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Joy Stick: The Tarnished Dreams of Teledildonics' Inventor 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2015
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Roxxxy sits on an ugly floral couch. Her lingerie is hot pink. Her stockings require no garters. Her nails and lips are red.

"I come fully loaded with my standard personality, which is matched as closely to my master's as possible," Roxxxy coos. "If he or she likes cars, I like cars. If they are into accounting, math, or football, then so am I. Some people have called me the perfect wife."

As a $7,000 sex robot sold by True Companion LLC ("All three entries have special sensors and motors which create a truly unforgettable erotic experience!"), Roxxxy is the cutting edge of sexual technology. She's a wifi-enabled, artificially intelligent, perpetually willing fuck machine. She's also more than a little creepy, tawdry, and, as one 70-year-old sexual technology innovator puts it, "a load of crap."

"You don't need a robot," How Wachspress, the 70-year-old in question, says by phone. "These big fucking machines with hydraulics — they're so crude. It's just suck and fuck kind of stuff, which is boring. Eroticism is barely understood."

It didn't have to be this way, according to Wachspress. Forty-five years ago, the Brooklyn-born inventor introduced San Francisco to an entirely new kind of sexual technology and, in doing so, helped inspire the field of what is now known as teledildonics. "In the history of humanity, nobody has produced anything close to this," Wachspress says, "but the business world is dumb."

In 1972, Wachspress debuted the device he and others have variously called an Auditac Sonic Stimulator, a Teletac, a Sonic Dildo, or (per his 1973 patent application) an "Audiotactile Stimulation and Communication System." He demonstrated the device at Sexual Attitude Restructuring seminars, held in the basement of GLIDE Church, and later at the Orphanage rock club in North Beach.

"All kinds of people would come up and have sex with the machines," Wachspress recalls. "There was one for the boys and one for the girls, and they would attach it to their business. One of the hookers told me, 'It ain't love, but it's the best sex I've ever had.'"

Wachspress' machine wasn't your standard vibrator or dildo. He invented a way for humans to "hear" sound through their skin. Music or other sounds were converted into pressure that could stimulate any part of the body. "The Beatles on your back. Bartok on your belly. Beethoven between your legs," one of his flyers boasted.

There are no more Sonic Stimulators in existence (although Wachspress promises he could "whip one up in a jiffy" if need be; these days he relies on tuning forks and light paint brushes for personal use), but images of the early prototypes look simple enough: a speaker attached to a hose with what looks like the business end of a toilet plunger on the end. As crude as that may sound, Wachspress' invention intrigued a generation still attuned to the 60s' sexual radicalism and "anything goes" ethos.

Word first spread via an article in the London Evening Standard. "The difference between How's invention and a vibrator, apart from an impressive display of gadgetry, is that a vibrator cannot whisper: 'I love you,'" Australian journalist Richard Neville wrote in September 1972. In March 1973, Oui (a pornographic magazine owned by Hugh Hefner that targeted a younger audience than Playboy) ran a five-page feature by writer Patrick Carr, titled, "The Sonic Dildo: At Last the No-Contact Orgasm," that focused on the author's sexual experience with the invention.

Soon after, Wachspress was the subject of a Rolling Stone profile (accompanied by photographs of a semi-nude model applying the device to various parts of her body, as well as a suggested "stroke parade" playlist) and began hosting press demos with an actress serving as guinea pig. "At the suggestion of some male chauvinist reporter, she then placed one of the cups over each (clothed) breast," the Los Angeles Times reported. "'Outrageous,' murmured Miss Montgomery. 'Who needs men?'"

Wachspress could be coy about the sexual utility of his invention. "I'd rather not emphasize the sexual aspect as much as the Oui story did," he told Rolling Stone. "They just concentrated on one aspect. There are so many possibilities." But he also admitted that he had been thinking about sex when he first got the inspiration for the machine: "The idea of two-way tactile communication over a distance. Carrying it to its most outrageous extension, a fuck-by-phone machine." A 1976 flyer for the Auditac imagined the existence of "KDIL, Radio Dildo, in San Francisco," whose Auditac-connected listeners would call in to say, "I came twice during the first number," or "A remarkable band, especially on my inner knee."

But Wachspress didn't just excite sexual revolutionaries. His device (which received U.S. Patent No. 3,875,932 in 1975) also captivated the young pioneers then cooking up the nascent computer revolution. In his 1974 computing manifesto Computer Lib/Dream Machines, Ted Nelson (who also invented the hyperlink) coined the phrase "dildonics" in a brief section about the implications of Wachspress' invention.

