator of the SeXBox, sees the future of teledildonics as far more bleak.

“On the macro scale,” he says, “we’ve got a long, long way to go in terms of realism. Right now, all we’ve got is a vibration motor you can remotely change speeds on. That’s not exactly like real sexual interaction. We’ll start to see machines that can imitate the experience, and then possibly build on it.

“Then, someday, it’ll become better than having sex with other people and we’ll all forget how to screw each other and reproduce and the species will die out.

“Except for me. I know what’s coming. My plans are in place. I will be King.”

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made. He also mixes a fantastic Perfect Manhattan.

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