Image via http://vrsexkit.com

Holodeck or Bust

Ask someone to name the one piece of tech that could fulfill everything they want to do sexually...

It is the holodeck.

It is always the fucking holodeck. The ultimate in seemingly responsibility-free fantasy fulfillment at the highest fidelity possible without being just plain old reality.

Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from the holodeck. Hell, current technology is on the third or fourth realization of early 1990's cyberpunk utopia sci-fi. It still reflects the dreams of Mondo 2000 and Lawnmower Man. EEGs, head mounted displays, and all sorts of sensors are now available on the consumer market at vaguely affordable prices, so developers are now trying to string them together to make better everything for us all, sex included.

Case in point — poke-the-doll game (the term for software like “Virtually Jenna”) developers Thrixxx have announced plans for a VR Sex Kit, which will tie many of the aforementioned gadgets into a gratification framework few outside the BDSM custom furniture scene have ever experienced. A combination of sex toys and video game controls that will immerse the user in the sexingest sex simulation ever to sex. While this isn’t the first time there’s been a VR controls framework (VRPN and others have been around for years), it’s rare to hear of a whole simulations system specifically dedicated to sex.

So far, the reaction has been the same as it is for most sex tech. A good bit of press because it makes for clickable headlines, with responses ranging from vitriolic to conceding the humorously inevitable. Message boards go between “this is the future!” and “we’ve done this already!” Most have simply forgotten it exists because we’re out of the first week of news about it.

The VR Sex Kit highlights a few inherent problems that makes the gap between now and the holodeck evident. Humans know how to have sex. It’s one of the achievements we’ve managed through all our iterations. If we’re gonna virtualize and simulate sex, it better be really, really good.

Simulations are not that good yet. Announcements of the newest and greatest sex simulations are just marketing for a product that ends up being decidedly less sci-fi than what was announced. Sex simulation is a very difficult problem that takes serious engineering to solve. Sex Simulation Engineer isn’t exactly a job title that pops up often these days, though.

To show why this is such a difficult problem, let’s go through a few scenarios involving using sex simulations in 2013. Feel free to load a sex simulation to follow along while reading.

The Hardware Problem

For most, if not all, of the hardware listed in Thrixxx’s VR Sex Kit, there are official product drivers, as well as open source drivers (some I helped write). Despite all of the available development resources, communities, and creative involvement, we have no killer app for any single piece of hardware.

The Kinect has neat gesture interfaces that make fun toys and art projects. The real reason it exists is to make home theater control easier, so you don’t have to use complicated remotes. There’s no universal kinect interface for games that makes it a “must buy” (unless you like dancing). While it has sold many millions of units, that is not really enough to say it was successful as a game controller.

EEGs in the lab are great for research, but consumer products like those put out by Neurosky and Emotiv lack the sensor fidelity to get the data needed for interesting game interactions. Most game developers aren’t really used to brain as joystick. They’re relegated to whatever (limited) data is provided to them by the headset, meaning lots of game mechanics based around being attentive or calm.

The Vstroker is just a rather noisy accelerometer attached to a fleshlight that currently only allows you to scrub back and forth on a video sample as you, well, stroke. We’re not quite to affordable heads-up displays for everyone (the Oculus ain’t in stores yet), not to mention fixing universal issues of motion sickness.

So if none of these technologies have been proven on their own for any sort of consumer use, it’s hard to believe they’ll work together to form a cohesive experience. Developers are still feeling out the capabilities of living away from the screen/couch/joystick or screen/desk space combinations. Having simulated sex means being very comfortable in both experience with, and usage of, the interaction mechanisms. Comfortable is not an adjective that applies to any of these technologies yet.

The Setup Problem

For argument sake, however, say all of the hardware actually _did_ work together, via some imaginary Kalman filter for masturbation data built into a sex simulation. We’re making an assertion that the simulation will get the user off if used.

