The brave new world of high-tech sex-toy development.
As tech journalists work themselves into a lather over RIM’s BlackBerry 10, another potentially ground-shaking development in the world of Canadian consumer electronics has been largely overlooked. At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a senior exec at a Canadian sex-toy manufacturer predicted that today’s vibrators could be museum pieces within five years.
Grant Bechthold, VP of product development at Ottawa’s Standard Innovation Corporation (slogan: “Shaping the future of health and wellness”), told gadget lovers that the next three to five years will see enormous changes in the design of what he coyly termed “personal massagers.”
As sex toys have quietly moved upmarket and into the mainstream, the past decade has already produced sleek designs, quieter motors, and even vibrators that work by remote control. Now, Bechthold—who spent three decades working in military and aerospace engineering, designing everything from banking encryption to electronic countermeasures—believes we’re about to start exploring uncharted territory courtesy of what’s called “materials science”: the study of how things are put together at the molecular level, and how they can be manipulated in new ways. Bechthold foresees a brave new world where toys can move as never before, or stimulate sensitive bits using methods other than the tried-and-true vibrations. “There’s some really out-there material science being worked on,” he says. “There are materials that can twitch and move based on electrical stimulation.”
Despite having a name so bland that it sounds like a front company for a James Bond villain, Standard Innovation is actually one of the perkiest sex-toy makers around.
It’s also one of an emerging breed of sex-toy manufacturers that takes seriously something previously unheard of in the industry: research and development. So far, there are only a handful of companies—like San Francisco’s Jimmyjane and Sweden’s Lelo— vying for a slice of the high-tech sex-toy pie. Lelo is known for making sleek vibrators that look like they could have jumped off an Apple assembly line, while Jimmyjane is pushing ever harder at the boundaries of sexual possibility with its Hello Touch, which has a battery pack you strap to your wrist and two vibrating pads that stick to your fingers for sexual adventures, cyborg-style. Meanwhile, Standard Innovation is busy expanding its research lab and recruiting designers.
This is a major shift in the world of sex-toy development, which is often looked on as the wild west of the consumer-electronics industry, with little government regulation. You could be forgiven for imagining that vibrator design is basically a back-of-the-napkin affair; after all, evolution fashioned the basic shape they have to work with. Designers just add an inch here and a few ridges there and away they go. Companies don’t even have to prove that their products work, or are safe.
So it comes as a surprise to hear Bechthold talk of a “three-year product development roadmap” and a research pipeline that numbers 60 projects. His team isn’t just a bunch of engineering grads. They all have at least 15 years’ experience, and they use such NASA-esque tools as 3-D printers and electronic mannequins in their bid to build ever-better sex toys.
“We are a very traditional, professional engineering organization. The tools that we use, the processes that we use and our people all have traditional engineering backgrounds,” says Bechthold. They even wear suits to meetings.
Apparently, it’s trickier to design for love than war, and Bechthold admits that creating sex toys is hardly an exact science. “It’s not like handing somebody a cellphone for a week and sitting down across the table and having a very open and direct conversation, saying ‘How did you like it?’ The biggest hurdle we’ve got are that people are unfamiliar with their bodies, so when you try to get user feedback it’s very difficult to tell whether they’ve misinterpreted something.”
Sex, being an ever-shifting mix of mood and mechanics, just won’t fit neatly into a consumer questionnaire. But Bechthold remains committed to the idea that technology can help people have more satisfying sex lives. “We’re pretty much blazing a new trail in the science-meets-sexuality piece,” he says.
The ultimate proof that vibrators have made it to the cutting edge of science? Standard Innovation and Lelo have just gotten themselves into a patent war. It’s like Apple vs. Samsung, with orgasms.