Warning: some of the videos embedded in this article may be NSFW.
You get home half-exhausted, open a bottle of Chianti, and think about soaking in the tub. Instead you turn on your laptop, read a few New York Times articles and find yourself instinctually headed towards that one site your browser loves to autofill. It’s a social network filled with cam girls, single people, and horny avatars all waiting to have sex with you — through a robot interface.
That is Seth’s vision of the future, at least. He’s the creator of FriXion, the first ever social network that’s working to allow its users to touch one another using various haptic devices — over any stretch of distance. And for the average user, the “touching” will involve hand holding, kissing, even full-on penetrative sex.
FriXion works like this (and I’ll try to use layman’s terms): The network uses off-the-shelf sex toys and already existing technologies and connects them using their open and universal API (just call it an interface). So, essentially it’s a platform that allows teledildonic devices — dildos, vibrators, and sleeves, for example— to interact with each other using real-time bidirectional force feedback. Seth uses the word “telemetry” a lot and what he means is that through FriXion, one toy can feel what the other toy is feeling.
If you move one way, your partner’s toy will move the other way. Some of the sci-fi features currently being tested include measuring biometrics like heart rate, which would then translate to a soft pulsing on your partner’s device in real time. And any and all of these devices can interact where their functionalities overlap. If that was too much techno-mumbo-jumbo for you, let’s put it this way: This network for sex toys gives a pretty convincing imitation of intimacy.
“Frixion is a software platform we’re developing to enable people to connect physically over distance,” explains Seth, who chose not to share his last name, as we spoke last year. “It feels like the act of sex. While you’re thrusting, I’m being penetrated. You’re pushing back. I’m feeling the resistance.” Compared to other sex machines or long-distance sex tech, Seth claims that FriXion provides a very organic motion, one that’s true to real-life sexual interactions. Just watch the promo videos. Pair it with a virtual reality simulator like the Oculus Rift, and you could see users having a near three-dimensional experience with other users, porn, cam girls, or even avatars.
I’ve never been so certain that if an interview subject’s invention were used by a large group of people, that the reality of sex or even human relations might be changed forever. But remember the big “if” in that sentence. That “if” —whether people want to adopt this kind of technology— weighs a lot.
If CES 2015 proved we are closer and closer to an Internet of Things, FriXion would be a grand slam in the direction of true technological intimacy. By 2025, many experts claim that robotics will become an integral, normal part of our daily existence. Stowe Boyd, lead researcher for GigaOM Research, predicted that, “Robotic sex partners will be a commonplace, although the source of scorn and division, the way that critics today bemoan selfies as an indicator of all that’s wrong with the world.” But what of a network that allows for actual humans to be on the other side of the robot’s moving parts? Will that type of technology be met with the same scorn and division? That’s the question currently on Seth’s mind.
In 2014, sex continued to go high tech, and in 2015, Seth feels that it’s bound to go more and more social. If we’ve outsourced nearly every aspect of our livelihoods and identities to machines, what’s to stop us from turning to machines to satisfy our most basic desires? Seth hopes to offer the ultimate in customized masturbatory experiences. A place that not only connects your toys but a place to meet new people, and a hub for virtual sex.
“The beta will initially support users to meet, have sex, and transact payments between each other using an e-wallet. Retail prices for the various devices will run the gamut, the V2 wristband accelerometer will start at $40. The F1 robot is currently the only way to have a meaningful bidirectional experience and it retails for $199,” Seth explains. He sees FriXion as a great interface to inspire more and more tech developers to innovate now that they have a means of communicating with other toys. FriXion is already able to support smart fucking machines like the Diltron, the Shock Spot, Klic-Klic, Lovense, High Joy, and Black Cat Box. “For the cost of a tablet or an iPhone, you’ve got virtual sex and a frickin robot that does other things.”
But at its heart, FriXion is intended to be a social network, Seth stresses. He explains the Facebook/dating site mash-up of the FriXion network: “You’re going to a have a profile, a timeline, a feed. We want to use the profile in ways that work similarly to OkCupid, if that’s how you want to use it. When you sign up, we’ll have check boxes and you can check as many as you want: cam girls, casual encounters, dating, relationships, long distance relationships. We’ll kind of unlock the functionality with those check marks. And if they’re interested in dating, we’ll be pushing matches for you to reach out and connect with people.”
