Heads up! I must warn you this article is likely NSFW – unfortunate, because it’s an important business story and addresses one of the primary business drivers for the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as other significant areas of technology innovation. But just as pornography quietly drove the initial growth of the videocassette recorder business and the World Wide Web itself, virtual sex is both leveraging and driving the development of several cutting-edge technologies, regardless of whether the topic offends our sensibilities.

Remember, whenever people are willing to pay for a product or service, there is a business opportunity, and someone will capitalize on it. But the business importance of virtual sex only begins with the short-term opportunity. Just as VCRs were too expensive for the consumer market until porn consumers drove up demand, virtual sex will lead to similarly cost-reducing economies of scale for many IoT and other technologies.

Today’s story, however, is not about pornography. The virtual sex marketplace is surprisingly diverse and innovative, reaching into many dark corners of the IoT and beyond. Let’s shine some light and explore the real business story of virtual sex technology.

Virtual Sex Historical Trends

The intersection of virtual sex and the IoT is predictably a recent phenomenon, but virtual sex without the modern high-tech angle has been around for years. The rise of plastics in the mid-20th century led to dramatic growth of the artificial person or “party doll” market. There are even stories that the Axis powers in World War II developed such devices for their soldiers, although examples apparently do not survive and the stories may be myths.

Plastics also led to the rise of artificial genitalia – both male and female. These devices were originally non-electric. The addition of batteries and small motors later added to the appeal of these devices. And while men are the primary consumer of virtual sex devices, women have always been a significant segment of the market, and remain so as the technology becomes increasingly high tech.

The third contributing trend to the IoT virtual sex story is the rise of telesex or “phone sex.” The advent of premium-rate telephone numbers in the 1970s launched this market. When online credit card processing became practical in the 1990s, telesex quickly branched out to the Web. Much of today’s IoT virtual sex story is essentially the next generation of telesex.

Japanese Influence

Virtual Sex: The Unspoken Driver of IoT Innovation 1

This particular Japanese service offers cuddling for $80/hr

Innovation in virtual sex today largely comes from Japan, as they have the unusual combination of advanced high technology capabilities as well as a unique sexual culture that much of the rest of the world – both east and west – find difficult to understand. Japanese millennials are delaying or refusing marriage, often preferring artificial sexual and emotional experiences to real ones. From professional cuddlers (for both men and women) to a sexualized Manga comic fascination, Japan sets the bar for innovative artificial sex for the rest of the world.

The Japanese artificial person market has predictably advanced over the last few years, with the advent of hyper-realistic silicone models. These advanced sex toys can cost several thousands of dollars, yet nevertheless find a willing market among both well-heeled men and women in Japan. Not coincidentally, the humanoid robot market in Japan has similarly advanced. Today, the combination of the two: mechanized full-size silicone sex toys with a level of artificial intelligence that enables them to simulate human behavior. Such sex robots are still mostly the stuff of science fiction (remember Westworld?) – for now, but expect this market to explode as the technology improves.

The Japanese also drive innovation by combining videogame technology, virtual reality (VR), and artificial genitalia. Today, the video component of this amalgamation is more cartoony than realistic – but as a large segment of Japanese artificial sex consumers prefer Manga-centric fantasies in any case, the cartoon nature of this technology is actually a positive quality for this audience. Expect the realism to increase as this market expands internationally.

What the IoT Brings to the Table

Many of the advances in virtual sex technology predictably focus on aiding masturbation. The IoT, in contrast, allows two (or potentially more) people to interact with each other virtually. Two separate business models are driving this new remote virtual sex market: the professional telesex business (think phone sex only with VR added) and the “two consenting adults” couples business.

While professional telesex is still essentially a facilitated masturbation aid, couples-oriented telesex is bidirectional, and centers more on the emotional needs of the participants than the sexual desires, especially when one or both of the participants is female. As a result, couples-oriented telesex is less centered on artificial genitalia, and instead both incorporates and drives a wide variety of haptic and other virtual interaction technologies.

The haptic (touch-oriented) technology story is the most advanced, with various types of hand-centric or full body haptic interfaces in various stages of development. Hand-centric haptic technology has been in development for years in the telemedicine industry (among others), and as a result, sophisticated touch sensors and force-feedback mechanisms are now available for virtual sex applications as well.

Full-body haptic technology is a newer trend. Anyone who has played a game like World of Warcraft or a first-person shooter with VR goggles has wondered what the game experience would be like if the player were able to walk and use weapons by moving the appropriate parts of their bodies. Add touch sensors and force-feedback mechanisms to the mix so that virtual objects feel and react like real ones, and the videogame experience becomes truly immersive. Combining such game-oriented technology with haptic artificial genitalia is an obvious innovation that many vendors are looking to exploit.

Virtual sex technology, however, doesn’t stop with touch. Researchers are also working on virtual smell and taste technologies, and in fact combining such advancements with highly sensitive haptic interfaces for novel devices like kissing machines. Such devices require both a combination of different senses as well as bilateral control, where both parties are able to control the devices on their end while receiving responses from their remote partner.

Beyond Simple Gratification

While male sexual self-stimulation is at the heart of virtual sex now and for the foreseeable future, the fact that a significant percent of the consumers of this technology are women, and furthermore, the gratification people seek from such devices is emotional as well as sexual, illustrates that there is more to virtual sex than most people would expect.

From the perspective of the healthcare industry, technology solutions for people who have lost aspects of their normal sexual functioning is a godsend for them and their patients. Just as prosthetic arms and legs can replace much of the functionality of the limbs they replace, virtual sex can help substitute for not only the physical elements of sex but also the emotional and intellectual aspects as well.

A happy, healthy sex life is a crucial part of being a healthy, happy adult, and we can rest assured that technology is moving to fill this important void for those individuals who would otherwise lead an incomplete life.

This article was written by Forbes author Jason Bloomberg. Image credit: Steve Snodgrass.

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