We think of the sex industry as a savvy business always at the forefront of technical innovation online. But the industry has also had a few spectacular failures - specifically the first generation of cyberdildonics.
While companies are hoping for financial success this time with their "new and improved" products, the open source movement may just wrest control from the corporations and empower the people with sexual technology in the public domain.
Cyberdildonics technology integrates telepresence and sex, transmitting or receiving the physical sensation of "touch" across a network for erotic purposes.
The term was created in the 1980s by Internet pioneer Ted Nelson, who also coined the term hypertext. He used it to refer to computer-controlled masturbation devices paired with either a virtual reality environment (allowing users to have simulated sex with remote partners) or a computer-generated partner.
Howard Rheingold's 1991 book Virtual Reality describes the supreme teledildonic apparatus as a "diaphanous bodysuit, something like a body stocking, but with the kind of intimate snugness of a condom." The suits would be loaded with an "array of effectors," and someone wearing one could use haptic technology to touch or be touched by someone else half a world away.
In 1999, porn producer Vivid Entertainment created a prototype of Rheingold's sex suit, a neoprene bodysuit equipped with 36 strategically placed sensors that, at the click of a mouse, could each deliver one of five sensations - tickle, pinprick, vibration, hot or cold - to a wearer's erogenous zones. Vivid was weeks away from launching its product when the U.S. government raised concerns about safety - specifically the potential for pacemaker wearers to be electrocuted and the dangers of electrical surges when excess moisture was introduced into the bodysuit.
Rather than risk lawsuits and bad publicity from a series of Wet Panties Kill Horny Girl headlines, Vivid scrapped the product.
The sex industry's labs proceeded to release many rather frightening and ridiculous-looking devices not based on cyberdildonic technology.
Men stuck their penises into the Virtual Sex Machine (http://www.vrinnovations.com/index2.htm), which promised to create "a realistic experience," or strapped on the Digital Sexsations Little Black Box (which plugged into a nine-pin cable port!) to try and get their rocks off.
Girls and boys who wanted cyberdildonic insertables were sold products that plugged into their computer's USB port for power but for the most part weren't actually interactive. The few devices that did allow remote interactivity accepted simple vibrator commands (on/off and a speed control) through a crude Web interface.
Participants wanting a more stimulating experience going or coming over the wires needed to add webcams - and many did. Once the basic devices were available, people with toys started seeking drivers, and many drivers started seeking people with toys.
The Internet Friends Network (http://browse.ifriends.net/~wsapi/ifbrowse.dll?room=6&type=L&filter=a) was started to connect these people with other "friends" around the world, and that's when critical mass was reached.
That, in turn, has brought about the next logical force of 21st-century technical development: the open source movement.
Open Dildonics (http://opendildonics.org) is a recently launched open source group that plans to develop and provide software and hardware schematics free of charge, allowing the general public to construct and run their own cyberdildonics equipment.
Its current focus is the development of a working prototype to be controlled both locally and remotely via a computer's parallel port. The device will be cross-platform compatible (for PC and Mac), and the designers want to extend the communication layer to include Bluetooth and WIFI devices for hands-free operation. The possibilities for this second, emergent generation of telepresent sex toys are endless and spectacular.
The Sinulator (www.sinulate.com), for instance, is a sign of things to come. It creates a space-age physical interface that crosses a children's driving toy with a garish misconception of sexuality. Using a flight-simulator-like Flash interface, the "pilot" in the "cockpit" remotely controls a Rabbit Habit vibrator in a variety of ways while watching the effects on a webcam. The controls are: throttle (rotate); slider (vibrate) and three buttons that execute combined rotation and vibration programs. Sights and sounds are the rewards for a successful mission. Other sex toys, including an Interactive Fleshlight for men, can also be used.
All a Sinulator pilot needs to play this particular "video game" is access to the Internet. The controls will work on just about anything (Mac, PC, Linux, Palm, WebTV, airport kiosk, etc). And, of course, the manufacturers have built their own version of iFriends.com so users of their products can connect online.
None of this even comes close to simulating the sensations of wet tongues, soft fingers, skin against skin or a warm body in the morning. But if anybody can make this happen, it's the open source movement. After all, who needs to get laid more than Linux users?
"The concept of cyberdildonics is something that sounds great," says Cory Silverberg, principal buyer for Toronto sex shop Come as You Are, "but the reality so far has been pretty disappointing. We don't carry anything that's marketed as tied with teledildonics, because all the products out there are horrible."