LOVE AND REVENGE
The week of February 14, 2016
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The future of sex tech is already here

By Mary Emily O'Hara

This article contains sexually explicit material.

With each passing year, sex toys bring us closer to the sort of future that science fiction has always promised would come. OK, maybe most of the popular sci-fi films and novels didn’t really mention sex toys. Nevertheless, the future of sex tech is here—and these aren’t your mother’s dildos.

Similar to the way that porn companies were among the earliest adopters of the Internet, pushing its development and helping create one of the first online markets, the sex toy industry is often teeming with next-generation tech and experimentation. Why? It’s a $15 billion industry—at least that’s about how much was spent in 2014. By 2020, researchers have predicted, it could pull in about $52 billion a year.

New sex toy startups rear their innovative heads all the time, and the products aren’t just getting techier: They’re also winning design awards. In 2014, LELO’s ORA oral sex simulator for women was nominated for a Cannes Lion award for best product design, making it the first sex toy ever nominated in the prestigious annual festival of creativity.

LELO_ORA

LELO ORA Lelo

Today’s sex toy shops can feel like beautifully arranged galleries (museums, nearly) of design and innovation staffed with helpful, respectful sex educators. The new sex toy shopping experience might include a weekend workshop on rope play; a tasting session of organic, aloe-based lubes; or it might even be something that happens entirely online, from start to plugged-in cybersex finish.

That being said, the new sex toy market can be intimidating. It’s packed with products in a range of price points, and some of the emerging technology seems like stuff you’d need an MIT degree to truly understand. But with a few guiding lights—and perhaps a bit of financial investment—sex tech can be so very worth it.

To make Valentine’s Day even more thrilling this year, we broke down some of the new sex toys into categories and helped explain what it is they actually do.

Goodbye, batteries

One of the most significant changes to the world of sex toys is the decline of batteries. In the old days, a lady might settle in for a little solo time with her vibrator only to discover that it had run out of juice after its last romp. The inevitable decision between running to the store for emergency sex batteries and just giving up and going to sleep usually resulted in the latter.

Today’s vibes are largely USB-compatible, meaning you can either plug them into your computer (handy when already watching porn online) or into the same charging brick used for your phone. Even the smallest vibes, like the new bullet from Crave, depend on USB charging—which is excellent, as tiny bullets tend to only take one battery and hence always run low.

On Crave’s presale page, where 500 of the 24k gold- and silver-plated toys sold out in three days, the company calculated the money customers save on batteries alone. Approximately $1,257 in batteries would be required to run a traditional bullet vibe for 250 hours, whereas the USB charging model costs little more than its initial ticket price.

Not only is a direct current replacing batteries in sex toys, electricity itself has become more common as a pleasuring device via the rise of e-stim toys. E-stim (short for electrical stimulation) is the erotic equivalent of the kind of TENS unit a chiropractor might use to tighten and relax a patient’s back muscles. While the basic premise of using electricity to spur orgasm is the same, direct electricity via e-stim toys has a very different feel—one that isn’t for everybody.

Approximately $1,257 in batteries would be required to run a traditional bullet vibe for 250 hours, whereas the USB charging model costs nothing more than its initial ticket price.

Some of the newer e-stim toys, like Mystim’s Charging Chester dildo, have the option to be used with or without the electrode attachments. It’s a gentler introduction to the world of e-stim compared to more BDSM-focused products like the E-Stim Ultrasound Micro, a tiny rod that is inserted into a man’s urethra for a special kind of electric torture. For those who want to experiment with e-stim without literally shocking the most sensitive parts of their bodies, there’s JimmyJane’s new e-stim glove, the Hello Touch X. With an interchangeable set of finger pads that offer either traditional vibration or direct electro-stimulation, the glove looks like some kind of weapon from a science-fiction movie but actually turns you into Edward Vibratorhands—an option for those who want to retain a sense of direct touch, or users who prefer their own fingers over a disembodied phallus.

DIY sex toys

With an increasingly flooded market, sex toy manufacturers are starting to play with ways to give the consumer added control over their highly personal products. In 2015, Je Joue introduced the Ooh “pick ‘n’ mix” line, allowing buyers to build their own Frankendildo by choosing a motor and an assortment of silicone sleeves. Another highly personalized sex toy is the IziVibe, a subtly travel-friendly smartphone case that turns your phone into a vibrator.

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Je Joue Fifi Rabbit Vibrator Je Joue

Soon, truly dedicated orgasm fans might be printing their own toys at home. The Dildo Generator, created by a Berlin-based programmer, is a template for 3D printing at home or commercial 3D printers. However, there is one caveat: The hard PLA (polylactic acid) typically used to create plastic 3D printed toys isn’t exactly comfy for vaginal insertion, so the process necessitates medical-grade silicone and the use of molds.

