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Robots, VR and the future of male masturbators

Engadget Engadget 6/06/2016 Christopher Trout
© Provided by Engadget © Provided by Engadget

In my time as a human with a penis, I've penetrated more inanimate objects than I care to admit.

NSFW Warning: This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts.

There were pillows, mattresses, bottles, a couple of cuts of raw meat and even a vacuum. Yes, sometime not long after I discovered the wonders of masturbation, I attempted to have sex with a vacuum and it turned out about as well as you might imagine.

When I was a kid, masturbation was an adventure in engineering. As I've come of age, however, so has the sex-toy market. After centuries of ejaculating into whatever we can find, a seemingly robust market has sprouted up around male-masturbation aids. With the promise of sex robots and fully immersive VR on the horizon, manufacturers are finding new and engaging ways to embrace the dick.

Over the course of the past two months, I've had sex with a crowdfunded "blowjob robot,"fucked myself with the help of teledildonics and had my fair share of VR porn experiences. Sex shops sell celebrity pocket pussies, just-the-tip vibrators and silicone sex sleeves in increasing numbers. A new breed of masturbators, pump, suck, stroke and connect to the internet like sexualized IoT appliances, playing on the promise of fully autonomous lovers.

Despite all of the innovation in male masturbation, I've yet to find a sperm catcher as appealing as my left hand. So, why, all of a sudden, is the sex-toy industry so focused on the dick? In my quest to get a grasp on the rise of the male masturbator I found that the recent influx has a long history and a potentially rich future.

"If you ask guys: hey, do you want a machine that makes your penis feel good, the answer will nearly always be yes." -- Brian Sloan, Autoblow

As Anthony Ferguson points out in The Sex Doll:A History, the first known sex dolls -- precursors to today's pocket pussies and tomorrow's sexbots -- appeared during the 17th century. Long stints at sea led some very resourceful sailors to create life-size sex dolls out of cloth, that they then shared among their shipmates.

Ferguson writes that the earliest manufactured sex dolls -- expensive, hand-made inflatables -- likely appeared in France during the turn of the 20th century. Advertisements from that era even refer to full-bodied figures with "phonographic attachments" to give the devices voices, and an "apparatus" to give their limbs movement. The iconic flat-faced blowup doll apparently appeared in the 1970s, but its wasn't until the end of the 20th century that the flesh-like silicone figures we see today started to take shape.

Perhaps the most obvious descendant of these early sex toys is the RealDoll, intricately detailed silicone mannequins made to order for deep-pocketed fetishists. While these lifelike sexual aids may not be for everyone, there's a whole new wave of male masturbators democratizing dick tickling. Brian Sloan, the man behind the "blowjob robot" Kickstarter success story, the Autoblow 2, attributes the boom in male sex toys at least in part to the affordability of materials like silicone.

"Customers are coming to expect quality materials in sex toys. The stuff that the big 'founding' sex-toy companies in the US got away with selling in the '80s and '90s and even still, to some extent, today is pretty disgusting," Sloan said.

Ferguson cites three types of sex dolls: vinyl novelty toys with painted-on faces; heavier though still awkward latex toys; and the more realistic and forgiving silicone figures that can take the shape of a full human or just part of the body, such as with porn-star branded vaginal or anal molds. The majority of today's male masturbators, including the Autoblow 2, are made in-part or in whole from silicone that mimics lifeless human flesh.

Sloan produces and directly markets a number of different sex toys, but it's the Autoblow 2 -- a large canister-like device with a silicone sleeve at its center and a small, fleshy mouth to stick your dick in -- that has captured the public's attention. He has sold 90,000 units since August 2014, despite the device's outsize proportions, dependency on an outlet to function and a sound that its maker compares to windshield wipers.

"I created a device that finally gave men the chance to experience something they'd all envisioned for years while using their hands or the more traditional devices," Sloan said. "If you ask guys: 'Hey, do you want a machine that makes your penis feel good?' The answer will nearly always be yes."

"Let's face it: Any time a new technology is introduced into society, it's not long until someone finds a way to connect it to sex." -- Sherri L. Shaulis, AVN

Sloan's machine, while still relatively rudimentary, has benefited from material technologies and the promise of human-like robotic lovers.

"For me at least, the next steps are working on robotic features that are more human-like in their movement styles, and to innovate on the materials that come into contact with your penis to make those more human-like as well," Sloan said.

He dismisses the power of virtual reality to have a great impact on the male sex toy market, pointing to the expense of current hardware, but many in the industry see VR as a driving force.

"Let's face it: Any time a new technology is introduced into society, it's not long until someone finds a way to connect it to sex," Sherri L. Shaulis, senior editor of pleasure products for Adult Video News (AVN), said. "For the past few years, we've seen a wave of app-driven sex toys but most of those were vibrators geared toward women. Now, companies are pairing strokers/masturbators with VR porn to give men a truly immersive experience."

Shaulis points out that sex-toy sales are hard to quantify, despite reports of massive growth like those in a recent Broadly story. Anecdotally speaking, however, she's seen a big shift in dick-centric pleasure products, driven at least in part by virtual reality.

"Most manufacturers and retailers keep their numbers close to the vest," Shaulis said. "But I can attest to the fact that sex toys geared toward men -- especially masturbators/strokers -- are getting a lot more attention these days from manufacturers. With the increased focus recently on VR porn, many manufacturers are trying to capitalize on that, and the easiest way to do that is to create products that allow men to masturbate while viewing and 'experiencing' VR adult content."

Tenga, a pioneer of male masturbators, has sold 47 million toys since its launch in 2005 and has seen year-over-year growth every year since, according to Eddie Marklew, the brand's global marketing manager. Tenga was founded on the idea of quality design and materials, and while it has its sights set on the future, its product lineup mostly consists of low-tech, high-design male masturbators. Marklew says advancements like teleldildonics and virtual reality hold a lot of promise for the industry, but Tenga's sole focus is on a simple user experience.

"Right now, the technology is not quite up to the level it needs to be to become anything beyond a gimmick, so we have no concrete plans for a teledildonics line just yet," Marklew said. "That said, you can be sure we have our finger on the pulse for the latest tech innovations and our R&D team are constantly coming up with new ideas to take advantage of any advancements."

Like Marklew, Sloan sees the power of simplicity when it comes to male desire. Like most things in consumer technology, we want the stuff we stick our dicks into to just work. Some of the most successful male sex toys on the market today are simple silicone reproductions of porn stars' orifices. There's no doubt the promise of sex robots and fully immersive pornography have had an impact on male sex toys, but as the history of the sex doll bears out, men are simple creatures looking for simple human contact. When that's not available, they'll go for the next best thing.

"As interesting and fast-growing as the market is for higher-end-technology-oriented male-masturbation products, I gotta admit that we sell many thousands of traditional fake vaginas every year," Sloan said, "Some guys just enjoy getting on top of something that vaguely resembles a vagina and having their way with it."

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