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.

Devices

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

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

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