Sexual Interfaces: Understanding Human-Computer Interactions Through Digital Sex Devices

This article was originally published in the 4th Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.

From the birth of computing onwards, the methods by which we interact with machines have continued to evolve and accelerate. Bodies and computers have communicated through textual command lines, graphical user interfaces and mice, touch screens, and now the beginnings of gesture recognition. In computing and design, the term “human-computer interaction” is used to refer to the study and engineering of interactions between human bodies and computers. From an industry standpoint, improving human-computer interactions means making the interfaces between people and their technology more intuitive and natural, creating technology that blends seamlessly with our accustomed environment. However, when technologies are disguised, or too easy to use, we forget their power. We lose track of how the logics and rhetorics of computing affect us.

Human-computer interaction is a site of potential for knowledge on how bodies move in the digital age, but only if we remember that making a responsible interface does not mean concealing or forgetting the materiality of technology. One location to begin thinking about our interactions is the intimacy of humans and computers during sexual encounters. Teledildonic, or electronic sex toys that utilize connections to computing devices for the achievement of sexual pleasure, and other digital sexual devices, are not what first come to mind when thinking about human-computer interaction. However, analyzing how technology affects our encounters with other people, other bodies, and our own bodies, becomes highly relevant when contextualized by explorations of sexuality and intimacy. How have we designed our digital sex devices and what are their consequences, both intended and unintended?

An iconic example of teledildonics is the RealTouch [1] and its more recent counterpart, the RealTouch Interactive [2]. Designed specifically for users with penises, the RealTouch device is reminiscent of a Fleshlight but hooks up to a computer for video-synchronized stimulation. A user can watch porn (but only videos with pre-programmed signals for the device) to feel an “interactive experience that takes you beyond sight and sound and puts you in the middle of the action” [3]. The RealTouch Interactive builds on the earlier version, allowing users to connect with the company’s live, online “models” to experience what they call “true internet sex” [4]. Sexual experience with RealTouch is continually framed as “true” and “real,” setting up two significant problematic delineations. First, it constitutes a judgment as to which types of sex can be considered “true,” excluding those that do not fall within their bounds. Secondly, it reinforces the divide between what is “real” and what is “virtual” in digital technologies, a rhetoric that fashions some experiences as more authentic and maintains a sharp distinction between the human and machine worlds. The RealTouch “models,” available through the website, use the corresponding “JoyStick” to pass stimulation to the user’s RealTouch device. However, aside from company “models,” it appears impossible to purchase a “JoyStick,” which makes use of the system by already established partners impossible. The choice of the word “model” also indicates that these bodies are available for hire, and for the pleasure of the masculine gaze, as per the nature of the device. The “models” all appear as women, excluding and eliding altogether sexual encounters for anyone but those with penises who desire women. The way in which the RealTouch device connects users creates bodies that are either exclusively controlling and seeking pleasure or submissive and with services to hire. This arrangement has the potential to create an unequal playing field, further perpetuated by the devices’ inherent gender biases. Because of these biases, the RealTouch platform is not intended for mutually respectful sexual encounters. While the achievement of “authentic” touch is clearly the marketed focus of RealTouch Interactive, it is the product’s reinforcement of dominant patriarchal and heterosexual power structures through sight that makes it most troubling [5].
With RealTouch, the actual interactions between humans and digital devices are less problematic than the context of the limited human-to-human interaction allowed on the platform. There are similar teledildonics that provide a less polarizing interaction, such as devices from LovePalz [4] and Kiiroo [5]. LovePalz are marketed towards partners, particularly those in long-distance relationships. The system consists of two devices, each linked to a computer, which are then connected through the Internet. LovePalz provides two models: the “Hera” (intended for those with vulvas) and the “Zeus” (intended for those with penises). Though they claim the different devices can be used “in every conceivable arrangement,” [6] all visual promotional material on their website depicts or implies heterosexual sex. Another device under development at the moment is Kiiroo which, like LovePalz, has two models for different genitalia. Rather than facilitating sex between monogamous couples, Kiiroo is based on a social networking platform with the goal of connecting interested partners for any type of sexual encounter. In the Kiiroo infomercial, a voiceover tells us:

“Technology has… changed the way we communicate and interact. Smartphones and social media platforms have brought us closer together — hyper social but at the same time increasingly less human as we seem to have lost the touch in our interactions. Being together is becoming a rarity. We are so close, yet so far away” [7].

