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What's the future of virtual sex?

        Health | Sexuality

Physical Touch in a Digital World
HIRO, a multifingered haptic interface robot enables a user to feel the surface of a virtual dinosaur at the 2005 World Exposition. Ah, it all begins so innocently ...
HIRO, a multifingered haptic interface robot enables a user to feel the surface of a virtual dinosaur at the 2005 World Exposition. Ah, it all begins so innocently ...
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

They don't call it "carnal knowledge" for nothing. Every lover's embrace is essentially sense data, but to what extent can we truly digitize, transmit and receive that information? Let's start with the sense of touch.

Sure, a computer mouse or video game joystick allows you to manipulate items in a computer environment, but the realm of physical touch falls to the field of computer haptics. As the photo on this page illustrates, haptic technology generally takes the form of a glove that allows the user to not only control but actually feel virtual items.

Our sense of touch is poorly understood compared to our sense of sight, so the continued development of haptic gloves involves such advanced measures as the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans. Hijacking such technology for sexual purposes is inevitable, but far more pressing needs drive funding to computer haptics, ranging from telesurgery carried out over vast distances to virtual reality military training and space exploration.

Of course, sexual touches incorporate far more than the use of our hands, and scientists are already hard at work on haptic technology for our other parts. Just consider the Hug Shirt, a Bluetooth-enabled garment from the U.K.'s CuteCircuit that uses embedded sensors and actuators to simulate the warmth and touch of an affectionate embrace. Suddenly, a transoceanic hug becomes as simple as sending a text message.

Or if you fancy something a little more randy, then take heart in the Kiss Transmitter prototype from Kajimoto Laboratory at Tokyo's University of Electro-Communications. Resembling a cross between an electric toothbrush and a joystick, the device is designed to transmit all the tongue-swirling intensity of a French kiss across the digital divide.

Between the Hug Shirt and the Kiss Transmitter, you'd never have to type "XOXO" at the end of an e-mail again. For now, however, neither technology is commercially available.

As for all the other physical touches that encompass human sexuality, look no further than the field of teledildonics, which largely breaks down to the development of vibrating or otherwise automated sex toys controlled either by a remote user or by a program.

As low-tech as that sounds (and generally is), the electronic transmission of physical pleasure takes a rather high-tech turn with Dr. Stuart Meloy's Orgasmatron. Created in 2008, this device sends an electrical pulse through nerves in the spinal cord that inform parts of the brain processing pleasurable sensations in the female genitalia. A study published in the journal Neuromodulation even reported that four women who had previously lost the ability to experience orgasms regained it with the device [source: Nuzzo].

In the example of the Orgasmatron, we see that the future of virtual sex may rely not only on haptic gloves and vibrating sensors, but also on the complex manipulation of the human nervous system.