Touch Goes High-Tech

The Sunday Morning Herald
It's an average week night. Behind closed doors in his office, a young executive dons a lightweight spandex suit, straps on a pair of goggles and gloves, and sits back. With the push of a button, Cindy Crawford, or perhaps Naomi Campbell, attends to his every sexual whim.

Welcome to the world of teledildonics, one of the most revolutionary and sophisticated forms of sexual recreation the world has ever seen. A high-tech blend of virtual reality (VR) and real-life caresses, teledildonics promises to be more than the ultimate sexual experience, delivered electronically. It aims to change the world, or at least the way we look at it

o Without the constraints of the physical world, teledildonics allows such extraordinary acts as sexual play with gender shifting--people can experience what it's like to be the opposite sex by experimenting mentally, rather than physically or surgically.

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o Further blurring the already fuzzy line between fantasy and reality, and perhaps creating a new class of schizophrenics, teledildonics also allows users to try on different personalities, perversions, and physical appearances--just for the thrill of it.

o Because virtual reality incorporates seeing, hearing, and touching, we are forced to develop new concepts of reality and of consciousness.

While the virtual antics of Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basserr in the recent film Strange Days may have seemed like products of the screenwriter's overworked imagination, the unstoppable progress of modern technology is making accessible, easy-to-use virtual reality a, well, reality. VR products are beginning to enter the marketplace, and development of virtual equipment has been stepped up by ambitious entrepreneurs. No longer can skeptics write off VR as wishful thinking, more appropriate fodder for science fiction writers than academics.

The name itself is a contradiction. Virtual means something imagined, ephemeral, while reality is concrete and highly definable. However, current technology is shifting the definitions of these two words, forcing a reevaluation of the human experience.

One of the distinguishing features of VR is that it completely captures the user, tricks him or her, you might say, through complete sensory immersion, into believing that an unreal world is in fact reality. Unlike television or theater, which attempt to suspend the viewer's disbelief through methods grounded in reality, VR assaults sensory perceptions, destroying the barriers between fantasy and the conscious perception of it. In layman's terms, one cannot tell the difference.

And if one cannot tell the difference, then who is to say which reality is more "real"? At this point the fantasy isn't a virtual one anymore, but an alternate one.

Videogame giant Nintendo was quick to realize the potential of VR, recently introducing a shoot-'em-up game system called Virtual Boy. More sophisticated equipment is available from a number of mail-order and high-end technology outlets, for anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000.

Of course, where there is the selling of fantasy, the fiercely competitive selling of sex can not be far behind. Teledildonics, in the simplest terms, is like a video game, for mature audiences only. Two people (at any remove from each other) are recommended, although one person can play with the computer as partner.

Both participants need a full complement of VR equipment--bodysuit, gloves, goggles--which is then connected to a computer system. It, in turn, creates and makes possible the virtual world and the audio, visual, and tactile sensations that the users feel. The VR equipment is programmed to transmit a real-life stimulus in reaction to a virtual action.

Peering through miniature screens inside their goggles, both partners find themselves in a virtual environment of their own choosing or creation (anything from simple colors to complicated landscapes is possible), and see virtual representations of each other. Participants receive sensations whenever and wherever their partners (real or imagined) touch them (actually, their virtual representation), courtesy of the bodysuit, which is constructed with a layer of electronic connectors.

As Cindy undresses the young executive, he strokes her body and feels its shape under his fingers. As his real-world excitement builds (heavy breathing is permitted but not yet transmitted), he caresses (the virtual representation of) his partner wherever he wants, and receives an actual sensation in return through the bodysuit.

The current state of technology is such that there is little tact yet in tactile. The sensations are still rudimentary-closer to mild electrical shocks than caresses. As technology improves, of course, sensations will become more refined: a kiss will linger, a slap will sting. Absent the capacity to realistically mimic sensory experience, teledildonics is nothing more than a terribly expensive, high-tech, X-rated videotape. And the sexual experience is just an advanced form of masturbation.

More than any other medium, teledildonics promises to truly put beauty into the eye of the beholder. Before starting, partners can choose and customize their bodies, leaving physical appearance completely up to their imagination.

Blending technology, graphic design, and animation, the representations can range from fairly realistic to totally off the wall. For example, you'd like to "date" a partner with the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the face of Keanu Reeves? Simple. You'd like to be female instead of male? No problem. Black instead of white? Easy as the press of a button. Users get to externalize and advance the kinds of fantasies they have all the time during sex.

