It's about getting more intimate with a person you’d likely never be in the same room with (let alone inside of).
Image: Surian Soosay/Flickr
In the decade-plus that I've been immersed in the overlapping worlds of sex and tech, teledildonics has always existed as a dot on the horizon, the major technical innovation just waiting to completely transform sex as we know it. And in that decade-plus, I've mostly thought that teledildonics was, well, stupid.
If you're unfamiliar with the concept, teledildonics refers to high tech sex toys that can be remotely controlled over the internet—enabling you to, for instance, unleash the power of a vibrator in San Francisco with a few taps on a keyboard in New York. Even more involved teledildonics setups involve toys that are controlled by other toys, allowing one user to activate a vibrating masturbation sleeve by sucking or fucking a connected dildo.
Wide-eyed futurists have long envisioned a world where teledildonics helps us all get it on with partners half a world away; so far, their predictions have amounted to little more than empty hype.
While I'll admit that the idea of being able to remotely pleasure a partner sounds cool, in reality, there are very few situations where teledildonics actually makes sense. Long-distance relationships aren't all that common, and most of us don't need to spend a bunch of cash on the odd chance that we'll want to bang it out with someone a few (or many) miles away. And that's just the basic principle of teledildonics: When you factor in the numerous technical hiccups that have plagued most products that have made it to the market, the future of teledildonics seems decidedly grim.
It's about getting more intimate with a person you'd likely never be in the same room with (let alone inside of)
And yet even through my haze of teledildonics pessimism, I've still been able to see some promise for the technology: Not so much as a new kind of sex, but as an enhancement to cam shows, a popular form of virtual sex work that's become more interactive with the addition of responsive sex toys (and, in some cases, a bit of cam girl ingenuity and hacking).
A few years ago, I stood on the floor of the Adult Entertainment Expo as a Real Touch representative hyped the Real Touch Interactive, a "haptic" device that used a souped-up dildo (or, ugh, joystick) to control the sensations meted out by a connected masturbation sleeve. The representative described a world where long-distance couples—for example, the military couples Real Touch was already reaching out to—could engage in simulated sex with the help of this product; so long as "sex" was defined as one partner selflessly jerking off, blowing, or fucking a pretty lame-looking dildo all for the pleasure of the other's sleeve-encased cock.
The now-defunct Real Touch Interactive was marketed firmly at men.
The equation seemed pretty imbalanced and unappealing to me, until the Real Touch rep happened to mention a particularly novel aspect of their plan. Men who wanted to experience the pleasure of interactive sex wouldn't be limited by the women (or men) they could persuade to make sweet love to an underwhelming joystick. Real Touch was recruiting porn performers to provide interactive cam shows to paying members.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Real Touch Interactive wasn't about replacing physical sex; it was about enhancing cam shows—about getting more intimate with a person you'd likely never be in the same room with (let alone inside of). Shifted into the arena of commercial sex, the price point on Real Touch didn't seem so ludicrous. And though I still wasn't convinced it'd be coming to my bedroom any time soon, I could definitely see a path for the product to achieve success in the market.
The Real Touch and its cam network no longer exist, taken down by some bad business decisions and aggressive patent trolling. But the promise lives on of tech-enhanced cam shows where viewers have the ability to do more than merely watch, with a number of products filling in the gap(s) left open by Real Touch. Products from companies like OhMiBod and We-Vibe help cam girls up the intensity and interaction in their shows—and up the profits while they're at it. I turned to self-described "nerdy camgirl" Zander Storm to explain how it all works, and what the appeal is for both cam girls and their clients.
As a sex toy reviewer, Storm was no stranger to the weird and wonderful world of sex toys when she started performing on Chaturbate, a popular cam show site. Even so, she didn't have much experience with teledildonics products prior to becoming a sex worker. But once she saw how successful they were for her fellow Chaturbate models, integrating them into her own shows was a no brainer.
