The robot that makes virtual sex feel real

[From Motherboard, where the story includes more pictures and a video]

Tenga being used in demo

The Robot That Makes Virtual Sex Feel Real

Written by Brian Merchant
February 14, 2014

In the future, some people will choose to spend Valentine’s Day alone, having virtual sex with a 3D avatar with the help of a fully responsive robotic assistant. And by the future, I mean maybe next year. Intrepid horndog hackers can do it right now.

Tenga is a Japanese manufacturer of disposable male sex toys—they make cylindrical “masturbation aids” that somehow don’t seem as repulsive as the Fleshlight (perhaps mostly because they’re not called a fleshlight). They’re also promoting a jerry-rigged amalgam of software and robotics that’s easily the closest you can come to having physical sex with a video game.

At a tech conference last fall, Tenga unveiled a crude contraption that allowed volunteers to participate in a simulation wherein they received sexual favors from an anime character through virtual reality goggles. Since then, they’ve updated the software and the graphics of the simulator, and are continuing to promote robot-assisted virtual sex.

“I think in the future, the virtual real will become more real than actual real sex,” Tenga CEO Tsuneki Sato told me. He’d come by the Motherboard office to demonstrate the “future of masturbation,” as he put it. “That’s our slogan.” He laughed.

As soon as we sat down, he encouraged to put my head into a pair of VR goggles, where a female avatar was bent over the side of the bed and a rendering of Tenga’s sex tube protruding from the screen where the er, gun would typically be in a first person shooter. My instincts immediately told me to tear the glasses off my head; I peeled them off and looked around. I mumbled something like, “shit.”

They laughed and told me to go on, and maneuvered the robot arm so it was adjacent to my pelvis. If I pushed the arm with my hips, sure enough, the phallic cone responded onscreen, thrusting inward. The machine in turn responded to the action on screen too, generating resistance.

It was more creepy than erotic—especially given that I was blindly bumping my pelvis into a plastic red tube gripped by a robot at 3 pm, in broad view of the VICE lobby where a growing number of visitors were craning their necks with puzzled looks on their faces. It was a special kind of comic embarrassment; one I suffered for you, dear readers, who deserve only the best in virtual reality sex robot journalism. I could never imagine actually being turned by this device. But there are apparently plenty of people who are into Hentai and CGI porn out there, and this technology isn’t far from making their pixelated cyber fantasies come true.

Here’s how the tech works: The software, which was designed for Tenga by the Japanese erotic game developer Illusion, was crafted for the Oculus Rift, which an aspiring virtual sex participant then straps onto his head. The program interfaces with a Novint Falcon, a haptic device designed to replace the mouse for PCs that became popular with gamers because it can respond to gunfire in first person shooters.

As for why Tenga’s crew employs the Falcon, Wikipedia does a nice job of making it perfectly clear:

The Falcon has removable handles, or grips, that the user holds onto to control the Falcon. As the user moves the grip in three dimensions … the Falcon’s software keeps track of where the grip is moved and creates forces that a user can feel, by sending currents to the motors in the device.” So as you move your hand around the grip, the Falcon responds accordingly. “The Falcon’s sensors can keep track of the handle’s position to sub-millimeter resolution, and the motors are updated 1000 times per second (1 kHz), giving a realistic sense of touch. The surfaces of virtual objects feel solid, and can have detailed textures applied to them.

Tenga is trying to give “detailed textures” new meaning. The company rigged its masturbation aid so that it’s held in place by the Falcon’s claw, then programmed software to respond to the sex simulation onscreen. The “game” consists of a 3D-rendered woman in schoolgirl attire, who is either bent over a bed or kneeling before the “player.” As the avatar in virtual reality moves, so does the Falcon—and so does the Tenga sex tube. Clothing is optional in the VR and out. You get the picture.

No, I didn’t actually try the contraption the way it was intended to be used. I did (tentatively) mess around with the responsiveness, and Motherboard’s social media person/guinea pig Dan Stuckey gave it a fairly exhaustive trial, as you can see in the photos here. He asked the crew why the girl looked so sad; they didn’t respond.

It was true—the creepiest thing about all of this wasn’t even the robot handjob, but the melancholic submissiveness of the avatar they’d rendered. I felt empathy with the character, but not the kind I was probably intended to.

Ugh. In terms of function, it was pretty accurate; the robotic sex arm synched up with the virtual sex arm on screen.

“The physical dimensions of the Tenga were narrow, which matched the avatar I was virtua-bangin’,” Stuckey said. “I wonder if you’re stuck with the same controller though. What if you’re interested in someone else?”

Still, it’s not hard to imagine a future where someone puts all the pieces together and this kind of thing works seamlessly.

“He made it in two days,” Sato said, referring to Illusion’s developer, Naoyuki Ootsuru, who had come along, and who also presented us with an enthusiastic demonstration of the technology. “Better than Fleshlight’s. More accurate and very simple. In the future he wants to link it with actual ladies, so the dildo moves more accurately.”

Tenga and Illusion have high hopes for robot-assisted virtual sex, which they believe will soon become a normal, destigmatized practice.

“I think that there’s a taboo with male masturbation,” Sato said. “We want to normalize it, that’s why we design features for it.” They also suggested that the virtual sex contraption could even become a public service. Ootsuru says he wants to promote it as an outlet for the disabled. “They have less access to sex, and this could help them,” he says, through Sato’s translation.

For now though, the contraption is a mostly DIY rig that’s dependent on a model of the Falcon that’s not even on the market anymore. Though Ootsaru is looking for a replacement, it’s unlikely that a contraption like this will be hitting the market soon.

It’s also worth noting that not everyone is bullish on the future of virtual reality sex. I asked Allan Evans, the CTO of Avegant, which is manufacturing a VR Oculus competitor that beams images directly onto your retina, if he thought people might use his platform to improve the quality of virtual sex.

“We are going to abstain from supporting any elements of the adult industry,” he told me, unequivocally. “We’re not here to promote or encourage any application associated with the adult entertainment industry.”

Still, the brief encounter with Tenga’s wiry gadget was enough to see a glimpse of the future of onanism; solitary immersion into a responsive, pixelated fantasia. Yet the responsive virtual technology isn’t being applied exclusively to solo users. The sex tech industry at large is slowly gaining steam; teledildonics, which allows long-distance sex interactions, is making tentative steps towards gaining market share. A company called FriXion is working on facilitating “an online community whose users are able to touch each other using various supported haptic devices from hand holding and kissing up to full penetrative sex—regardless of where they are in the world, from across a room to across an ocean.”

Robotic appendages can now simulate human ones, or work in tandem with them. It’s getting easier to imagine a world where humans are more comfortable sharing their sex lives with robotic aids and virtual avatars; haptics, VR, and augmented reality platforms like Google Glasses are almost certain to eventually shift they way we have and think about sex. For some, it will be radical—it’s entirely possible to have an immersive virtual threesome where one party doesn’t exist at all.

Illusion’s Ootsaru hopes that as the market for Oculus Rift software grows, he can write more and better virtual sex content. And Tenga will be right there with it, the premiere robot-operated virtual reality-interfacing sex toy.

“Joining forces with these guys, that’s the future of masturbation,” Tsuneki said. “Or the future of sex, even.”


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