If there is one thing Nikki Night knows, it’s her way around a vibrator. A former camgirl, she now coaches performers for Cam4.com, a site that hosts webcam models and welcomes the viewers who pay to watch them tease. Vibrators are an important tool of her trade and, like any professional, she’s tested a wide range. Her favourite is the Kiiroo Pearl, an elegant, ergonomic length of milk-white silicone which looks much like any other vibrator. Unlike most, however, the Pearl connects to the internet.
This means, says Night, that punters can “at any time make this vibrator go off and make the performer scream.” Viewers know they will never be able to touch camgirls in the flesh, but Kiiroo brings them as close as conceivably possible: the Pearl can be paired with a masturbator called the Onyx, a sleek, slightly forbidding rectangular box, the bottom of which opens into the snug, padded interior. Each is fitted with sensors that detect exactly where and how they’re being touched, and these movements are instantaneously relayed from one device to the other. Encircle the Pearl with your thumb and index finger, sliding from the tip of the vibrator to the base, and the ten rings in the Onyx’s “Pleasure Core” will contract one by one, at the same speed and with the same pressure. Press the Onyx’s touch pad and the Pearl’s motor will rev up; stroke it faster and the speed at which it vibrates will accelerate. “What he’s doing, she will feel,” says Toon Timmermans, the CEO of Kiiroo. “And what she is doing, he will feel.”
Night confirms their effectiveness. The Onyx and Pearl are far more intuitive to use than their competitors, she says. “It’s almost like the vibrator is his penis and the Onyx is her vagina.” Almost – but not quite. The Onyx is hands-free, but the Pearl still needs to be manually moved to simulate thrust.
In recent years, adult-pleasure companies and tech start-ups have developed a number of sex toys that connect to wireless networks, creating a nascent industry known as “teledildonics”. The We-Vibe vibrator, a popular product, uses Bluetooth to communicate with your smartphone. You adjust the vibrator’s settings using an app, effectively turning your phone into a remote control. Should you wish, you can hand this remote control over, virtually, to any one else in the We-Vibe community, even if they’re on the other side of the world – as long as they’re on the app, they can seize the reins.
Teledildonics can heighten sexual experience by harnessing the other senses. The Vibease vibrator buzzes in sync with pornographic films; the Mysteryvibe vibrator jives in time to music. Some apps let you rate your orgasm. The new breed of sex toy can “engage” you, says Lizzie Fields, a buyer at Ann Summers, purveyor of lingerie and instruments of adult pleasure. “It’s the way that the industry is moving.”
Companies like Kiiroo and We-Vibe primarily market their products to couples in long-distance relationships. Timmermans stresses that he does not envision teledildonic sex supplanting “real-life intimacy”. Rather, he thinks, the Onyx and Pearl will be used to overcome the distance separating those who wish they were in bed together. To bolster the sense of proximity, Kiiroo has introduced an app with a video-chat platform that allows users to see and hear their partner as well as “feel” them. This, he hopes, will make the experience seem even more like the real thing.
Bryant Paul believes that’s the wrong way to think about teledildonics’ direction of travel. Paul is an academic who studies sex and new media at Indiana University and is colloquially known as Professor Porn. Human beings, he says, are no match for motors: “I have never met a person that can vibrate at 120 hertz.” And as sex toys become more inventive and mechanically sophisticated, many more methods of arousal, unavailable to the unassisted man or woman, become possible.
Paul invokes the “Hello Touch X”, a device manufactured by Jimmyjane, a sex-toy maker, comprised of two small finger pads attached to electrodes “to deliver sensation anywhere hands may roam”, as the marketing blurb says. When these pads come in contact with skin, they cause the underlying muscles to convulse in an effect known as erotic electrostimulation, or e-stim. In some people, this produces a tingling sensation, in others, a nasty jolt. “The point is: how is this sexual?” says Paul. “It doesn’t feel like anything you’ve experienced before.” It’s not as if the genitals were designed to respond to e-stim, he adds. “But [Jimmyjane] decided to encode it into this whole sexual ecosystem, and people are responding to it.” The “Hello Touch X”, with its shock of the new, was Jimmyjane’s best-selling product of 2015.
Comingle, a tech start-up based in Atlanta, Georgia, is another company pushing the boundaries of stimulation. Its engineers have designed the Mod, a modifiable vibrator: using the open-source platform on their website, you can programme any object which contains a sensor to control the vibrator. The first one they tried was the Wii Nunchuk. Like a normal video-game controller, it has buttons and a joystick, but it also responds when it is twisted and flicked. “With this controller,” says Paul Clifton, one of Comingle’s founders, “you can directly control it [the Mod] to get the stimulation you want in a really refined way.” They’ve also experimented with a variety of everyday items. In goofy videos they’ve posted to their website, Andrew Quitmeyer, another founder, activates the Mod by taking a bite out of a wired-up banana or by stroking the skin of his assistant.
For most people, though, “the less you have to think about the toy, the better,” says Kyle Machulis, who writes about sex technology on his blog Metafetish. “You want it to be a seamless experience.” Members of the DIY sex-tech community have been tinkering with gadgets that detect biometric data – things like pulse, temperature, blood-oxygen levels, pelvic-floor pressure – and adjust their response accordingly. “By tracking those metrics and then by changing the output, be it vibration, e-stim, or whatever else, such devices can tune themselves to you,” says Machulis. People don’t just want different sexual experiences, they want better ones, too. The trouble is “everybody’s bodies work differently. That’s a huge, difficult engineering problem to overcome. Basically, sex toys right now are Pret-a-Port, ready to wear. We want haute couture, where it’s defined for the body it’s on… That’s what we’re moving towards.”