Originally Published in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
Last week, Kyle Machulis, the world’s leading authority in open-source teledildonics, traveled to Pittsburgh to spend a week as a resident artist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Creative Inquiry. For many, teledildonics may be an entirely foreign concept, yet engineers, software developers, and techies have been designing them for years. In fact, the term itself was coined in 1989. Put simply, teledildonics is a technology that allows one person to remotely control masturbatory aids like dildos or sheaths used by another person.
Although he’s an engineer, Machulis opened his public lecture on Thursday evening by saying, “I am artist whose medium is interactive haptics [touch].” He also emphasized this intersection between engineering and art when we met for lunch earlier in the week: “I have had ways of presenting my work over the past 14 years with an engineering focus, but my work is about more than tech. A lot of my creative voice is within this framework.”
I first encountered teledildonics in the context of online sex work, where cam models have used teledildonic toys in order to encourage customers and viewers to interact and tip. Early iterations of this were vibrators stimulated by sound, so that the chinging sound of tips hitting a model’s room on sites like Chaturbate or MyFreeCams would activate the toy. While folks also use teledildonics with long-distance partners or on their own, Machulis pointed out in his talk that camming is still “the most popular paradigm for teledildonics.”
Much of Machulis’ work sits at this intersection of teledildonics and camming. He says, “In college, I did a little programming for a couple of cam sites [in 1999 and 2000],” but adds that this experience made him realize how important it is to humanize these interfaces for cam models. “I can barely deal with cam rooms,” he comments. “Watching cam models do their jobs [on impersonal platforms] turned me onto sex workers rights.” Good teledildonic design that takes cam models and their interactions with customers seriously would move away from what he saw as the “put token in, get nudity out,” model.
Cam model and amateur porn creator Riley Scarlett has worked closely with Machulis to do just this. She says, “I used [his] software called Buttplug.io: it lets you connect your Bluetooth sex toys to video games that use a rumble controller.” Using this software, they created a program where she could connect her Domi wand (a cordless vibrator that resembles the famous Hitachi magic wand) to the game Rocket League, which she played with a handful of customers while live streaming the game. “My fan club members played Rocket League with me and they could trigger my toy’s vibration if they made a goal, hit my car, or if I ran into something/someone,” she says.
For Scarlett, this was both a pleasurable and fun experience, one that allowed her to bond with her regulars. “It was high tech sluttery that was also really funny and silly. We all enjoyed ourselves a lot whether it was sexual pleasure or laughing,” she says.
Working with cam models like Scarlett to design haptics that facilitates positive interaction in cam rooms has been one of the design challenges that fuels Machulis’ desire to do the work he is doing. Throughout the process, he continually asks himself: “How can we provide pleasure to a player on the other end of the game through this interface?” This, it turns out, is the art of haptics.