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How internet-connected sex devices became the weapons of a patent troll

Welcome to the future of sex: patent lawyers

Ben Dalton

In September 1993, David Rothschild saw the future of sex: it was teledildonics, a word used to describe internet-enabled sex toys that allow partners to remotely pleasure one another. Twenty-two years later, the most promising use for the technology appears to be patent trolling.

Earlier this year, ownership of Patent 6,368,268 B1 — sometimes referred to as "the teledildonics patent" — transferred to Tzu Technologies, LLC. Within a month of transfer, six lawsuits had been filed against companies deemed to be infringing on the patent — including, oddly, Kickstarter, whose sole infraction seems to have been hosting the crowdfunding campaign for Frebble, a children’s toy that allows kids to remotely "feel" the platonic touch of a family member or friend through vibration. The Tzu Technologies lawsuits have largely been derided by the media, with publications ranging from adult industry trade website XBIZ to the Electronic Frontier Foundation deeming them frivolous patent trolling — trolling which, as Ars Technica points out, is largely targeting companies whose products are still in preorder or private beta, and thus are more likely to fold rather than pay out. But frivolous or not, the courts may still find in Tzu Technologies’ favor, or Tzu Technologies may wrest a settlement out of its targets: in the process, the company may secure a greater windfall than anything any actual teledildonics manufacturer has ever seen from product sales.

When it comes to ratio of hype to product realization, teledildonics are rivaled only by futurist stalwarts like flying cars. Early teledildonics products were limited by contemporary technology; until the mass adoption of high speed internet, there wasn’t much of a market. But even in the advent of internet-connected consumers, none of the products that came to market offered the seamless, sexy experience we were promised.

patent diagram 1

Patent diagram (Warren J. Sandvick, Jim W. Hughes, and David Alan Atkinson)

Back in 1993, things seemed more promising: writing breathlessly in the Chicago Tribune about the technologically enhanced sex of the future, Rothschild opened his paean to the possibilities of virtual sex by informing readers that "some day your sex life could be shut off for failure to pay your electric bill." Inspired by the earliest forms of internet porn and the first wave of virtual reality hype, Rothschild envisioned a future filled with "people wearing special bodysuits, headgear and gloves to engage in tactile sexual relations from separate, remote locations via computers connected to phone lines."

"Some day your sex life could be shut off for failure to pay your electric bill."The term "teledildonics" dates back to the late 1970s, when it was coined by Ted Nelson (also credited with coining the term hypertext). But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that actual teledildonics products began to hit the market: six years after Rothschild’s Chicago Tribune piece, porn magnate Vivid Entertainment debuted a "cyber sex suit" that fulfilled the writer’s vision of sexual pleasure through sensor-laden bodysuits — or would have, had the product not been saddled with a clunky interface and ultimately limited utility. Despite Vivid’s promises, the suit had difficulty interacting with 3D environments, and its small number of sensors meant the stimulation it offered was more tease than full on sexual experience. Ultimately, safety issues shelved the cyber suit; concerns about its suitability for pacemaker wearers led the FCC to deny the product approval.

Around the same time, a number of other companies began to explore internet-enabled sex toys. Though the products targeted different audiences — and were sold at different price points — they all suffered the same fate: people didn’t want them.

Though many internet-enabled sex toys targeted different audiences, they all suffered the same fate: people didn't want them

Teledildonics fever returned in the mid-aughts; this era of enhanced sex toys might best be defined by the Thrillhammer. A large, high-powered dildo attached to a gynecological exam chair, the Thrillhammer’s price point started at $2,000 (for the most basic version) and went up to as much as $50,000 (for something super tricked out, involving leather upholstery, hand-blown glass dildos, and built-in aromatherapy). But the product demo at tech showcase Dorkbot in San Francisco in 2005 highlighted its shortcomings. Writer Violet Blue, in California, controlled a Thrillhammer thousands of miles away at New York’s Museum of Sex — but there were a number of technical difficulties, from slow camera uploads to the device not actually being plugged in. The process proved that teledildonics still wasn’t ready for prime time.