Again, the focus is placed on physical touch, specifically on human touch. Kiiroo and other similar devices masquerade behind the idea of “real” human-to-human touch. By privileging human-to-human sexual interaction, the Kiiroo devices themselves are perceived as less desirable, a substitute for human-to-human sex that is assumed more to be authentic, natural, and satisfying. Like the Turing machine, these devices have come to be seen as imitators of the human [8]. However, it is more useful, and truthful, to see the devices as facilitators, relaying human touch as machine touch, rather than to disguise them behind the rhetoric of “real” and “human” interaction.

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Visually speaking, the designs of the teledildonic devices are highly machinic. Kiiroo is advertised as “designer intimacy hardware” [9] and LovePalz as “modern and stylish,” with “minimalist sensibilities, adding a touch of aesthetics to your lifestyle” [10]. The objects themselves have brushed aluminum finishes, clean lines, and smooth curves. They echo the sleek design of other high-end technologies, from smartphones and computers to microwaves and cars. While the humanness of touch is emphasized on the platforms, the visual realities of the devices exist in opposition. There is a division between what you see — the machine — and what you are supposed to perceive that you feel — a human body. Perhaps these design choices and the rhetoric of human touch are linked to a fear of techno-intimacy.

Are we uncomfortable having sex with machines or computers? Would we rather imagine that a piece of technology cannot mediate our sexual experiences? Paradoxically, by making the device visually machinic, it is easier to dismiss it as a tool and ignore it, rather than acknowledge it as a sexual partner. Accepting that the digital device is what is touching us is key to a productive human-computer interaction, but that means breaking down the neat barrier between bodies and machines in the most intimate of environments. Digital devices also exist with a focus on sight rather than touch as the location of sexual pleasure. Not too long ago, there was significant media hype surrounding the yet to be released Google Glass app known as “Glance” (an iOS version has already been released). [11] Glance records a video and transmits the feed from your device to that of another user. The object of the app is to see from two points of view at once: your own, and that of another person with whom you are linked. Videos shot with Glance have a limited length of ten seconds, are “not hosted anywhere,” and are deleted after five hours unless you save them yourself. Think of a cross between Skype and Snapchat [12]. While there is no reason the app couldn’t be used for capturing any moment, such as the photos on their Apple App Store page suggest, Glance’s online marketing for the Glass-based application makes it clear that the device is intended for use in an intimate setting. According to the developers’ website, the app is designed to help users “experience moments more beautifully,” yet, exactly how experiences are affected is what seems most complex and potentially troubling about Glance.

Rather than a substitution for genitalia, the Glance glasses and app act as an extension for the eyes. This may be why it is more difficult to view Glance as a sex toy than the RealTouch, LovePalz, or Kiiroo. As a piece of software, Glance deviates from the expected patterns of sex toys. Because Glance is about sight and not touch, it privileges the visual experience and its subsequent effect on moments, affect, and memory. While clips of intimate moments are surely tied to physicality, the type of information that Glance emphasizes is not about the material body but its traces in our minds (and our hard drives). Unlike other sex toys and teledildonics, Glance is an app designed to utilize a pre-existing platform; it is code, not hardware. We can perhaps understand that software is to hardware what sight is to touch; there is the perception of the physical, but the experience overall is intangible and elusive.
While visual information is the focus of Glance, we yet again lose sight of the machine. Glance wants you to see bodies, both your own and others, not the device itself. Google Glass is designed to be unobtrusive, to look like tools we already wear on our faces. In fact, the developers state that the 10-second videos were chosen because “you can’t enjoy the moment when you are looking at the screen all the time” [13]. The idea is to use Glance sparingly — to enhance particular moments but to not let it get in the way. As software, Glance becomes even more invisible. We only see the video it provides us; we do not see the technological process occurring underneath. When the locus of experience shifts from touch to sight, so does the site where the human body is emphasized.

