The Future of Interactive Sex Toys May Be Open Source
Of all the internet's promises, one of the most alluring is the ability to develop close relationships, romantically or platonically, with people who are physically distant from us. Socially distant sex might have read as a paradox to the majority of us a few years ago, but the burgeoning field of teledildonics—sex toys linked through the internet—turns dreams into reality.
"At the front of teledildonics, you get a kit with two things," explained author and sex historian Hallie Lieberman, of Atlanta. "Your partner's 2,000 miles away and what you do with your stroker goes on their stroker. Sex toys are communicating through the internet. Either you're controlling your partner's 70 miles away or in another room. Like, the people wearing butt plugs will go supermarket shopping and you buzz your partner as they're in the produce aisle. [It's either] a form of foreplay or [what] one person does connects to what the other person is doing so that you have back and forth."
Lieberman differentiates between teledildonics as a lead-up to in-person sex and replacing physical sex entirely with teledildonic-capable toys. Regardless of use, sex toys typically arrive with preset vibration patterns. The technology is expensive and, thus, exclusive. However, the communal nature of the internet invites people with certain skill sets to transform exclusivity into, well, something slightly less exclusive.
In search of synchronicity
This is where open-source coding comes into play. Open-source coding groups exist for amateur teledildonicists to share scripts and coding—think Nexus for sex toys. In other words, independent coders invent unpatented software to share with like-minded individuals.
The online forums stashing these repositories of homegrown sex-toy coding are chock-full of jargon, occasionally bordering on incoherent to a layperson who only understands how to use the internet rather than how to build it. Some of these posted scripts are exciting and sexy; others do no more than handle the mundane elements of heightened security and work out bugs in other scripts.
"Connections [between toys] are mostly a matter of passing a link and/or special code between the user and other participants," said Kyle Machulis, CEO of engineering consultant firm Nonpolynomial in California and head of one of these open-source groups. "For local usage, the user needs to have their toy fairly near their phone or computer, as the toys use Bluetooth and the range is very short—10 feet would be the limit most of the time. However, once the toy talks to a phone or computer, then all of the communications for remote control happen over the internet, so at that point, your limitation is [the] network and/or the speed of light."
Establishing a connection between toys is about as straightforward as sharing links to a Zoom chat. Just as you need high-speed internet for a Zoom call, it's also a must for teledildonic toys. Considering the overall goal is synchronicity between internet-generated visuals and sensation, users require a connection strong enough to support both the toys and streaming video at once, a resource that's far from ubiquitous.
Preventing mid-session freezes isn't the only hurdle for manufacturers to overcome.
"While the promise of 'one toy drives another' has existed for decades, none of the solutions have been particularly good when it comes to pure hardware-to-hardware communication," Machulis explained. "There are different sensors that have been put on vibrators or penetrable toys, but none of them seem to work very well. This usually leads users to either control by different means, like an app that just has sliders."
Controlling sex toys anywhere
Online communities of coders typically design unique software to use on store-bought hardware; the resources needed to design your own sex toy are far greater than what's required to superimpose your own coding on preexisting toys. While the internet has arguably always been involved in our sex lives, mirroring visuals to physical sensation is extremely innovative.
Lieberman explained that this technology isn't limited to applications between partners. If a sexual performer has the resources to obtain the necessary technology, they can use those features to expand what they can offer clients and, thus, step up their sexual career.
"The new thing is with VR [virtual reality] and having it sync up with a performer as you've got the VR goggles on," Lieberman explained. "The performer is mimicking sex, and this is usually for men, getting your penis sleeve to sync with their sexual movements…the performer is controlling your device."
The applications of teledildonics for performers don't end there. BDSM-oriented doms can assign undertakings for their submissive, such as typing out the same sentence hundreds of times for the reward of increasingly intense vibrations. A cam girl or boy could increase profits by augmenting their livestream with these technological capabilities. For example, the more a viewer pays, the more they can control the toy being used—or the performer could control the viewer. Machulis said online and VR venues such as ViRo Playspace have "touchback" capabilities, where models can affect viewers' toys.
However, Machulis is under no illusions about the current size of the teledildonic-savvy demographic.
"That community is very niche compared to the amount of people that simply own computer-controlled toys," he noted. "We'd be lucky to have 2 to 3 percent of the share of those users."
Get your game on
For better or worse, the creativity of the internet—especially when it comes to sex—is unprecedented. Machulis' community of designers apply their skills and interests to any conceivable medium.
"There's video sync movie players, indie video games distributed on Steam now, both mods for existing video games or full-on games [that integrate] with Discord, Telegram, VR chat, etcetera, the list goes on," he said. "If you want to cherry-pick stuff, I try to keep a mostly up-to-date list at awesome.buttplug.io."
The integrations Machulis described synchronize teledildonic tech with chat forums and other digital meeting spaces. He further added that a coder could apply their skills to preexisting work, creating a "script" for how the sex toy behaves and vibrates or thrusts to accompany a film, or modifying video games to incorporate these scripts. For example, where a user hovers their clicker may influence vibrations. Some scripts are as simple as a reel of repeating photographs accompanied by vibrations. However, some users go as far as to invent their own video games specifically designed to elevate teledildonic features.
Teledildonics fit into a larger narrative of socioeconomics and power. Technology, especially in the field of sex toys, is typically first made accessible to consumers with the greatest capital and the most mainstream tastes. The democratizing nature of open-source coding is an interesting wrench in an economy that would otherwise limit development to large corporations and heteronormative uses.