Make it So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction - "Sex with Technology"

Here's an exclusive excerpt from Make it So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel.

Many designers enjoy the interfaces seen in science fiction films and television shows. Freed from the rigorous constraints of designing for real users, sci-fi production designers develop blue-sky interfaces that are inspiring, humorous, and even instructive. By carefully studying these "outsider" user interfaces, designers can derive lessons that make their real-world designs more cutting edge and successful.

Sex with Technology

Another category of sex-related interfaces consists of people having sex with technology in some form. When such sex technology is physical, it can range in appearance from mechanistic devices to being nearly indistinguishable from sex with a real person.


Sex devices are rare in the survey, with only two examples. Both are depicted as dystopian. In the first example, THX-1138, the oppressive state has provided technology to address and control citizens’ basic needs for sexual release.

At home after a hard day at work, THX-1138 sits down on a couch and turns on a volumetric projection of a woman dancing sensually to percussive music. A machine drops down from the ceiling, latches on to his penis, and mechanically moves up and down for exactly 30 seconds until he ejaculates.

Then its tiny red light switches from red to green, the machine retracts back into the ceiling, and he begins flipping through channels to find other entertainment.

The comedy Sleeper illustrates how transactional and meaningless sex has become in the future when Luna and a guest decide to “have sex” in a device called the Orgasmatron, which is about the size of a phone booth. To activate it, the two step inside and slide the door closed.

A red light at the top illuminates, some moaning is heard, and six seconds later a green light indicates they’re done. When they emerge, they continue their conversation as if nothing had interrupted it. The closing and opening of the door seem to be the only interface needed.

Lesson: Small interfaces advertise small-value experiences.

The sex machines in both THX-1138 and Sleeper display a small red light while the device is working, and quietly switch to a green light when done. In Sleeper it’s used for comedic effect and in THX-1138 to help describe a dystopia, but the message telegraphed by the interface in each is the same. Sex, which for most is deeply engrossing experience, has been reduced to a small and disposable transaction. These interfaces would not speak to this disconnect if they had rich visuals and swelling music. Designers of real-world products and services should take care to avoid this same mismatch. The interface not only enables use but also informs the entire experience. Functional and cold may be right for some applications, but if yours is meant to be rich and engaging, the interface should embody that as well.

There are a lot of analogous examples of sex interfaces in the real world—far more than we see represented in sci-fi. From low-tech masturbation sleeves like the Fleshlight and Fleshjack to more sophisticated devices like the Real Touch and sex machines, a wide variety of real-world products used for sexual gratification are absent from sci-fi, even when sex technology is depicted.


Sexbots are androids capable of sexual intercourse with a human.

Sexbots are by far the most common example of sexual technology in the survey.

The reasons for this are many: they are easy to write for, they don’t add to the special effects budget, and the sexual appeal of a sexbot does not need much explanation for the audience. In addition, sexbots create considerably less squeamish reactions in audiences than more mechanistic devices. It also means that the largest group of sex-related technology in the survey is not accessed through a visual interface but through a social interface: voice, gesture, and touch backed by some level of artificial intelligence.

The one exception to this rule is the LoveBot married to Mr. Universe in Serenity, but his remote control for her is only seen in passing.

In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the lovelorn vampire Spike has a sexbot created specifically to indulge his sexual and domination fantasies of Buffy. In one scene, while they are engaged in foreplay, the Buffybot says to him, “Spike, I can’t help myself. I love you.” Spike, emboldened by the confession, replies, “You’re mine, Buffy.” After a pause the Buffybot asks, “Should I start this program over?” A troubled look crosses Spike’s face and he says, “Shh. You’re not a program. Don’t use that word. Just be Buffy.”

