Fig: Snapshot from the movie Ex-Machina, Source:variety.com
Intimacy is one of the most basic needs for physical and emotional well being of human beings. Due to the complications of modern society like long distance relationships, different lifestyle choices we are often forced to satisfy our needs of touch and warmth through artificial means. Though technology has touched and shaped our other aspects of life, technology for erotics is still lagging behind. In a world where designs are constantly evolving to be more human centered, artificial sexual stimulation or accessory is still quite mechanic. This gap in the emotional needs for sex and the available solutions brings me to the topic of this paper, where I discuss about the existing technologies for enhancing human sexual experience.
Even though human bodies are very different from each other and so is the sexual desire, most toys and accessories for stimulation are mechanical in nature with limited affordances and deals with only a few body parts and a few senses. Sex involves a wild permutation of the canvas of our whole bodies, all our senses and a lot more emotional involvement. There are a wide number of possibilities that is untapped by current technologies ranging from soft cuddler to hair stroker. Artificial intelligence can be instrumental in making erotic tech more personal by understanding the whole context around a particular human being and making the human computer sexual interaction ‘smart’ and fitted to the human desires and needs.
Sex technology, also called sex tech is technology and technology-driven ventures that are designed to enhance, innovate and disrupt human sexuality and/or the human sexual experience. Sex tech can range from sex toys to sex trackers, virtual reality porn to sex robots and everything in between. Even though it ranges a wide spectrum of interaction between human and computers, sex tech is rarely talked about in HCI. The global sexual wellness market which includes everything from condoms and lingerie to sex toys, is currently worth around $16 billion and expected to reach $21 billion by 2019, according to research firm Technavio.This makes it a good opportunity to discuss sex tech and show how HCI principles can be used wisely for this domain. The paper discusses the existing technologies and some that are being researched and gaps in this domain and possible solutions to broaden and enhance our experiences.
There are a good number of existing technologies for enhancing sexual pleasure, exercises related to improving performance, tracking and gaming. I have categorized them into the following:
With long distance more common these days we have video calls at the cost of almost nothing. Audio calls and text messages mitigates the problem of most common kinds of communication. For expressing romantic feelings, the best you can do is express through words and with visuals of how you feel for someone. Even though you can express through a restricted number of medium, your capacity to feel and sense is limited to visuals and imagination and voice. Romantic relationships involve other important senses like touch, smell and taste, which lovers often miss out on long distance relationship. To solve a few of these problems, teledildonics comes to the rescue. The company Kiiroo makes wearables for male and female genitals that are connected through the internet to mobile devices that can be controlled by your partner from around the world. The company vibease makes similar vibrators for both male and female.
Other body parts
Fig: Pillowtalk device when sleeping, Source: littleriot.com
Intimacy is not restricted to just the genital organs and some tech companies are trying to solve that issue by creating prototypes of real time internet kiss communication interface for mobile devices.
To mitigate the problem of missing your partner when you sleep Pillowtalk provides the solution by picking up your real time heartbeat and sending it to your partner’s pillow wherever they are in the world. The teslasuit is the only full body haptic device that enables virtual hug through a body suit.
Another experiment, the durex fundawear experiment, let’s partners control touch from long distance through an app connected to the underwear.
Fig: Celestial Bodies, the couples VR experience, Source: thehiddentorture.blogspot.com
Sexual dynamics in a relationship is highly moderated by social and cultural norms. It is difficult to find a safe space where you realise your sexual fantasies and fulfill your desires. With the advancement of technology like 3D modelling and advanced game engines like Unreal and Unity, mixed reality, Virtual Fantasy brings the opportunity to explore sexual fantasies in a safe and accepting setting. Pairing with Oculus and headphones, users can watch virtual reality sex themed movies and experiences. Installations at Celestial at the VR Gallery at the museum of sex at New York City gives a couples intimate experience through Virtual Reality.  There are adult virtual worlds where you can design hyper-customizable sexual environments and bodies like 3Dxchat and redlightcenter.com. Much like other thematic games, you can create an avatar for yourself, and take part in different sexual activities and parties.
They have also started integrating remote toys for touch. Other VR sex themed games  include virtual sex with other people, often catering to all kinds of sexual preferences and taste. For Chathouse3D, there are no limitations on the avatar the user wants to have, and it covers all gender and sexual preferences. Some of the games come with characters like VR Kanojo which uses HTC vive and controller for interaction with a Japanese girl. Some have storyline like PinkMotel for VR and others are open to the kind of experience the user wants to design for themselves like HoneySelect VR. To add more dimensions to virtual sex and make the experience more exciting, SinVR incorporates elements of sci-fi, horror, dungeon, vampires etc.
