On August 18th, sex toy company Lovense announced that their latest product, Lush, would be the first-ever vibrator to be remotely controlled by Apple Watch. Lovense isn’t alone in assuming that the sex toy of the future is one that mimics — and integrates with — some of the present’s more mainstream tech. When Lush arrives on the market, it’ll join programmable vibrators, vibrators that sync with music players, and a number of other vibrators that, like Lush, are primarily controlled by an app. But is all this tech actually improving the sex toy experience — or is it just giving the press something sexy to talk about?
The sex toy industry used to be a low-tech spaceThe sex toy industry used to be a relatively low-tech space, with manufacturers more interested in accurately molding porn performer genitalia than creating products that can piggyback on more mainstream tech toys. But over the past decade or so, there’s been a dramatic change in who’s creating erotic products. Once solely the domain of porn professionals like Doc Johnson founder Reuben Sturman, the sex toy industry has expanded to include a number manufacturers with more mainstream backgrounds, including scientists with PhDs from prestigious universities, product designers with impressive résumés, and even former Apple employees.
As the people who make sex toys have begun to look more like the people behind mainstream gadgets, the erotic products that they’ve developed have followed suit. There’s no question that ergonomic design and high-quality rechargeable batteries have been blessings for tech savvy masturbaters. But sometimes it feels like the increased focus on the bells and whistles — and Bluetooth — might actually be distracting this new breed of sex toy designers from the very thing that should be their central mission: namely, creating a product that gives users easy access to better, more frequent orgasms.
"Our top-selling vibrators do not have [high-tech flourishes]."Despite their media hype, toys that prioritize technical flourishes over user experience often flame out once they hit the market. Despite a number of press hits, smart cock ring Lovely couldn’t even raise the funds to bring itself to market; in contrast, the incredibly simple Eva, a hands-free vibe designed to be worn during intercourse, managed to exceed its original goal by over 1,000 percent. Though a lack of transparency among sex toy manufacturers and retailers (which are almost exclusively small, privately held companies) makes hard numbers for sex toy sales difficult to come by, Coyote Amrich, purchasing manager for San Francisco-based sex toy shop Good Vibrations, tells The Verge, "Our top-selling vibrators do not have [high-tech flourishes]. In the extreme."
Even when high-tech toys do find a foothold, they seem destined to appeal to a limited group of users. Take, for example, OhMiBod: launched in 2006, the company’s signature product has long been a vibrator that syncs its vibrations to the pulse of nearby music. For many consumers, the OhMiBod is a novelty in the most literal sense — something that might be fun for a time or two, but unlikely to work its way into regular rotation. But for hardcore clubgoers, the OhMiBod offers a way to fuse the pleasures of the club scene with those of the bedroom: "They really found a niche market, with DJs, with different folks like that. Not the everyday consumer, necessarily, but a thriving community," says Amrich.
The Apple Watch is already a niche item — and the number of people interested in using it to remotely control a vibrator seems even smaller
With its high price point and limited utility, the Apple Watch is already a niche item — and the number of people interested in using it to remotely control a vibrator seems even smaller still. So if products like Lush are unlikely to appeal to a broad audience, why do the industry’s elite engineers seem far more interested in creating Lush-like products rather than focusing their talents and attentions on improving pleasure products in other ways — like, say, creating a product that uses something other than simple vibration to elicit sexual pleasure?
Some companies have tried: in 2008, Je Joue unveiled the Sasi, a toy that paired standard vibration with an oscillating nub meant to generate pleasure through pressure, in the manner of, say, a partner’s finger or tongue. Unlike Lovely or Lush, which dress up relatively basic vibrators with Wi-Fi connectivity and apps, the SaSi sought to reframe the very notion of a "vibrator," working with focus groups and product testers to create a toy capable of offering a completely different sensual experience. Though it was well reviewed — and heavily hyped — the SaSi never really took off, and is no longer available (though it has inspired at least one dumbed down copycat). It’s possible that the Sasi’s complex interface rendered it unappealing, or that Je Joue’s faith in pressure-based pleasure was ultimately misplaced.
"The Magic Wand is still our top seller."Or perhaps the SaSi failed because, even with its design team’s extensive research, it just wasn’t possible to create a product whose pleasure-inducing capabilities offered a significant improvement over the basics.
"The Magic Wand is still our top seller," Good Vibrations’ Amrich says. A high-powered massager that’s been on the market since 1968, the Magic Wand has long been a favorite of sex toy fans, celebrated by everyone from sex educator Betty Dodson to HBO’s Sex and the City (which sparked a run on the product after it was featured in a 2002 episode). Its popularity isn’t due to any fancy pedigree or high-tech bona fides: you can’t fire it up from your phone, and its vibration only comes in two settings (high and very high). In its decades on the market, the product has barely changed — even its recent redesign served mostly to make the product cordless.
But even with its clunky appearance and out-of date tech, the Magic Wand’s incredible power makes it very good at achieving its mission. Its reputation and high level of name recognition makes it a formidable opponent for anyone looking to unseat it. Perhaps that’s why so many entrepreneurs are more interested in catering to the needs of customers whose real fetish is technology itself: it’s far easier to please an audience drawn in by fancy flourishes than it is to compete with — and depose — a simple technology that’s been reliably delivering orgasms for decades.
Correction: Lovesense's Apple Watch vibrator is called Lush. An earlier version of this post got the name wrong; we regret the error.
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