by John Winn
Ever since man learned to make tools, men and women have sought to enhance their sexual experiences--mechanically and otherwise. But mankind's fate increasingly becomes intertwined with machines, the definition of sex is being rewritten once more, opening up a floodgate of ethical dilemmas that threaten to reshape the fabric of society as we know it. Determined to get to the heart of the matter, Correspondent John Winn goes to the heart of the matter--and turns up some surprising answers.
Ever since Eve offered her ill-fated apple to her husband Adam, men and women have struggled to reclaim the carnal desire mankind's first couple enjoyed so decadently. In the millennia since, the genders have experimented with everything from oils to toys in the single-minded pursuit of love--and lust. As a new century dawns, the challenge is more intense as lovers integrate cell phones and remotes into their bedrooms in the hopes of achieving the ultimate interactive experience in lovemaking. The march towards hedonism has not come without setbacks, but thanks to one young artist's flash of inspiration, sex may become more than a two dimensional experience--all because of a research project dreamed up in class.
Her name is Hye Yeon Nam. Already a rising star within the digital media artists that populate the Web, since her "Kiss Controller" gained international notoriety in March of this year the South Korean émigré has become something of a celebrity. She's given numerous interviews and been asked to speak at several colleges and universities on the subject. But the way she describes it, it was a team effort--not that it diminishes the overnight success of her hobby-gone-viral.
"I had a collaboration with another PhD student who worked on a tongue controller for the disabled." She explains in broken English. "I developed this project to explore a more artistic way for participants' to express emotion with their kisses."
The result is a series of wires that snake around the giving partner's ear as the two players to control a bowling ball on a video screen as their mouths--and tongues-- intertwine. The goal is simple: keep the ball in the middle of the lane, and knock down as many pins as possible. The first trial, which took place in February 2011, lasted a paltry 17 seconds. Nam plans to add additional hardware and software to the Controller sometime in the near future.
It isn't the first time that she's dabbled in the interactive gaming genre--her previous projects include a "hug me" doll and a plush tree with electronic sensors. But it is the first time a game designer was successfully able to integrate gaming and intimacy in one seamless, saucy package.
"What makes the Kiss Controller different from other interactive interfaces is Kiss's unique and intimate gesture to trigger strong emotion" Nam explains.
Not that it hasn't been the first time someone has tried integrating sex and gaming.
In 2002, video game maker United Game Artists introduced the Rez trance vibrator for the Playstation 2. Conceived as a tie in to the successful rail shooter game released that same year, the product was marketed in Japan only as part of a "special package" aimed at loyal fans of the franchise. Though it was not explicitly sold as a sex toy thousands of women allegedly Rez explicitly for the device. It remains one of the most controversial marketing ploys, ever.
Sex has been a part of video gaming ever since the first diskettes were issued in the late 70's and early 80's. Games like Custard's Revenge and Leisure Suit Larry titillated scores of teenage boys anxious to see their first flash of 8-bit tit. Later games such as Night Trap brought live action and interactive story lines to a sex-starved public, introducing Diff'ernt Strokes actress Dana Plato to a new generation of horny kids. As technology progressed and games became more sexualized in the mid-to-late nineties, all a young boy had to do to get excited was listen to Lara Croft's groans as she climbed over steep rocks, her backside visible for all to see.
The first truly interactive sex game was arguably, not a game at all. Conceived as a digital equivalent of the paper mache dolls their parents played with in the 1950's and 60's, Keep It Simple Stupid (or KISS for short--no relation to Nam's controller) introduced gave the phrase 'peeping Tom' a whole new meaning. Participants' could literally remove the clothing of thousands of digital avatars, from Anime heroines to original characters. KISS inspired a whole new generation of video game makers to experiment with erotic games, creating a niche industry of adult interactive files (AIF for short) that is still alive today.
Over a decade later, the tradition continues, but as a new generation of engineers, game makers and scholars want to take it one step further.