Lesson: Avoid reminding people of the simulation

Technology can be a good stand-in when the real thing isn’t available, but the point of simulation is verisimilitude—allowing a person to suspend his or her disbelief. Exposing the technological truth at the wrong time can draw attention back to the unavailability of the real thing, that the emotions may be ersatz, and seriously spoil the mood. With sexual technology in particular but virtual reality in general, designers should be aware of and respect the natural ebbs and flows of social momentum, and avoid exposing the technology at inopportune moments.

Virtual Partners

Sexbots are physical, but sex partners can be virtual as well. In the “Blood Fever” episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the Doctor prescribes a holodeck remedy to satisfy the pon farr sexual needs of the Vulcan crew member named Vorik, because there is no female Vulcan within light years.

In a similar plotline from the “Body and Soul” episode of the same series, the Vulcan, Tuvok, satisfies his pon farr urges and avoids philandering by having sex with a holodeck version of his wife, who is on the far side of the galaxy (Figure 13.9). In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi merchant Quark often rents out holosuites for sexual purposes. These virtual partners are for all practical purposes the same as sexbots because, to the users, there is no sensory difference.

In The Matrix, Mouse salaciously assures Neo that he can arrange a more “intimate” experience between Neo and “the woman in the red dress,” who is a character seen in a virtual reality training program. We never see this offer accepted or fulfilled, but because the virtual reality is indistinguishable from a real world, we can assume that such an encounter would work almost exactly like one with a sexbot or in the holodeck.

Opportunity: Don’t dream it, be it

When sci-fi sex technology is virtual—as in Star Trek’s holodeck or the Matrix-like virtual reality called the Construct —- we see only virtual replacements for humans (or humanoid species).

Given the infinitely malleable nature of these systems, a much greater range of sexual experiences and expressions are possible. Could someone choose new shapes, like a swan, or a centaur, or a robot? Exactly how do you want your furry avatar to look?

Make it So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction



  1. The author missed one very important sexual machine.  It appeared in the cult classic “A Boy and His Dog”.  The lead character is kidnapped by the denizens of a society that are having trouble reproducing.  He is hooked up to a “sex machine” that will force him to provide sperm for their women who have lined up for the priviledge.  This happens to him despite his assertions that he would gladly bed all of them without the machine.

    Still an old favorite.

    1. I’m not sure that could be described as a sexual machine, so much as an industrial device.  It’s chief purpose is is extraction and not to deliver a pleasurable sensory experience.  If memory serves, the device begins to get extremely uncomfortable fairly quickly.

      1.  Yeah, it’s analogous to some of the devices used to extract semen from animals for artificial insemination.

    1. HAHAHA that’s a funny satirical post but seriously I’m glad George Lucas never re-released his masterpiece THX 1138 with ludicrously incongruous ‘special edition’ CGI amends.

          1. I’d have just gone with something like “Yeah, he had to fuck with it, didn’t he?” and possibly something about the self-gratifying nature of Mr. Lucas’ later additions.

  2. It’s funny, this commentary suffers from an embarrassment about the subject matter with arms length language and and an intentionally forced humor. I am not denying its strengths and insights. It reaffirms a suspicion I have been playing with that social science may be near impossible to get right. I realize this is not original, but it also confirms my belief that ten years of therapy turned out to be as much about my therapist as it was about me.

  3. Interesting to see that all android examples (save the undiscussed Gigolo Joe picture) are artificial female replacements for male character use.

    1. Odd. In the real world, artificial male replacements for female use are generally well accepted, but artificial female replacements for male use tend to have a bit of a squick factor.

      1. The uncanny valley of sexbots? Or perhaps a reflection on the dichotomy of acceptable social expressions of sexuality between the genders (reality-private vs media-public)

      2.  Makes sense if you view the films as escapism: 
        It allows men an escape from a reality where sexual aids are frowned upon, but where is the escapism for a woman – she can go to any mall and have her choice of dildos.

      3.  I don’t think that that’s even really true any more. Fleshlight seems to do decent business, and in my local sex shop there seems to be parity between the selection of dildos and pocket pussies.

