In mainstream culture, the discussion about sex toys has shifted from whispers at brunch to, well, an actual conversation. Just a few years ago, erotic products were relegated to back-alley shops and bottom drawers. Now they're winning prestigious design awards, part of bestselling books and blockbuster films (thanks, E. L. James), and are so discrete that they're worthy of outright display. Even Oprah's got a page on her site dedicated to "intimate basics."
Journalist Rita Orrell noticed the burgeoning sex tech revolution a few years ago when she was researching products to feature in her blog, Designythings. It started with a trio of vibrators by fuseproject for Jimmy Jane. "Here's a major industrial designer doing work for Jawbone, One Laptop Per Child, and Sodastream—mainstream consumer products—and also knocking out these three vibrators," Orrell says. "They were modern and beautiful—something you could have on your bedside table."
In her new book, Objects of Desire (Schiffer, 2015), Orrell documents some of the most advanced sex tech invented in recent years, chronicling how designers, retailers, and marketers have shifted the cultural perception of these items.
"You have to evaluate sex toys as you would any industrial design object," Orrell says. "They can't just be beautiful things—they have to have a certain level of functionality." That means considering the nascent material science and hardware breakthroughs that contributed to many of those products, like the shift to wireless power in lieu of bulky batteries. "The big change was the use of silicone as a material," Orrell says. "The movement from toxic to body-safe materials really propelled the industry forward. These more beautiful high-end toys were not seen as novelties."
While Orrell includes dozens of toys in the book, we asked her to share seven of the most innovative items. "The technology comes from other industries, but erotic products are among of the first adopters," she says of the devices that have many of the same nuts and bolts as iPhones, smartwatches, and fitness trackers (but are way more fun).
Bluemotion wearable vibrator by OhMiBod
When we talk about wearable tech, it's rarely in the context of sex toys. The Bluemotion ($129) is a Bluetooth enabled, app-controlled clitoral vibrator that's shaped like a panty liner and designed to be worn. Users can pair it with their smartwatch or smartphone to operate it. The Bluemotion comes with preset vibrations, an option to use an accelerometer-based control, and the ability to create custom vibrations by tapping the app's on-screen interface. "This is where app-controlled devices are going—to create a truly custom experience for the user," Orrell says. "People have different needs and every vibration doesn't work for everyone."
Onyx and Pearl by Kiroo
Developed by the Dutch company Kiroo, this male masturbator—the Onyx—and female vibrator—the Pearl—work in tandem for couples to use. They're part of an emerging genre of toys called teledildonics, which are made for remote sex, and they use capacitive touch technology (the same tech that's probably inside your laptop's track pad) to allow one user to control the other's device.
"What's interesting about this is it's an immersive experience that supports video and audio—you can Skype with each other while using the toys," Orrell says. "It is where phone sex has evolved to. You're feeling a sensation created by your partner and are able to react through video and audio."
kGoal smart kegel trainer by Minna Life
A finalist in Fast Company's 2015 Innovation by Design Awards, the kGoal boost uses app-controlled vibrations to incentivize and track the efficacy of pelvic floor exercises. "What's most interesting to me are the products that have a medical use as well," Orrell says. Squeeze correctly, and users are rewarded with vibrations. "Sometimes you don't know if you're doing it right. The point isn't to bring a user to orgasm, but to make it pleasurable."
Hum Artificially Intelligent Vibrator by Dimensional Industries
Designed by two physicists and a cocktail waitress turned "biohacker," this vibrator uses artificial intelligence to analyze the feedback from a user's body and respond. "The most interesting product in the vibrator category is the Hum, which is the first artificially intelligent vibrator," Orrell says. "It has an incredibly complex system that uses thousands of lines of code to analyze the feedback of your body and responds in sync to draws out and accentuates an orgasm—it knows when you're getting an organism and tries to make it better."
The device was funded on IndieGoGo last year, and Orrell sees potential for the technology to be integrated with sex dolls. "This is the beginning of robotic sex," she says. "We're at the beginning stages of fully functioning sex robots."
Mod open-source vibrator by Comingle
Orrell describes this as a DIY vibrator for the sex-tech geek that wants to hack their own toy. Made by an Atlanta-based company, the open-source device can be operated with custom apps or "plug-and-play controllers that sync it with your partner’s heartbeat, connect it to your smartphone, or even change intensity based on movement in a video call," Orrell writes.
Flex vibrator by Crave
Another emerging design trend? Using beta testers to develop a better final product, as is quite common in other product design industries. Take Flex: to develop this vibrator's settings, the product's designers crowd-sourced information. Beta testers recorded the vibrations that they liked the most and the designers aggregated the data—using it to inform the settings on the final product. "People are having a say in what they want," Orrell says.
Vibease wearable clitoral stimulator
Controlled by an app, this wearable, waterproof, seamless toy can vibrate in sync with erotic audiobooks. Orrell writes: "Vibease offers a 'fantasy marketplace' via the app where users can experience different vibrations in response to the content of a particular fantasy story they hear through their headphones."
Throughout Objects of Desire, the emphasis is on the sheer diversity of designs—and inclusivity of all use cases. Orrell intended the book to be for for anyone of any gender or orientation, covering products like the Semenette—an anatomically correct dildo developed by a lesbian couple that allows for a more natural insemination process—and the Pulse II "guybrator," which helps men with erectile dysfunction and those who have mobility issues.
"I hope that people are excited about the products they see in the book and understand that product design and sexuality are integral to each other," she says. "It's important to design products for pleasure, it's not just for novelty or for a certain type of person—these are products everyone can use. I hope people learn about themselves and their bodies and are inspired to learn more. I also hope designers are inspired to perhaps come up with new designs and people find the book a beautiful experience—and possibly an enjoyable experience if they end up purchasing something they read about."
Visit objectsofdesirebook.com to order.
All Photos: courtesy Schiffer