Seth’s okay with developing a network that could very well have implications for sex work, like cam girls offering live events or porn stars holding haptic showcases. “It’s a real risk that we’re taking by taking such a broad approach,” he tells me. “When I saw this technology working, I really felt in awe of where we are. I had to sit around and look around and say, ‘Okay, this is 2013 [at time of development]. I’m having sex with a robot with a person. Isn’t that amazing?’” Seth admits, “I couldn’t justify only selling it to cam girls or something like that. I thought that was just weird. At the same time, I couldn’t justify just pitching it as tech for long distance relationships only. So we just decided to put the tools out there and invite everybody.”
There may also be a gamified future with FriXion, where users earn trophies for different sexual achievements — say a badge for 100 sexual partners, a star for partner loyalty. These partners don’t even have to be human. “You can imagine on Utherverse or Second Life where two avatars could meet each other and connect using their Frixion credentials and their devices connect and they’re having real human sex with each other, but only seeing their avatars and the avatars are animated using the data received through the FriXion API,” Seth rattles off excitedly.
It’s a very postmodern view of the sex industry. It’s an imagined future where, when browsing online dating profiles, people can expect to have sex teledildonically before they even meet in person. For Seth, it’s about not wasting anybody’s time and it’s about finding compatibility as soon as possible.
As our conversation comes to a close, Seth puts out a challenge to me. “What’s the most recent innovation in the sex tech industry?” I think for a moment. “Bluetooth-enabled wearable vibrators, probably,” I say. But I can hear Seth shaking his head. He sees toys like that as gimmicky and only practical for a few novelty uses. “I hope that creating this useful infrastructure is going to create a renaissance. It’s going to untie people’s hands to make really useful devices. A lot of these gimmicks you see are gimmicks because they don’t have the licenses to create functionality that is more useful. It’s why you see on FriXion there are devices that are stroking and reciprocating.”
For transhumanists and technophiles, FriXion sounds like a dream interface. If remote sex with feedback is what you’re looking for. Other already established “adult” networks like Uplust focus on NSFW social sharing and companies like KIIROO are focused on users who are looking to bring back the immediacy to their long distance relationships. FriXion has a much more laissez-faire attitude to what will go on within its interface. With sexy avatar lovers and trophies for conquests, it sort of sounds like a Spike Jonze film or William Gibson story waiting to happen. Are we prepared for it in 2015?
“I still have to remember that some people are ashamed to talk about sex,” Seth admits. “I’m very matter-of-fact and clinical about it. I have to remember some people aren’t. It is a bit frustrating, but I feel like our timing is really good. Haptics are huge this year. I think it’s pretty obvious that sex is one of the most useful applications of haptics.”
It’s hard to say what it will mean when we have a virtual experience that feels the same as the real deal — but what’s most important is that these products are actually meeting a demand of the consumer. And at the end of the day, if the consumers actually enjoy virtual sex. As David Levy, an artificial intelligence expert, once put it to The Kernel, “The question is not whether it is better to have sex with a robot or sex with a human being, but whether it is better to have sex with a robot or no sex at all. In the case of teledildonics, I see the products as increasing the sexual possibilities between humans, not decreasing the desire for human-human sexual contact.”
The effect of postmodern sex remains to be seen, if it will even come at all. At the time of writing, FriXion is still in its early adopter stages, where users can request an invite in return for discounts and giveaways. Seth tells me that by March 2015 he hopes to send out a new batch of invites and roll it out to a wider audience. This year, he’s most excited about the trajectory of haptics and the virtual reality space. Seth thinks, “It will really blow people’s minds and will continue to challenge what modern relationships can look like. It really shifts the core experience to lose all awareness of the device and be present in a virtual space with a virtual partner.” For many of us, opting into the network would be something of a rebellion. We’d be consenting to something we’re not used to okaying in such intimate spaces: complete novelty, exploration, freedom, anonymity.
“This kind of multi-use, robust, flexible approach to solving the problem I think is going to be the most appealing to people and it’s really going to be the killer app that makes intimate technology practical,” Seth assures me confidently.
I hang up the phone and contemplate one day having sex with someone over an internet connection, through a robot-powered vibrator, without ever really knowing who that someone is. I’m still mulling it over. “That’s got to turn someone on,” I think to myself.