There could be a new wave coming. Ubiquitous smartphones and increasingly relaxed attitudes toward sex may inject new life into the teledildonics movement — with smartphones increasingly integrated into all aspects of our lives, and sex toys increasingly enhancing our sex lives, it’s only natural to think of ways we might improve sex by merging the two. But just as products like Vibease, LovePalz, and Comingle are entering the market, they might be derailed by litigation.

patent diagram 2

Patent diagram (Warren J. Sandvick, Jim W. Hughes, and David Alan Atkinson)

In 1998, the year before Vivid released its cyber sex suit, three inventors — Warren J. Sandvick, Jim W. Hughes, and David Alan Atkinson — submitted an application for a patent for a "method and device for interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks." In a series of 11 illustrations, the applicants outlined a system in which two computers, each attached to their own "sexual stimulation" devices, might connect, allowing users to remotely control one another’s sexual stimulation. Patent 6,368,268 B1 was granted in 2002; five years later, ownership was transferred to Sandvick’s HasSex, Inc., a company that seems to have been created solely for the purpose of licensing this very patent. Over the years, a number of companies interested in exploring the teledildonics field licensed the patent from HasSex; OhMiBod, We-Vibe, Vstroker, and Shockspot all partnered with the patent holder before pursuing their products.

Over the years, a number of companies interested in teledildonics have licensed the patent from HasSexOther companies chose to move ahead independently of the patent holder. Some, like Frixion, seem to have believed they were operating within the allowances of the law. Others, like AEBN’s RealTouch, a haptic masturbation sleeve designed to sync with a dildo "joystick," found themselves mired in litigation. The expense of fighting patent lawsuits brought by Hassex, combined with rising costs of production, ultimately proved too much for AEBN: the Real Touch was taken off the market on January 1st, 2014. And with Tzu Technologies’ latest round of lawsuits over Patent 6,368,268 B1, other up-and-coming sex toy companies might face a similar fate.

In an interview with Vice, Comingle’s Andrew Quitmeyer outlines the ways that this lawsuit might stop his company’s product — an open-source, crowdfunded vibrator called the Mod — in its tracks, even if the courts find against Tzu Technologies. "Our bank account is rapidly approaching zero, and it was never that high to begin with," Quitmeyer told Vice. "All these great people who helped us and supported us in the crowdfunding thing on Indiegogo — basically there’s a billionaire in Texas who’s trying to take their dildos away from them." For many of those bootstrapping creators, who rely on crowdfunding to cover the extensive costs of hardware production and development, patent licensing fees add one more cost to the equation, one that might be just high enough to discourage them.

patent diagram 3

Patent diagram (Warren J. Sandvick, Jim W. Hughes, and David Alan Atkinson)

While it’s possible the patent has prevented innovation, what seems likelier is that in our connected age, dedicated devices aren’t necessary. Teledildonics products aren’t just competing with in-person sex, they’re also competing with good old-fashioned sex toys, which — when paired with a naughty Skype or sext session — can offer a pretty satisfying experience, even without remote control. Plus, situations in which a dedicated teledildonics device might be appealing — like, say, during a long-distance romance — are rare for most people. "No teledildonics product has really gotten the right balance of ease of use and worth of use," says Kyle Machulis, who blogs about teledildonics over at MetaFetish. "It needs to feel awesome enough" to make buying a dedicated teledildonics product worth it, "but it also needs to set up quick, clean up quick, and work reliably during usage."

Patent 6,368,268 B1 is almost at the end of its lifespan

Though products like Vibease and LovePalz may end up derailed by litigation, it is worth noting that Patent 6,368,268 B1 is almost at the end of its lifespan. Once it expires, the technology is fair game. Perhaps by then, we’ll truly realize the digital sex revolution we’ve been promised for the past two decades. Or perhaps we’ll still be left wanting, as teledildonics once again fails to deliver on its promise of pleasure — except for the patent holders who’ve managed to secure a bit of cash from the hype.

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