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Yet, even viewing the body through Glance seems awkward. Because of an attempt to create a seamless interface, both the hardware and software present a strange, confusing visual experience. Wearing Glass during sex, and simultaneously experiencing a moment remediated through the lens of your glasses, could be distracting no matter how long the video clip. Glance is supposed to let users experience “both sides, in the same place” and thus “see the whole picture” [14]. Yet, we have to ask, does seeing from multiple points of view at the same time actually constitute seeing the whole picture? If we presume that the typical video feed you receive from a partner will be of yourself, will this reflected image make you more self-conscious during sex, or more confident in your own sexuality? Does it appeal to voyeurism, distancing the users from their bodies and experience? It depends on the person, of course, but the tendency to be distracted when watching yourself move is often overwhelming. Who hasn’t stared at that tiny image of themselves in the corner of the screen while video chatting with someone else? While Glance’s intention is to make you “see the whole picture,” it runs the risk of allowing you to focus less on the interactions between you and a partner and more on yourself.

The Glance software is also designed to have as little “computer logic” as possible. Videos shot with Glance have a maximum length of 10-seconds. This means that what you see, both live and played back later, is not a narrative but a snippet of time — a moment. Glance is all about “moments,” about recreating the idea of human memory, ephemerality, and digitized experience. In a similar gesture, the videos are saved for only five hours after they are captured. Glance videos disappear if you don’t work to save them. Presumably, the app could take arbitrarily long videos and save them indefinitely — but it is not programmed to do so. We are encouraged to see spontaneous and temporary images as reinforcing a moment, whereas the computer logic of cataloging and saving is unnatural; it does not befit intimate moments. Yet again, we see the technological disguised under rhetoric associated with the human. While there are plenty of issues to discuss concerning the design and use of digital sexual devices, it isn’t too hard to imagine the possibility of alternative technologies that could help us explore bodies in a productive, healthy way. One example of a project which shows potential for intimate body exploration is “The Machine to Be Another,” an experimental platform created by BeAnotherLab, which uses the Oculus Rift, a 3D, immersive, virtual reality device made up of a headset displaying stereoscopic video [15]. “The Machine to Be Another” is designed as “a platform for embodiment experience” that BeAnotherLab defines as “a neuroscience technique in which users can feel themselves like if they were in a different body” [16].

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In one installation with “The Machine to Be Another” platform, titled “Gender Swap,” two users, one with a body assigned female and the other with a body assigned male,* are positioned in a room together, each wearing a head-mounted display. Video is captured from each headset and sent to the other user, similar to the idea behind the exchange in Glance. However, users experience only the other person’s body, not their own. In the videos captured of the project, users explore each other’s bodies, touching and looking. In order to make the virtual reality experience believable, “both users have to constantly agree on every movement they make,” making participation and consent part of the interface. However, it must be noted that in “Gender Swap” we see individuals who are presented as legible subjects within a cisgender binary. Nowhere in the literature or the video is this visual dichotomy broken down or the differences between gender and anatomy addressed. It is too easy for a viewer to assume that a “swap” can exist only between the restrictive contrast of female and male.The greatest potential of “Gender Swap” stems from its ability to combine touch and sight. While a user is touching their own body, the virtual reality system is presenting them with the image of another body, confusing the brain into experiencing another body as their own. Rather than privileging one type of experience above the other, the platform necessitates the integration of both physical and visual body exploration in order for the experiment to work. While there can be problematic uses of the platform, the potential to learn and explore is ever present. In addition, “The Machine to Be Another” is not just about exploring the human body, it is also about how individuals interact when their movements and relations are channeled through a digital device. While “The Machine to Be Another” is still attempting to present a relatively seamless inter- action with the technology, it does not try to disguise the virtual reality system as something it is not. Even including “machine” in the name of the system indicates that BeAnotherLab acknowledges the importance of the digital in the circuit of body exploration.
Understanding the ways in which we currently interact with digital technologies is essential for creating better interfaces. Intimacy with technology can still feel strange, awkward or troubling at times. There are undoubtedly implicit structures and logics that shape the way we interact with technology — both on the software and hardware levels — and these will shape the ways in which our sexual encounters involving technology progress. Human-computer interaction, on any level, could benefit from analysis of the ways in which technology affects our bodies and our perception of other bodies. When are our interactions only products of the devices we are using? When are they about the bodies we inhabit or are connecting with? Seeing all sides of human-computer interaction is key. When our interfaces are seamless and our machines are hidden, we have no idea how they operate. We have no idea how they change our experience of bodies, both human and machine, culturally, and politically [17]. Human-computer interaction does not need to be about making interfaces invisible — it needs to be about creating a site where bodies and technology can work and partner together, each aware of the other.