"The client has very direct, complete control over my vibrator"
According to Storm, the most popular toys are from OhMiBod: the Club Vibe 2.Oh and the Freestyle G. Though they're not teledildonics toys in the technical sense—both products respond to local sound input, rather than remote inputs streamed over the internet—cam girls have effectively hacked them to function that way, setting up their toys to respond to the sound generated by customer tips. The more tips a cam girl receives, the more intensely her vibrator responds, meaning the more viewers are willing to pay, the hotter a show they'll get.
For Chaturbate cam girls, who spend most of their time hustling for tips in "free" public rooms, this is a pretty easy way to ramp up income. As Storm explained, the OhMiBod toys "tend to encourage rapid-fire and constant tipping from viewers."
We-Vibe markets its products, which can be controlled by an app, to couples—which just so happens to work for cam girls with a bit of tinkering.
In terms of "true" teledildonics, there's the We-Vibe 4 Plus, which Storm has used with a handful of clients. Designed as a couple's toy, the We-Vibe is a wearable vibrator that's connected to a smartphone app, which can control the vibrator from anywhere in the world. The We-Vibe allows Storm's clients a great deal more interaction than the Club Vibe or Freestyle.
"The client has very direct, complete control over my vibrator—vibration strength for each of the toy's two motors, and pulsation pattern for each motor," Storm told me. Clients interested in this sort of interaction purchase a block of time to control the vibe, starting with a five minute session and going up from there.
"I feel a lot of teledildonics sex toy companies are terrified at the thought of promoting their products for cam model use"
Since it's not tied to tips, the We-Vibe can be a more reliable source of income. But because it's designed as a toy for (presumably monogamous) "couples," the We-Vibe doesn't quite lend itself to a cam girl's needs. It's clunky to connect the toy to a new client's phone, the app must be completely reinstalled on the cam girl's phone for it to work smoothly with each new client. Yet even with all the issues, it's enticing enough that Storm's looking to increase her use of it, even going so far as to have a friend program a custom Chaturbate app to use with the We-Vibe.
Of course, Storm would have a much easier time if companies like We-Vibe were willing to acknowledge that their products are more likely to usher in the the future of sex work, rather than sex.
"I feel a lot of teledildonics sex toy companies are terrified at the thought of promoting their products for cam model use, since they want to 'go mainstream' by appealing to the general masses with marketing focused on use by long-term monogamous couples, and attempting to distance themselves from the adult industry," said Storm.
Kiiroo's product gets demoed in this doc from our colleagues at VICE.
Not all companies are hampered by such prudery: Kiiroo—which, like Real Touch, offers masturbation sleeves that pair with vibrators for a simulated sex experience—has partnered with a number of adult companies and stars, including VirtualRealPorn and Lisa Ann. Kiiroo's design is much more sex work friendly than the couple-oriented We-Vibe. (Among other features, the Kiiroo vibrator is able to send signals to multiple masturbation sleeves at the same time.)
But its price point still leaves something to be desired. For Kiiroo to live up to its full potential, both cam girl and client must shell out a significant sum; it's hard to imagine many cam viewers eager to shell out $250 for a masturbation sleeve when there's no guarantee their favorite cam girl is technically set up to put that expensive piece of equipment to work.
But while Kiiroo might not be the next big thing, it's clear that they're on the right track. If other companies are willing to consider the needs of cam girls when designing their products, they might be able to bring in a whole lot of cash, both for themselves and the sex workers making use of their products. OhMiBod has already taken note of their products' popularity on Chaturbate and moved further into the teledildonics space. It's too early to tell whether that venture will pay off for them—but if it does, chances are good that it'll be largely due to loyal cam girls.
Correction: This story originally identified Zander Storm as a former sex toy reviewer, but she still reviews toys. It also suggested that Storm wouldn't have to create her own controller app if We-Vibe supported sex work more directly, which isn't necessarily the case.