What's the future of virtual sex?

Interrogators pressed witches for details, anxious to confirm not only the commission of supernatural sins, but also the existence of a spiritual world.
Interrogators pressed witches for details, anxious to confirm not only the commission of supernatural sins, but also the existence of a spiritual world.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It took centuries for the Christian church to come to terms with the concept of human/demon sexual relations.

Oh sure, accusations of "lying with the horned one" are now a staple of medieval witch trial accounts, but as historian Walter Stephens points out in his book "Demon Lovers," the notion of sex between a human being and a bodiless spirit was a "highly complex idea" at the time. The concept stirred up pressing concerns -- both theological and physiological -- that witchcraft theorists struggled with for centuries.

How can you feel kisses that aren't truly there?

How can you caress something that exists as little more than a dream?

The witchcraft theorists of the 15th and 16th centuries pondered these questions in an attempt to reconcile "confessions" of demonic sex with the metaphysics of their own faith. They compiled thick tomes of pained confessions and continually revised their mythology concerning sorcery.

In their own way, computer scientists continue this work today. Oh, don't fret: Your friendly neighborhood media lab isn't interested in infernal infidelity or Beelzebub booty calls. No, instead they seek to transmit sense data across the Internet and enable interactions with virtual entities and environments.

They're steering us toward a reality previously only dreamt of: sexual congress between the material and immaterial worlds.

Virtual Sexuality Takes Shape

How can we connect carnally with an immaterial world?
How can we connect carnally with an immaterial world?
Anthony Saint James/Riser/Getty Images

The future is bright for virtual sexuality. After all, we're human beings. Think of any great artistic or technological achievement and chances are it winds up in our pants at some point. Poetry gave us pornography, the telephone gave us sex hotlines and vulcanization gave us the modern condom. It's just part of who we are.

Today, more than 2.1 billion people surf the World Wide Web [source: CIA World Factbook]. Internet pornography is a multibillion-dollar industry and although an exact count of Web sites is difficult to formulate, we do know that at least one hardworking web-filtering service (CYBERsitter) currently blocks more than 2.5 million porn sites [source: Ruvolo].

Roughly speaking, you can divide all of our sexual uses of technology into two categories:

  1. Sexual communication with another person (sexting, sex chat rooms and webcam cybersex)
  2. Sexual interaction with a simulation (interactive sex video games)

All of it is essentially computer-mediated communication, so while you won't find companies such as Microsoft pondering the best way to touch a woman's breast in a video game, the company's Xbox 360 Kinect motion controller was barely out a month before independent developers unveiled a demo for an erotic simulation based on the Kinect's open-source software [source: Terdiman].

Human telecommunication began with the mere transmission of words and ideas via the telegraph. We quickly moved on to sending sounds and sights. Today, the industry continues to work toward the seamless transmission of our entire sensory experience.

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.

Wake up and Smell the Future

How will we encounter each other in virtual worlds?
How will we encounter each other in virtual worlds?
Colin Anderson/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Smell and taste complete the human sensory experience, and rest assured that research continues into the creation of digitally transmitted smells. Before you scoff at the importance of smell in human sexuality, just remember that about one out of every 50 genes in the human genome concern this most ancient of senses [source: Shell].

Without smell in the mix, how can we expect to fully buy into a virtual experience? And as smell plays such a vital role in our sense of taste, too, the importance of digital scent technology becomes obvious.

Printable odors follow the same logic of your standard laser printer. While the printer creates a wide variety of colors from a limited pallet of primary colors, so too does an odor printer create a variety of smells out of primary scents.

This brings us at last back to our sense of vision. While visual rendering technology continues to advance at an amazing rate, the addition of smell, taste and touch into the virtual reality experience actually lightens the burden for visual simulation. This is due to what scientists call crossmodal attention affects, which govern the way the brain prioritizes some sensory inputs over others.

For instance, the kiss you feel on your cheek takes sensory priority over the texture of the sofa cushion underneath you -- and it takes priority at a neurological level. In fact, the amount of brainpower allotted to sight drastically decreases once sound, smell and touch are introduced [source: Madrigal].

Researchers at the University of York's Audio Laboratory are working to employ crossmodal attention affects to fine-tune the virtual reality experience, orchestrating the full range of human senses in the required intensities. They've even considered employing a mouthpiece to simulate different textures against the tongue and mouth -- for virtual food chewing, they claim.

The technology continues to emerge, but the day is fast approaching when two lovers may slip into their virtual reality cocoons and fall into each others' arms across intercontinental or even interplanetary distances.

Still others may turn their backs on real-world romance altogether. They'll embrace simulated celebrities, impossible anime bodies and fetishes previously only imagined.

This virtual hedonaut will reach out with a haptic glove, stare into programmed eyes and touch flesh that exists as little more than a dream.

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Sources

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