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7 August 2006
Error: Penis Not Found
by Paul Aitken

In the movie Private Parts, a woman phones Howard's Stern's show, confessing to having carnal thoughts about him but not knowing what to do about it. Howard tells her not to worry. He'll have sex with her on-air. While his co-host Robin Quivers looks on skeptically, Howard has the woman turn up the bass on her stereo and lay the speaker on the floor. He then tells her to strip down and squat over the bass woofer. When everything is in place Howard leans into the mike and proceeds make humming sounds. Howard's deep voice causes the woman's bass woofer to vibrate, stimulating the woman's clitoris, and she eventually orgasms. It's a very funny scene. And if it happened as depicted, Howard Stern may have been the first known practitioner of what is now referred to as Teledildonics.

Teledildonics is a blanket term to describe any physical sexual act that can be conducted at a distance, usually through some kind of intermediating technology. Telephone sex and cam-girl sex doesn't count (it's not physical), nor does tickling a partner's genital area with a feather attached to a really, really long pole. Phoning your partner while she has her cell phone nestled in her crotch probably doesn't count either. A successful teledildonic episode ideally should result in an orgasm achieved by means of someone else's long-distance control.

The term teledildonics was coined by Ted Nelson, part-time IT futurist and full-time word maker-upper (he also invented "hypertext" and "micropayments"). Ted meant the word to be tongue-in-cheek, although the concept he envisioned was serious. One of the interesting (and amusing) things about the human obsession with sex is how quickly any new technology becomes adapted to its service. No sooner had the Gutenberg press been invented, than scoundrels were printing up dirty sonnets. In 1865 still photography was still in its infancy when Congress felt compelled to pass a law banning the distribution of photographic pornography by mail. The first erotic film was made in 1896. The first ever telephone transmission was "Come here Watson. I want you." Many of the digital technologies in wide use today were pioneered or first used for sexual purposes; including digital watermarking (developed by Penthouse), videoconferencing, secure credit card transactions and subscription based web services, to name just a few.

And in the twenty or so years since Mr. Nelson coined the term, there have been numerous attempts to realize Teledildonic's true potential. In fact, a certain subset of techno-freakers (almost exclusively male, apart from a few feisty cybergirls) have approached the enterprise with the kind of zeal and single-minded purpose that was harnessed to put a man on the moon. And it's not hard to see why. For a few of these guys, sex at a distance is as close as they're likely to get to the real thing. And if some of you out there are in the same situation, it is with some regret that I must inform you that we appear to be a long way from being able to stretch out on a holo-bed with some VR version of Jessica Rabbit. Truth be told, we haven't advanced much beyond phoning our girlfriend when she has her cellphone tucked in her panties. There is no shame in this. People always blather on about how sex is all in the head. And to some extent they're right. How else would masturbation work? But sex is also a physical act. Pulling your pud while imagining a women's legs wrapped around your neck is not the same thing as having those legs actually wrapped around your neck. There is the feel of flesh. The smell. The taste. The kiss. The coordinated movement of the pelvis. The look in her eyes as she approaches orgasm. These are not things you're ever likely to replicate by way of digital connection.

So what is possible, if not now, then in the future? Well, short of jacking our brains into some wetware interface out of a William Gibson novel, it's unlikely we're going to be able to remotely experience the authentic sensations of the old in-out-in-out. The best we can probably hope for, the absolute upper limit of teledildonic potential would be to have sex with an animatronic dummy version of your partner while she has the same sex with an animatronic version of you. While we're a long way from realizing anything close to this, one can envision how it might work. Your bodies would both have to be wired with sensors to record your movements. These movements would be digitized and sent to each other's animatronic proxies. Depending on the sophistication of the dummies and the range of movements allowed, it should be possible at some point to record and transmit the basic thrust and parry of sexual intercourse. But right now, if you're stuck in Toledo and your partner's in Kuala Lumpur, exploring a teledildonic cross-section of the Kama Sutra isn't going to happen.

But what about the things that aren't included in the Bill Clinton definition of sex. Things like blow-jobs, hand-jobs and assorted vaginal/clitoral stimulations (it's not called teleDILDOnics for nothing). Well, these are much more doable. Recent advances in haptic technology, specifically the "cyber glove", which allows users to project hand movements through a robotic device, have obvious teledildonic applications though as yet no one has used the technology for this purpose (that we know of anyway - who knows what those rascally haptic engineers get up to in the late hours when no one is looking).

On the consumer front, a number of devices mimicking various non-reciprocal pleasures are already on the market. The first serious foray into commercial teledildonics was introduced by Vivid Entertainment in 1999 in the shape of an electrified body suit that could deliver various sensations (tickle, pinprick, vibration, hot or cold) at the click of a mouse. The suit was intended for the 1-900/camgirl market ("You've been a naughty boy. I must prick you now!") and was all set to hit the kinky-sex stores at a price of $400. Unfortunately, the FTC, unnerved by the idea of an electrified suit worn by people likely to produce liquid emissions, withheld the permit necessary to release the suit as a consumer product. So far it exists only as a prototype.

More successful have been an array of plug-and-play type sex toys (penis vibrators, dildos etc.) controlled through the Internet. Of these the most notable are the Virtual Sex Machine and the Sinulator. The Virtual Sex machine is a suction toy that connects to the computer and is meant to be operated in tandem with mini-movies of sexy babes performing fellatio. The sucking sensations produced by the machine are timed to coincide with the sucking actions on screen. One could argue that this is not technically teledildonics as the user is not actually involved in a two-way connection with a real person. But I'm not going to nit-pick.

The Sinulator, on the other hand, is definitely two-way. Essentially it's a battery powered dildo controlled via a web interface by way of a local transmitter. The interface resembles the control panel of a racing car with a large throttle to control the speed of the "thrusting action", and a slider to control vibration. The thrusting action is actually rotary action, but you get the idea. On the receiving end, a webcam transmission would provide feedback on how you're doing. The cockpit style control panel was obviously designed with guys in mind and you can see how it would be fun to operate. One could also see how easy it would be for some obliging boyfriend to let his pals or his little brother operate the Sinulator for a spell ("Betcha $50 I can get her off." "You're on!"). One of the rarely discussed problems with teledildonics is that you never really know who, if anybody, is at the controls.

Perhaps the mother of all teledildonic devices is the Thrillhammer (pictured). Like the Sinulator, it's controlled via the web and involves a dildo, but comparisons end there. Shaped like a dentist chair designed by a sex-obsessed Inspector Gadget, the Thrillhammer offers real thrusting action as well as, of course, rotation and vibration. It's a heap more expensive than the Sinulator (custom machines go from $7,500 to $12,000), but for those with the cash and the inclination, the Thrillhammer is the closest teledildonics gets to real, penetrative sex. One of the advantages of the Thrillhammer is that sessions can also be recorded or programmed. Once again this takes us away from the "two-way" sex, but come on; one look at this thing and you know we're way beyond blurring the lines. The Thrillhammer company is apparently owned by women so they must have some idea of what women want. God knows, we men don't.

Pic of the Thrillhammer courtesy of Violet Blue, where you can also read more about teledildonics.

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