Fig: Sex doll Harmony, Source: robot-ex.ru
Hollywood have been imagining and showing sex bots for the last few decades. Sex robots in movies dates back to Westworld(1973), which developed more in idea and execution in Blade Runner(1982) to Ex Machina(2014). The concept and execution has progressed to the variation of a Robot that has an uncanny resemblance to the character’s dead husband in terms of voice, looks and some artificial intelligence of husband’s consciousness. For many years, sex doll manufacturers have been working on this but there are only a handful of sex dolls available in the market. Sex dolls are marketed mostly as a lover to have conversation with, hug and touch and to replace the need of a real human intimate partner. This is a difficult problem to achieve and hence a lot of prototypes are still in the development stage. Most of the dolls are not fully mature, but they try to have human like communications with voice and eye movements and a few facial expressions.
They also tend to be anatomically correct with skeleton and some have circulatory system like Roxxxy. Among the ones available in the market Harmony Sex Robot is the one which can hold conversations, has orgasm sherself, has customizable eyes and skin colour. Another one similar to Harmony is Samantha that can interact with the owner, carry a conversation and is still being developed. Most of the sex robots available are female and have porn star features. The first male sex doll has a bionic penis that is created by RealDoll and is called Harry.
The advent of sex dolls created a have had a wide reaching users through brothels around the world in Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany and France where the users pay per hour to sexually engage with the synthetics.
Sex toys for self
Touching oneself for sexual pleasure is one of the most common sexual experiences sexual beings like us have with ourselves. People masturbate with hands or sometimes with external tools for heightened stimulation. The next part discusses tools used by self for sexual pleasure and related exercises.
There are a multitude of vibrating devices for self-stimulation, them with gamification in some of the devices make self-stimulation more interesting. A lot of modern sex toy developed are connected with remotes through Bluetooth and provides hands free experience. Some common examples include happyplaytime which is a game for female masturbation, loveCrave that manufactures sex toys for women, OhMiBod which produces vibrators that also has an app for tracking orgasms for women. A lot of massagers are focused on female pleasure. Lovense has Prostate massager for men.
Fig: OhMiBod fitness product, Source: businesswire.com
OhMiBod’s Lovelife Krush, a kegel exerciser that doubles as an adult novelty, does gamification of sexual health. Nuelle’s Fiera increase blood flow to the clitoris, using a suction to attach to. SexFit, a Bluetooth- and WI-Fi-equipped device helps men achieve and maintain erections and tracks their sexual performance using a device akin to a pedometer. KGoalBoost — is a device for men for boosting their pelvic floor muscles.
Fig: Breast Augmentation, Source: medicalnewstoday.com
Cosmetic surgery has advanced enough for if we are not happy with a part of our body we can alter it to a desirable shape, color or texture. It has progressed enough to do breast implants or vaginal tightening which debatably satisfies sexual pleasure in women. Genital modulation have been associated with boosting self-confidence and satisfaction with sex life. Men undergo penis enlargement and other genital surgeries for similar reasons.
Sex Education through Tech
Fig: Roo AI sex ed chat bot, Source: thevimmag.com
Since a lot of our information comes from the use of technology, sex education is not far behind. There are a good number of sex tech apps like Amaze which produces videos and educates people through social media channels like Instagram, Facebook etc. App associated with college and schools like Reach Out Editions are there to prevent bully and sexual abuse. An interesting implementation for sex education is through real life stories that is done by Real Talk. Keeping privacy in mind, Roo is an AI chat bot for sexual health questions. With the more advanced technology like virtual reality, Motherload uses VR to talk about sex education with a focus on inclusitvity of the LGBTQ community.
With the current generation moving towards a quantified self, it makes absolute sense to keep track of sexual activities as well since they are a good determinant of your emotional and physical well being. And there are available technologies for it like wearables on genitals or fitness tracking device like FitBit. There are other apps that helps keep log of your sexual activities and related information like partners, protection like Nice Sex Tracker, My Sex Log, iBoogie, Sex keeper.
Gaps and Problems
We discussed a different variety of sex tech available in the market. Because of the nature of the tech, it poses a challenge to recruit participants for user studies. This brings certain difficulties in the HCI community to understand the impact of the tech and design keeping the constraints and user preferences in mind. Below are a few ways I believe sex tech can grow in and broaden it’s definition.
AI & Sex Tech
Fig: Hum, AI vibrator, Source: indiegogo.com
The major variety of sex toys for use include hand-held devices, sometimes with hands-free functionalities. Most of them have specific modes of output in the form of vibration or pressure. The sex dolls have artifical intelligence but they are not fully developed yet. But with the developed technology of machine learning there is a lot of unexplored implementation that are not taken advantage of.
One of the AI driven vibrators I came across is Hum, the synthetic penis understands vaginal muscular movements and responds back accordingly. This opens up a new possibility of sex toys that are smart.