When people are getting off, they usually want a method that involves as little setup and takedown as possible. This is why hands are still the popular interface (though sex simulation as assistive technology is interesting and enough topic for another article). Sex simulation with this much hardware requires suiting up and making sure all of the various connections, wired and wireless, work. Many users would say that for a sex simulation, stability and reliability is more of a requirement than for life sustaining systems. Masturbation is not a situation where things can fail gracefully. If they fail at ALL, that’s probably the end of use.

If it doesn’t fail, then you have to clean it all up. Most of this stuff doesn’t go in the dishwasher. So you end up with far more takedown time than “get tissue and/or change underwear,” or otherwise a really gross toy.

The Brain Problem

For the sake of even more argument, let’s say setup and takedown are instantanious and everything works well enough. Now we enter the realm of neuroscience. There’s been a few studies on neuroscience and porn that relate to this situation (For more info, see Mouros 2008 and Ponseti 2006). There are certain facilities of the brain that allow us to look at a situation and put ourselves in it. You watch someone eat something, and you think about eating. You can imagine how it would taste, smell, feel. It’s why food TV can exist. As with food, so goes sex. When people experience porn, they put themselves into the situation.

Now sex tech is moving from voyeurism to full fledged interaction. This means instead of harnessing only the visual/auditory centers of the brain, viewers control the scene in one way or another. This isn’t one-to-one control, though. Let’s take the interfaces mentioned so far. For the VR Sex Kit, control means poking a virtual doll. For using the VStroker alone, it means video playback speed and direction. These provide vague mappings of user gesture or motion speed to media playback and output, but does that really matter? Does speed similarity produce a better sensation in the user?

The place once filled in by imagination is now relegated to tech that isn’t quite at parity with imagination. Instead of watching the idealized version of sex whatever director/producer decided should happen in a video, the user is stuck trying to figure out how what they’re doing relates to the scene, and why that’s sexy. The user doesn’t have all 5 senses available to experience the scene (why are there no internet smell companies targeting sex yet?) — they’re relegated to auditory and visual plus interactivity via whatever means (gestures, sensor readings, etc...). The user can’t concentrate on filling in details via imagination. This ends up in fidelity far worse than the user only getting 40% of the experience by only getting 2 of the 5 senses. This isn’t something that’s linear. Each sense has a seemingly exponential effect on experience and sensation.

In summation, it just sucks. There’s the context of sex, sure, but it feels like it’s trying too hard instead of actually being sex. While it could be said that all video games are this way and it’s conflating the idea of simluation, would you really want this fidelity when, say, being shot at? The needs of fidelity for controls of a pleasurable situation are far different than for simulating other stimulating environments.

Solutionism Versus Real Solutions

“Sex leads technology” has been assumed for a very long time. There’s a whole Wikipedia article on “History of Depictions of Erotica” that shows how it has led visual technology. Sex as visual technology leader exists partially due to aforementioned way we react to visual stimulus. Makes sense why porn companies have invested so much in high quality video transmission versus interactivity.

Examining current sex simulation technology raises interesting issues. It sounds like we’re nearing the end of the whole “sex leads technology” idea, since interaction can’t keep up with imagination and replay. It may not be quite that drastic, though.

Thrixxx’s VR Sex Kit comes off a bit solutionist. We imagine solutionism to start with the idea, “We have all this technology, let’s glue it all together and [insert verb here] and it’ll work for everyone!” So far it’s been “fix politics” or “make everyone healthy”. In this instance, it’s “get people off in a simulated environment,” which, admittedly, not a goal lofty enough to get anyone on a TED stage. Even so, like other articles about problems on which solutionism has been blamed, we have now spent many words to basically say “this doesn’t quite work”.

That said, it’s not the end of sex tech progression, but maybe just a slowdown in the momentum of digital simulations of vanilla sex (digital simulations of kinky and/or impossible sex will continue to be popular). There have been interesting experiments recently, like Couple’s Thumbkiss and Durex’s Fundawear, that use current technology plus sex to bring actual people closer together. For those that aren’t involved in a relationship, there’s marketplaces like Real Touch Interactive that use technology to bring models and consumers closer. Simulation environments have a hard road ahead, but we’re on a bright new horizon of technologies that bring people together.

In the butt.