"I originally hadn't intended to include anything like this in the book, wanting it to be a family-style access catalog and all that, but this particular item seems fairly important," Nelson wrote. "Wachspress' devices transpose sound (as audio signals) into feelings... 'Hyper-reality' is where he says it gets you: a point curiously congruent with the author's own notions of hypertext and hypermedia as extensions of the mental life.'"

Today, Nelson downplays his involvement in teledildonics. "The book summarized a lot of frontier fields in computers, and one of them that it was obvious was coming was sexual," he says by phone. "I thought that was an obvious application and a humorous one, so I called it 'dildonics,' and that was just one column in a 128-page book with very small type." Despite Nelson's general lack of interest in sexual technology ("I see this much more as an issue of corporate initiatives than technology," he says), "dildonics" is featured on his website as one of the (several) words he has coined.

Howard Rheingold, another technological theorist (whose own neologisms include "virtual community" and "social web"), supplied the all-important prefix in his essay "Teledildonics: Reach Out and Touch Someone," published in 1990. Rheingold, too, was inspired by Wachspress' machine, which he learned of by way of Nelson's book.

"Dildonics — it had to happen. It is the unnatural fruit of the marriage of lust and craft," Rheingold wrote. He imagined a future ("a couple decades hence") in which the Wachspress machine had been updated to a bodysuit embedded with "an array of intelligent effectors" that "receive and transmit a realistic sense of tactile presence."

"Teledildonics is inevitable given the rate of progress in the enabling technologies of shape-memory alloys, fiber-optics, and super-computing," Rheingold wrote. "Enormous market-driven forces will be unleashed when sex at a distance becomes possible... Clearly we are on the verge of a whole new semiotics of mating."

But that hasn't happened yet. Not really. Two and a half decades later, teledildonics, at least as Wachpress and Rheingold imagined it, remains in its infancy. A handful of companies are trying to bring Wi-Fi-enabled, remote-controlled sex toys to market. A Dutch company called Holland Haptics Kickstarted a device that allows you to "hold hands" with someone halfway across the world. ("They're so uptight. They don't even call it 'tactile'; they call it 'haptic,'" Wachspress says of the so-called field of haptic technology.)

But even those pale simulacrums of teledildonic possibility are under threat from an apparent patent troll. TZU Technologies LLC, a mysterious entity incorporated days before it purchased U.S. Patent No. 6,368,268, filed seven lawsuits against national and international companies working on teledildonics, thanks to its alarmingly broad patent. (The patent covers "interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks," which means, basically, any sex toy that connects to the internet.) Andrew Quitmayer, co-founder of open source vibrator company Comingle, told VICE that the cost of the patent litigation is endangering his company.

Even if companies like Comingle survive, the market for teledildonic devices is questionable. The Auditac never took off commercially. "It was not a money maker," Wachpress says, and working with speaker companies was a challenge. "They could accept audio, but nothing that looks like a sex machine. The slightest hint of a sex machine, and the Hi Fi geeky people run for the hills."

Johannes Grenzfurthner, an artist, writer, and the head of the Arse Elektronika conference on sex and technology (which will host its ninth year in San Francisco this October), still holds out hope for innovation in audio sex tech. "A vibrator or a basic sex machine — it's all very 19th century technology," he says. "I mean, that stuff would have been doable in 1870 or 1840. There's so much more possibility. Using audio to create certain sensations in your body is one aspect." Another, Grenzfurthner says, is products that incorporate smell.

"It's hard to introduce completely new concepts, especially if you're doing it as a startup," Grenzfurthner says, but he's still hopeful that human ingenuity (and kinkiness) will prevail. "It's always bad to say revolution in this context, but there might be something just around the corner and we don't even know about it."

For his part, Wachspress has devoted most of the last 40 years to his other chief interest: aeronautics. He received a patent for a "free flying magnetic levitator" in 1989 (this is verified) and says he began working off the books for various branches of the government with help from a former Air Force officer who served as his handler and "funneled money" to him (this is not verified).

Wachspress is vague about his clandestine work, saying only that it involved producing demonstrations, attending meetings, and writing technical reports in his areas of expertise. He blames his reticence on "unofficial gag orders" from the powers that be and refused to be photographed for this story.

"My survival depends on the fact that most people don't know who I am," he says.

But Wachspress hasn't abandoned his dream of the Sonic Stimulator. "I'm still open to the possibilities," he says. "If you've got someone who wants to take this up, I'd say OK. I'm hot to trot. If anything comes from this, let me know."

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Johannes Grenzfurthner's last name. We regret the error.


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About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

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Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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