Even the pulse patterns of vibrators are now customizable nowadays. For instance, sex toy manufacturer We-Vibe’s products come linked to a companion app that allows users to write the code, in a way, of their own orgasm. The We-Connect app presents the vibration as a wave motion that users can individualize with a few pinches and zooms—then collate a series of such waves to create a sort of vibration symphony.

Teledildonics: The future of sex is connected

While all of the physical changes to sex toys are exciting, it’s the new leaps in connectivity that are truly transforming how we use what used to dryly be referred to as “marital aids.” With the onset of teledildonics—sexual social networking, virtual reality, and companion apps—couples can use technology to have cross-continental sex and those flying solo can find sex partners online without ever having to touch them IRL.

Vibrators often seem like a solo proposition, but today’s new vibes are almost all Bluetooth-ready, and some are even compatible with apps and online networks. JimmyJane’s Form 1 waterproof vibrator is an exceptionally quiet wearable vibe, the size of a finger, and is powered by a palm-sized Bluetooth remote allowing for subtle, secret control by a partner.

Jimmy_Jane

Jimmyjane Form 1 Jimmyjane

Taking Bluetooth capability one step further, We-Vibe’s paired app also allows couples to log in together to create a more interactive experience. The We-Connect app syncs with the company’s vibrators, like the new Nova—a double-pronged insertion toy with a clitoral stimulator—via Bluetooth. Once the Bluetooth-enabled toy is online, the user’s special friend can log into the app from anywhere in the world and control the vibe’s functions with the touchscreen wavelike animation. The partner can also write custom vibrations from afar and the app includes a chat feature and video sharing.

Privacy concerns are at the forefront with teledildonics. If dating sites like Ashley Madison and the nude selfies in our cloud storage accounts are vulnerable to hackers, who’s to say that a record of one’s personal vibrator preferences couldn’t suddenly become public? To this, We-Vibe spokesperson Tristan Weedmark said that the company’s app was designed with vulnerability in mind.

“All in-app partner communication (instant messages and photos) are cleared after a partner session (similar to Snapchat), nothing is stored or saved,” wrote Weedmark in an email to the Kernel. In addition, the app is PIN-protected with a “discretion lock” that users can enable, and, “[a]ll data transmitted by the device and the app is encrypted and our servers are protected behind secure firewalls.”

While some horny lovers prefer to interact with other human beings (albeit with the assistance of tech toys), others just want the full experience without the messy dating aspect. The latter type seems to be increasing: The new virtual reality sex toy company VirtuaDolls saw unprecedented demand when its Indiegogo campaign raised nearly $20,000 in just two days and was swamped with so many orders it had to briefly shut down in early February to reassess.

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We-Vibe Nova We-Vibe.com

The VirtuaDolls crowdfunding campaign promises a silicone sleeve “controller” similar to a flashlight—except this suction device snaps onto an Xbox controller, pairs with an Oculus Rift headset, and comes with a companion porn game called Girls of Arcadia. So many men want to have virtual sex with animated characters that respond to the movements made with the sex toy, the company’s “Early Bird VirtuaDolls Bundle” sold out almost immediately. The existing adult industry is banking on the new tech to be a huge success, too: Porn star Alex Chance tweet-teased a possible starring role in a VirtuaDolls game:

And virtual reality startup Dogma360 also took to Twitter to crowdsource the reaction to a potential virtual strip club:

Another new invention poised to transform virtual sex is also still in the beta testing phase. Frixion is a “sexual social network” that employs “advanced peripherals [using] bidirectional force feedback telemetry to create simultaneous one to one motion and resistance between your and your partner’s device.” What? Basically, it’s a social network that connects to IRL toys and allows people to safely have sex with total strangers that they meet on Frixion—or, it’s yet another way for long-distance lovers to get it on. The company calls itself a “haptic social network,” and it’s banking on the incoming explosion of VR sex tech; rather than limit virtual reality eros to interactions with game characters, why not log on to the Facebook of fucking and see who else happens to be plugged in?

• • •

The terrain of today’s sex toys is futuristic indeed. And not every new bell and whistle invented by designers is actually going into products designed solely for pleasure. The Lovelife Krush is a vaginal Kegel strengthener that pairs with an app to measure increased muscle tone and endurance, and even provides the ability to control pulse and squeeze patterns. For guys, Fitbit-ish penis rings like Lovely and Sexfit measure the calories burned during sex while also offering the blood flow constriction and thus, increased erection life offered by traditional cock rings.

All in all, what is really cool (or disturbing, depending on your perspective) is the way that the new dawn of sex tech increases the options for safely interacting with other people sexually. In the future, you may never have to leave your couch to get laid. The virtual reality, networked, remote-controlled sex toys of the future are a lazy germophobe’s dream.

Now that is a turn-on.

Illustration via Max Fleishman

A version of this story originally appeared on the Daily Dot on Feb. 9, 2016.