    2. I found Gigolo Joe startling for just that reason.  Then again, a robot that would satisfy a woman would need a great deal more sophisticated programming than the one for men.  Deep down, we guys are just not that complicated.

      1. Dildos are not so complicated. Conversely, Spike’s Buffybot was quite sophisticated yet still didn’t satisfy him. I know, I know- I get jokes.

    3. Data had sex a few times and even had a girlfriend on TNG one time. The relationship ended because while he is a sexpert and “programmed in multiple techniques”, he can not provide for a partner emotionally. Sad episode.

  4. Does anyone remember the androids from the Star Trek episode “I, Mudd”?  The con man Harry Mudd has landed on a planet populated by androids whose purpose is to serve, and gleefully goes about refashioning them into attractive humanoids.

    1. I remember it well. It was remarkable to go back and watch TOS as an adult to see how differently some of the episodes come off, and in particular Harry Mudd, who I’d thought of as a jolly rogue, comes across as incredibly sleazy. In “Mudd’s Women” he gives unattractive women drugs to make them look more sexy and then pretty much sells them to dilithium miners, and in “I, Mudd” he pretty much brags about fucking robots and even shows off several android simulacra of his estranged wife, which he made expressly for the purpose of being able to shut her up (and off). 

      1. A friend of mine was Roger C. Carmel’s lover when he was 18ish and Mr. Carmel was in his 40s.

  5. This reminds me of the sex in Demolition Man where both parties wear VR gear and there is no physical contact. IIRC they even sit on opposite ends of the room.

  6. “At home after a hard day at work, THX-1138 sits down on a couch and turns on a volumetric projection of a woman dancing sensually to percussive music. A machine drops down from the ceiling, latches on to his penis, and mechanically moves up and down for exactly 30 seconds until he ejaculates.”

    1.  I’ve never seen the unexpurgated 1971 version, but from what I’ve read THX beats off into a simple collection device . . . while watching somebody being beaten up by those chrome-faced cop dudes.

      Lucas . . . what a coward.

      1. They never really show him beating off. They show him watching the dancing girl for a while (where from behind he does seem to be moving a little, and could be beating off), then he starts flicking channels and then he settles on the guy getting beaten.

  7. From written fiction:

    In Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million” the two lead characters meet, fall in love and — after exchanging “analogues” — never meet again. From context, analogues are data models of a person, which are used in direct-brain-stimulation VR sex.

    This was back in 1967.

  8. Brainstorm with Christopher Walken and Natalie Woods.

    An older partner in the research division hooks up a “Sex Tape POV” Brainscanned experience to a loop and nearly kills himself do to overeach.

  9. Hmm where are the the prudish USians from the danish sexworker article? Won’t anyone think of the children?!?

  10. I’m pretty sure if there is ever a “Gigolo Jane” as Ashley Scott portrayed her (see the pic with Jude Law up there), that would mark the end of the human species. Men would be very reluctant to bother with real women if such machines were available.

    1.  In the last part of the movie, humanity did indeed become extinct (the reasons for which were never discussed).  The descendents of the “mecha” had an unceasing curiosity about their makers.

    2.  That’s one possible explanation for the extinction of humanity in Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, which features a sexbot as the protagonist.

    3. Ouch. I honestly doubt, however, one could be a happy human with no emotional investment from a partner. If one could make a partner that was emotionally invested, it would probably need to be given rights, and then you’d have the same issue over again, except with sapient android women instead of sapient human women.

      Well no worries, one can make another human just fine with only two X chromosomes…

  11. “A machine drops down from the ceiling, latches on to his penis, and mechanically moves up and down for exactly 30 seconds until he ejaculates.”

    My wife wants to know where we can get a machine that would make me last that long.

  12. In written fiction, the feelies in Brave New World seem very close at times. It’s never clear if we’re heading toward Orwell’s authoritarian nightmare or Huxley’s pleasure-besotted one, but perhaps that’s my limited imagination. We could have both.