One such person is Franklin Veaux.
"I have always been interested in the intersection of technology and human society" Veaux explains in an email. "I see myself as both and explorer and a journalist."
That's not an empty boast, either. With a curriculum vitae that includes the now-defunct journal Xero Magazine, photo essays and several adult toys to his credit, the part mad scientist and gonzo journalist, has elevated eroticism almost to a science. Visitors to his website are more likely to encounter pie charts than four-page spreads--not that it's for the faint-hearted. Built with spare parts, his most recent project dubbed the "Mattel Mind Flex" toy attempts to combine two fetishes--cybernetics and mind-control--at once.
But for him, it's more than just a blend of cybernetics and flesh that gets him off. It's an entirely new lifestyle, one that is just starting to get mainstream attention.
"Transhumanism to me is nothing but a logical offshoot of the things we're already doing." He continues. "We don't consider pacemakers or cochlear implants that big of a deal anymore. Neurobiologists are mapping out and modeling the brain. Simple bacterial infections that might have been a death sentence to people a hundred years ago are no big deal today. But we rarely stop to think about what that means."
Best known through the works of sci-fi authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, despite its futuristic trappings transhumanism is ultimately not a new philosophy at all, but a synthesis of centuries-old ideas descended from Enlightenment figures such as Benjamin Franklin, life extension (and 19th century philosopher) Nikolai Fyodorov, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Transhumanists are the ultimate optimists, yearning for a world where disability, aging and even gender are irrelevant. The most well known living proponent is Ray Kurtzweil, whose predictions of an imminent man-machine melding dubbed "The Singularity" has received international publicity and spun off a series of documentaries, including a profile of Kurtzweil entitled Transcendent Man.
Just as Enlightenment philosophers like Descartes and Isaac Newton challenged our view of mathematics and science, inventors like Ray Kurtzweil and Veaux are doing the same with the human anatomy. One prominent academic has already implanted temporary microchip into his forearm to demonstrate the possibility of mankind one day controlling machines with his mind. From there, it isn't much of a stretch to conceive of a world where fem bots and sex machines actually exist. In fact, a crude sex-robot prototype is currently in the works, while life-like Real Dolls featuring human pubic hair sell for thousands of dollars through adult stores.
All this talk of sex and technology have some worried about a Futurama-like scenario of men and women abandoning their spouses for the companionship of robots. But Veaux is undeterred.
"A lot of folks are intimidated by sex toys, and feel like sex toys are a threat to their relationship but people relate to each other for a lot of reasons besides sex. The real question is not 'how can this sex toy replace my partner?' but "How can this sex toy let my partner and I have fun?"
Academics like Bret Lunceford seem to agree.
"If you're thinking about scenarios like those found in Gibson's novels or the film Strange Days, I really don't know." He writes in an email, referencing the 1995 action flick starring Ralph Fiennes. "There are products like Real Touch that use machinery, audio and video to create an erotic experience. But even though it may look like sex and even feel like sex, we know it's not the same as sex. We're a long way from the holodeck."
Lunceford knows what he's talking about--he even wrote an encyclopedia article on the subject! Untilrobots reach a point where they can respond sensually--and intelligently--to a human partner, Lunceford is unconcerned. But even if we aren't having sex with a real life version of Motoko Kusinagi, the implications for humanity's future is vast.
"Imagine the impact it would have if you looked at a restaurant and saw the top 10 Yelp reviews?" Lunceford said before signing off. "Consider looking at people and seeing other people's comments on them. How would this influence libel laws? Remember the old cell phones with briefcases? We're still tinkering with them. I don't see a point where we stop tinkering."
Brave New World, indeed.
John Winn is the Social Media Coordinator and Correspondent for Hennen's Observer. His work has been published in Racket Magazine, Buzzy Multimedia, The Celebrity Cafe, and many other outlets. He lives in Greensboro.