SexTechHack 2017 is behind us, and I’m very sad about it. Hacksmiths has organized this event twice now, and each time I felt like I was immersed in an awesome group of very different people who are nonetheless determined to be as open-minded and accepting towards each-other as humanly possible. It’s a cold wake-up call to the real world, where sexuality and intimacy are often still something to be laughed at or whisper about.
I am of course particularly interested in embodiment and multi-sensory experiences, and it turned out many other people were as well. I found kindred spirits in Miki Chiu and Oli Lipski, who both understood that being a cloud that people walk through sounded like a very sensual experience (I get the impression that this is one of these things that’s hard to explain, some people just get it and others look at you like you’re crazy).
Thinking about social embodiment, we discussed how especially interesting and exciting it is to explore the body of a new intimate partner for the first time. All the new freckles and wrinkles, the round and the pointy bits, the scars and other signs of lived-in skin. The smell and the taste of a human body that, though similar, is still always different from the other ones, always unique in both appearance and response. Figuring out what the sensitive bits are, and – if the intimacy lasts beyond a night – slowly drawing the map of your partners body in your mind, until you almost know their body as well as you know your own.
Then we started talking about masturbation. I’m personally of the opinion that masturbation is kind of boring, a sentiment that was very clearly NOT shared by many of my fellow hackers. But what our group did agree on was that it can often be very focused on genitals and the quickest road to orgasm. What if you could somehow bottle some of that new relationship energy, some of that wonder of discovering a new body, and apply it to your own? What if you could have fully immersive sex with yourself?
We’re not talking about hooking up with your clone here, nor about VR sex with an avatar that looks like you (although I’d actually be surprised if no-one tried the latter yet?). We were thinking more in terms of dispersed arousal, a bit more unfocused, like the aforementioned cloud.
If you’ve ever had a wet dream, I’d like you to think about the kind of body you had in that dream – was it humanoid? Was it very clear and defined, or kind of fuzzy around the edges? Were the proportions the same, or did it feel like certain elements (like erogenous zones) were enlarged or otherwise more present? Thinking about Dr. Kate Devlin’s ideas on abstract sex robots, we considered stepping out of the humanoid – disembodiment instead of embodiment. The objectification of our own body into almost an anti-object, something that is hardly there at all. We considered the myth of Danaë, mother of Perseus, who was shut into an underground cellar but still seduced by Zeus, who came to her disguised as a shower of golden rain (kinky). Of all Zeus’ disguises (bull, ant, eagle, bear…) this one ties with the flame of fire as the most disperse form – and somehow the most sensuous. We imagined the raindrops falling on your body one by one, like the iconic rose-petal scene in American Beauty, soft touches on different parts of you.
Another thing we considered was a specific, relatively new type of embodiment illusion – the voice illusion. Like the well-known rubber hand illusion (where a seen rubber hand is stroked at the same time as the hidden real hand), it uses multi-sensory integration to give you brain the idea that the artificial body-part is your own. In this case, the body-part is your voice, and the illusion is established by listening to a recording of a voice while feeling vibro-tactile feedback on your throat. Myself and others are currently studying it more thoroughly, but at the time most existing research (Banakou & Slater, 2014) used a normal talking voice as the ‘rubber voice’. This introduces a lot of error – while talking, your tongue, lips and cheeks are moving, but this motor feedback is absent in the illusion. I hypothesized that using non-articulated feedback could be more effective. Moaning is a great example of not necessarily articulated vocal behavior, and it has the added benefit of often being almost involuntary and not consciously coordinated.
All of this together resulted in SucCUMb – The Amazing Multi-Sensory Masturbation Experience. Envisioned as a full-body experience, where you lie down and look into a ‘magic mirror’ above you. There you see your own body, but the visual image is augmented. Sometimes parts become unfocused, unreal. Sometimes parts become enhanced, hyper-focused. You see soft virtual petals or raindrops touching your body in the mirror, and vibration motors in your blanket make this experience multi-sensory. You hear soft moaning and a vibration motor on your throat suggests that this sound is coming from you. You could even go further beyond the visuals and add smells, or a fan that disperses your body into smoke.
Of course, we wanted to make a prototype of this experience. For this prototype, we decided to focus on three multi-sensory experiences:
– Motor to visual
– Visual to vibrotactile
– Audio to vibrotactile
Motor to visual
To translate the body and its movements to a virtual mirror-body, we used a Kinect sensor and a simple Processing sketch. The body of the user was tracked and translated to the abstracted body on the screen. The body we made was a simple stick-figure with some delays that made it look like smoke, but you could also envision bodies made of clouds or fire. The combination of visuals and the motor feedback of body-movement were meant to create an embodiment illusion, so that the virtual body felt like your own reflection.
Visual to vibrotactile
We bought a soft woolen scarf and attached a whole bunch of vibration motors to it. The motors were linked – via an Adafruit Feather board – to the Processing sketch. Randomly, circular ripples would appear on the virtual body, and the vibration motor located on that spot would vibrate, thus creating the illusion that virtual touches on the screen interacted with your real body. The ripples could of course be replaced by rose petals or rain-drops.
Audio to vibrotactile
We found an open-source collection of moaning sounds on Tumbler (I can’t seem to find the exact link anymore, but there seem to be multiple options), and again using Processing and the Adafruit board, connected it to a vibration motor in the scarf, placed at the throat. The code was quite simple – if the audio-signal surpassed a certain volume, the motor turned on. This combined feedback should create a type of voice illusion, giving you the feeling that YOU are making the sounds!
SexTechHack 2 was again great fun and there were so many cool projects, including a sensuous experience with a responsive bed that would combine great with the scarf! We were lucky enough to win in the Intimacy category. Many different people tried our scarf and seeing their reaction to especially the voice illusion (often one of sudden shock and almost embarrassment – ‘Did I just make that sound?’) convinced me more than ever that something interesting was there, inspiring my further PhD-research. Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be able to tell you more on how exactly this neat little illusion works.