There is a major gap in personalisation of sex toys and it is currently limited to color and limited modes of output. With Machine Learning, there is an opportunity for the toy to learn about the person that is not limited to muscular movement but the duration of use and time of use to understand context better and design sexual experiences accordingly. Everyone has a combination of unique points of sexual stimulation and understanding that and stimulating accordingly would engage the user to use the smart toy more.
Fig: Vibease, smart lipstick. Source: kickstarter.com
Vibease smart lipstick is another toy that can pair up audio book and adjust vibrations based on erotic novel you are reading. This type of integration opens up the possibility to explore integration with other elements of life that directly or indirectly related to sex like mood tracking apps, music apps like Spotify, or light and Internet of things.
IoT & Nudging
A lot of sexual tension is about body language and movement and other erotic cues like breath and heart rate. There has not been enough development in this area understanding context and designing sexual experiences based on the context. With the internet of things, smart sex technology has the scope to understand mood, presence of intimate partner, location, situation and recommend the right sexual experience or maybe guide through it. Current tools are used as toys for stimulation, but with IoT there is an opportunity to design ambience with light and music to set the mood and nudge towards the desired mood.
Fig: Context of date night, Source: vincarta
A lot of people struggle with getting into the mood because of stress or environmental setting, having IOT integrated with your sex technologies can solve this problem.
With apps that knows about our recreational drug intake, our sexual pleasure can be enhanced keeping this in mind and designing pleasure accordingly.
Sex dolls and Uncanny Valley
Sex dolls possess an uncanny similarity with real human beings in terms of anatomy, voice and a little bit of facial expression, this incites a kind of eeriness and revulsion in observers, the phenomenon known as uncanny valley. Even though researchers are working on sex dolls to make them human like, there are a lot of gaps between a real human and a doll which becomes more evident with interactions. Human beings having a wide spectrum of micro-expression and the combination of them makes it difficult for a human to connect with a humanoid. This comes in the way of possible intimacy or replacing partner in the bedroom. There is ongoing research in this domain, but human beings are more comfortable with an artificial when it looks and feels like a synthetic, rather than human-like.
Toys as intimate companion
Fig: Cuddling with inanimate object, Source: vice.com
Most of the toys act as tools to reach orgasm, there is a scope for the toys not just for physical pleasure but as a companion for emotional need. Like a transitive toy that helps with loneliness, there is a scope for toys to be intimate, acting as anxiety reducers with the right hug, warmth, pressure and other sensation.
Material and degrees of freedom
Fig: Weighted blanket, Source: healthline.com
Most of the robotic sex toys are silicone even though traditionally sex equipment can consist of a variety of material like feathers, leathers, silk clothes and even metals. Since they are accepted in traditional toys, there is a scope to integrate them with smart toys and broaden the spectrum of sensations. There is also an opportunity to integrate vibration, temperature control into blankets, bed sheets and bed for regulating ambience for erotic experiences. With increasing degrees of freedom in robotic movements, it has the potential to do more that human beings cannot do by restriction of physics.
Other body parts
Fig: Gear for other parts of the body for foreplay, Source: shutterstock.com
The primary focus of most sex devices are genital areas other than the sex dolls. There is a scope for other parts of the body that smart technology can use and stimulate. These can be combined to design tools for better utilization of the entire surface area of the human body. Especially acts of foreplay involves a lot of non-genital areas, an automatic hair stroker or a body brush can enhance pre - intercourse experiences.
Personality types and design
Fig: Dominatrix, the-unedit.com
For the social generation that we are, big companies know our personality types and our preferences. A dominatrix would prefer a very different kind of experience than someone who enjoys submission in bed. Sexual experience in terms of virtual world and physical toys can be designed to keep this in mind.
Multi-user sex toys
Augmenting touch pads on a woman’s genital can simulate feeling from strap-on that experiences muscular contraction when it enters a person’s body. In a group-sex setting, touch transfer technology can be used to make sexual intercourse more distributed. Multi-user sex toys comes with a lot more possibilities and different dynamics among its components and this paper does not talk extensively about it.
There is a wide audience base to sex and sex tech like touching self, long distance relationship couples, sex with partner trying to spice things up. Since the users are different, the demands and experiences are also different. The existing technologies do not represent the broad spectrum of sexual beings like us.
Sex tech lies in the intersection of cultural, social, psychological research which is still being explored, and this is a part of Human Computer Interaction that needs and has a scope of lot more research. The industry has far reaching impact on ethics to economics. It has the scope to challenge how we see sexual relationships and gender representation. Even though there are some smart technologies that are being tested out and are in the development stage, this is a big field and barely a handful of elements have been developed and are available to the market for what it could be in its full potential.