by Sylvia Tomayko-Peters, Contributor Featured Image: Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” (1997) Edited by Katie Harris Images selected and hyperlinks added by Ragna Rök Jóns.

bluestockings uses the terms “body assigned female” and “body assigned male” here because anatomy is not inherently gendered. Editor’s Note: “Assigned female at birth” and “Assigned male at birth” are also commonly used within trans* communities to denote cisnormative assignations of gender. These terms do not reduce gender to biological sex or the body, or assume a binary conception of biological sex or gender, but instead indicate that all bodies are assigned genders on the basis of certain bodily markers (i.e., genitalia) within Western cisnormative binary frameworks on gender and sex.  -Ragna Rök Jóns.

Endnotes

1. “RealTouch.” Adult Entertainment Broad- cast Network. http://www.realtouch.com/. 2. “RealTouch Interactive (BETA).” Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network. http:// www.realtouchinteractive.com/. 3. Sight has long been a site of power struggles for cultural theorists and psychoanalysis alike. Introductory works on the structuring power of the gaze include, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon, 1977), Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), and Mary Ann Doane’s “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” (Screen 23.3-4, September/October, 1982). 4. “LovePalz Connecting Lovers.” Love-Palz.com. https://www.lovepalz.com/. 5. “Kiiroo: The first social platform with intimate touch.” Kiiroo Technologies. http://kiiroo.com/.

6. “Features.” LovePalz.com. https:// www.lovepalz.com/features. 7. “Kiiroo IndieGoGo Infomercial.” YouTube. Kiiroo, Jan. 17, 2014. https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=RXXOfsHs070. 8. Alan Turing developed the idea that computers could act as universal imitators, simulating the logic of any other algorithm. Indeed, he suggested that computers could learn to simulate human intelligence. In one of his hypothetical experiments, a subject must distinguish between a human and computer, when presented with only typed responses to their questions. Here, Turing begins to blur the lines between bodies and machines (see Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery And Intelligence.” Mind LIX.236 (1950): 433-60). Those interested in the relationship between Turing’s concept of imitation and gender, or bodies and machinery, should look at Jack Halberstam’s article, “Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine” published in Feminist Studies Vol. 17, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991): 439-460. 9. “KIIROO: The first social platform with an intimate touch.” Indiegogo. http:// www.indiegogo.com/projects/kiiroo-the-first- social-platform-with-an-intimate-touch. 10. “Features.” LovePalz.com. https:// www.lovepalz.com/features. 11. “Glance – see both views, seamlessly.” Glance. http://www.glanceapp.info/. 12. Skype is video chatting and instant messaging software, allowing users to communicate textually, verbally, and visually over long distances (see http://www. skype.com/en/). Snapchat is a smartphone application which lets users capture images using their phone’s camera and send them as messages to others with the app. Photos on Snapchat are, in theory, ephemeral and deleted after a number of seconds (see http://www.snapchat.com/). 13. “How We Designed Glance.” Glance. http://glanceapp.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/ how-we-designed-glance/.
14. “Features.” Glance. http:// www.glanceapp.info/#features. 15. “The Machine to Be Another.” BeAnotherLab. http://www.themachinetobeanother.org/. 16. “Gender Swap – Experiment with The Machine to Be Another.” BeAnotherLab. http:// www.themachinetobeanother.org/?p=1025. 17. For those interested in further discussion on the intersection of bodies, machines, and gender, I recommend looking at Donna Haraway’s classic essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, as well as Jack Halberstam’s book, How We Became Posthuman (The University of Chicago Press, 1999).
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