  13. ” Could someone choose new shapes, like a swan, or a centaur, or a robot? Exactly how do you want your furry avatar to look?”

    I was wondering what people meant by “unicorn chaser”.

  14. “A machine drops down from the ceiling

    Can you imagine the testing before they got this device right?  If things were’nt tweaked just perfect, a subject could lose their unit.

  15. my guess: regardless of future technology improvements, the own hand will always be the all-time favorite

  16. In the hilariously bad Robot Holocaust, a robot woman seeks pleasure in a device so bizarre it cannot be described by the English language but only experienced on screen.

    But this seems to close the loop – no people necessary.

  17. You could easily do a whole chapter, or at least a pretty substantial chunk of one, on how the use of the holodeck over the different Star Trek series evolved to the point where its use for erotic gratification could be dealt with openly, while at the same time exploring the question of just when you had to start dealing with your virtual creations (whether erotic or otherwise) as sentient beings in their own right. The original series would occasionally bring up this subject or something similar as part of the Enterprise’s seeking out of new life forms and civilizations; in fact, the first pilot, “The Cage”,  had the psychic Talosians creating a sort of telepathic holodeck which in at least one iteration (the dancing green Orion slave woman) was explicitly erotic. But it and the other flirtations with this subject were just occasional plot devices, not a regular part of the Trek universe.

    Even The Next Generation didn’t deal with this very often, even though the holodeck was introduced in the pilot. In “11001001“, Riker meets a holodeck woman that’s realistic enough to satisfy him, but Picard inadvertently cockblocks him, and it all turns out to be part of a plot to steal the Enterprise anyway; when the plot is resolved, she’s gone. Lieutenant Barclay certainly has no problem using the holodeck for that purpose, but (at least in his first appearance) he’s depicted as a loser who resorts to the holodeck because he can’t handle reality. In Deep Space Nine, the holosuites are seen as a more socially acceptable option for sexual gratification; there’s a whole series of holonovels called “Vulcan Love Slave”, for example, and Jadzia Dax tries to get Major Kira to relax and enjoy a holoprogram that involves hunky masseurs. (That, incidentally, is also possibly the first time the Trek franchise acknowledges that women might be interested in sex purely for physical gratification, which is a little late in the game, IMO, given that female Trekkies invented slashfic in the seventies with Kirk/Spock stories.) DS9 also has a holographic character, 50s-style lounge crooner Vic Fontaine, who is treated as a sentient being in his own right; TNG introduced the idea of hologram sentience with a version of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty, but that episode was resolved in a fashion that seems bizarre, given TNG’s many episodes centered around whether or not Data was a person: Moriarty was downloaded onto a stand-alone server and pretty much forgotten about.

    Finally, Voyager had many episodes centered around the holodeck and hologram characters, logical given the nature of the show (a starship stranded on the far side of the galaxy) and the fact that one of the regulars was the Emergency Medical Hologram, aka the Doctor. Captain Janeway, who can’t date anyone aboard the ship and can’t really date anyone else because the ship is always headed toward new territory on its way home, gets it on with a hologram in an Irish village program, then has to deal with the fallout when he figures out that she’s not really “Katie O’Clare” after she makes his character smarter (and also single). The Doctor has sex with a female character in Beowulf, and later brags about it to another EMH; he later gets a big crush on Seven of Nine, and in one episode even gets to possess her via her cybernetic implants (and, as he gleefully runs his/her hands over his/her body, makes it pretty clear what he’d do if he had a bit more privacy). We don’t need to talk about Star Trek: Enterprise because they didn’t have holodecks, so we can look at this progression of increasing frankness about what people would use the holodeck for in the context of the increasing popularity of the internet and its most popular subject.

  18. Marshall McLuhan, as usual, said it best:

    “”Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.

  19. I have spent a short time working in the sex toy industry,THX-1138 would always cross my mind. How will sex be defined in the future? A product that people would always be attracted to is the Realtouch. How will sex and love be defined in ever expanding virtual world? 

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