The average man will never know what it's like to be female--unless, of course, he's aided by serious medical procedures and hormones, and even then the results are not always guaranteed. Like no other medium, virtual reality lends itself to all types of sexual and gender experimentation, without the commitment to permanence. Put on a pair of goggles and your new "virtual" body is that of a physically fit, medium build, 26-year-old brunette, and maybe that will add to your pleasure.

Uncoupled from the necessity to confront physical boundaries, users are fully free to explore the byways of personality and identity. "The opportunities for gender exploration--and hopefully, increased sexual tolerance--are enormous," observes Glenn Cartwright, Ph.D., professor of psychology at McGill University, who teaches a course on "Consciousness and Virtual Reality." "What's it really like to be the other sex? With virtual gender-swapping we might come closer to finding out." While the switch is only virtual, it is a step toward better understanding between the sexes.

Of course, as with most good things, VR can be abused, although the issue does not crease the brow of marketers. Nevertheless, it hovers at the edge of cyberspace: What happens when we voluntarily step into an alluring, machine-made, alternate reality--and surrender contact with the real world? Sexual pleasure is a powerful reinforcer, the big hook. How will we deal with users who won't, or can't, return to their average lives? Will there be a new class of schizophrenics who are simply jacked-in forever?

"There are many Americans who already can't distinguish between fantasy and reality," observes Jack Levin, Ph.D., professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. "VR is a more sophisticated form of optical illusion." It's not uncommon, for example, for fans to send flowers to the weddings of their favorite soap opera stars, or to threaten and harass particularly villainous ones.

The division between virtual reality and reality will be even harder to distinguish. While some suspension of reality is quite normal with most media, virtual reality may be too convincing.

Unlike movies or television shows, VR has no defined beginning or end. There is nothing forcing users to return to the real world, making it a tempting escape for those with unpleasant realities beyond their goggles. "We try to hide from ourselves," Levin points out.

The Mask, a Hollywood comedy about the dangers of realizing your wildest fantasies, characterized some of the problems--dissociation, depression-- associated with assuming an all-powerful alter-ego. Substitute a pair of VR goggles for actor Jim Carrey's bouncing green maniac, and the movie's surreal fiction becomes the user's personal virtual reality--or nightmare.

Voicing concern about the implications of virtual reality for the human psyche, McGill's Cartwright uncannily echoes warnings by critics of pornography, violent movies, and most recently, gangsta rap. There are certain acts that our society rightly fears, whether they get played out in reality or remain as someone's fantasy. "What if a person's fantasy is to kill people, or their sexual fetish is violent and bizarre?" he muses. "Should we be happy if they act these out in virtual reality instead of reality?

1A person can murder an infinite number of victims in virtual reality. How long will it take for the virtual act to not be enough, and for a VR user to go out and do the real thing?"

The scope of VR may be as limitless as the human imagination, but the many uses of virtual reality, and especially teledildonics, will bring with them a whole new world of technologically induced trauma and disorientation and, subsequently, therapy. Although some people have always had reality problems, teledildonics actually has a fairly tangible alternate reality to call its own. How to convince someone who has a brilliant and rich virtual world to dwell in, that his or her mundane and often ugly reality is necessary?

Teledildonics will also spur psychology to grapple with the concept of consciousness, says Cartwright. "VR will force people to reexamine what it means to be conscious of your environment. If seeing, hearing, and touching are attributes of the virtual world, reality can no longer be defined as what we see, hear, or touch."

Teledildonics is only one of the forms of cybersex currently available. Like the others, it promises to be what pornographic videos are today: just another sexual aid. And like any aid, it can't replace the act. What it can do is help people figure out likes and dislikes, create an atmosphere, explore sexuality, or simply satisfy a curiosity (are you absolutely sure you like being tied up?)

Teledildonics won't necessarily make your love life wildly different; after all, what you do with it depends on the scope of your desire. Nevertheless, if your imagination is vivid, teledildonics can be used as an easy, safe way to explore your most secret desire, leaving you both more satisfied and more knowledgeable about yourself. It's definitely the safest sex around.

The Internet is overflowing with sexually-oriented discussion groups, chat lines, and libraries. A brief glance in any video or computer store will demonstrate that CD-ROM manufacturers have also caught on; flooding the market with various "interactive" pornography, as well as instructional discs like Dr. Ruth's Encyclopedia of Sex.

"Every medium that gives good information and that you can use to make your sex life better and safer is a good thing," states Ruth Westheimer, Ph.D., a.k.a. Dr. Ruth, the sex therapist, radio personality, and author of Sex for Dummies. "If virtual reality can help prevent diseases such as AIDS, or access a younger generation, then by all means, all of the technology should be used."

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A man and a woman.

Photographs by Everard Williams

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