Update 9 on the Bionic Dildo: Lots of progress!

A few folks have been wondering where we’re at on the Bionic Dildo, as we’ve taken to calling it.

We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months, starting with setting up a workspace for research, development, and testing. We’ve moved into the new space, where we have a lot of resources we didn’t have before.

The first few prototypes were put together by modifying existing sex toys. This crude approach was good enough to show us that the basic technology is sound, but the prototypes we built this way were limited, fragile, and rather uncomfortable to wear.

Since then, we’ve acquired a 3D printer and facilities for making ceramic molds to cast silicone. This allows us to create custom-designed silicone with electronics, sensors, and electrodes cast right in.

From 3D rendering to printed positive that we use to make a mold.
And yes, those are Lego bricks we’re using as a mold box!

We’ve 3D printed and made silicone test casts of the insertable part of the device. Here’s a test cast of the insertable with electrodes directly embedded in the cast, a huge improvement over our first few prototypes:

Right now, we’re moving into a development phase aimed at answering questions like:

  • How many sensors and electrodes do we need?
  • What’s the neural density of the inside wall of the vagina?
  • How much variability is there in sensitivity between different people, and between different parts of the inner anatomy of the same person?
  • What’s the best way to modulate the signal in response to pressure on the sensors?
  • What’s the maximum perceptual spatial resolution of the inner anatomy?

The first-generation prototype had three sensors and three electrodes, and the insertable part was rigid plastic, which as you can imagine was not terribly comfortable and certainly not workable for long-term use. The prototype we’re working on now is an enormous improvement: fifteen sensors and fifteen electrodes, embedded in custom silicone that’s far more comfortable.

We’re excited with the progress that we’ve made, and looking forward to what we can learn in 2017.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4
Update 5
Update 6
Update 7
Update 8
Update 9

Learning to be a Human

I don’t live in my body.

I was 48 years old before I discovered this. Now, such a basic fact, you might think, would be intuitively obvious much earlier. But I’ve only (to my knowledge) been alive this once, and I haven’t had the experience of living as anyone else, so I think I might be forgiven for not fully understanding the extent to which my experience of the world is not everyone’s experience of the world.

Ah, if only we could climb behind someone else’s eyes and feel the world the way they do.

Anyway, I do not live in my body. My perception of my self—my core essence, if you will—is a ball that floats somewhere behind my eyes, and is carried about by my body.

Oh, I feel my body. It relays sensory information to me. I am aware of hot and cold (especially cold; more on that in a bit), soft and hard, rough and smooth. I feel the weight of myself pressing down on my feet. I am aware of the fact that I occupy space, and of my position in space. (Well, at least to some extent. My sense of direction is a bit rubbish, as anyone who’s known me for more than a few months can attest.)

But I don’t live in my body. It’s an apparatus, a biological machine that carries me around. “Me” is the sphere floating just behind my eyes.

And as I said, I didn’t even know this until I was 48.

This is not, as it turns out, my only perceptual anomaly.

I also perceive cold as pain.

When I say this, a lot of folks don’t really understand what I mean. I do not mean that cold is uncomfortable. I mean that cold is painful. An ice cube on my bare skin hurts. A lot. A cold shower is excruciating agony, and I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this. (Being wet is unpleasant under the best of circumstances. Cold water is pure agony. Worse than stubbing a toe, almost on par with touching a hot burner.)

I’ve always more or less assumed that other people perceive cold more or less the same way I do. There’s a trope that cold showers are an antidote to unwanted sexual arousal; I’d always thought that was because the pain shocks you out of any kind of sexy head space. And swimming in ice water? That was something that a certain breed of hard-core masochist did. Some folks like flesh hook suspension; some folks swim in ice water. Same basic thing.

I’ve only recently become aware that there’s actually a medical term for this latter condition: congenital thermal allodynia. It’s an abnormal coding of pain, and it is, I think, related to the not-living-in-my-body thing.

I probably would have discovered all of this if I’d been interested in recreational drug use as a youth. And it appears there may be a common factor in both of these atypical ways I perceive the world.

Ladies and gentlebeings, I present to you: TRPA1.

This is TRPA1. It’s a complex protein that acts as a receptor in nerve and other cells. It responds to cold and to the presence of certain chemicals (menthol feels cold because it activates this receptor). Variations on the structure of TRPA1 are implicated in a range of abnormal perception of pain; there’s a single nucleotide polymorphism in the gene that codes for TRPA1, for instance, that results in a medical condition called “hereditary episodic pain syndrome,” whose unfortunate sufferers are wracked by intermittent spasms of agonizing and debilitating pain, often triggered by…cold.

I’ve lived this way my entire life, completely unaware that it’s not the way most folks experience the world. It wasn’t until I started my first tentative explorations down the path of recreational pharmaceuticals that I discovered there was any other way to be.

For nearly all of my life, I’ve never had the slightest interest in recreational drug use, despite what certain of my relatives believed when I was a teenager. Aside from alcohol, I had zero experience with recreational pharmaceuticals until I was in my late 40s.

The first recreational drug I ever tried was psilocybin mushrooms. I’ve had several experiences with them now, which have universally been quite pleasant and agreeable.

But it’s the aftereffects of a mushroom trip that are, for me, the really interesting part.

The second time I tried psilocybin mushrooms, about an hour or so after the comedown from the mushroom trip, I had the sudden and quite marked experience of completely inhabiting my body. For the first time in my entire life, I wasn’t a ball of self being carried around by this complex meat machine; I was living inside my body, head to toe. (I recall looking at Eve and saying “I go all the way to the ground!”)

The effect of being-in-my-bodyness persisted for a couple of hours after all the other traces of the drug trip had gone, and for a person who’s spent an entire lifetime being carried about by a body but not really being in that body, I gotta say, man, it was amazing.

So I did what I always do: went on Google Scholar and started reading neurobiology papers.

My first hypothesis, born of vaguely remembered classes in neurobiology many years ago and general folk wisdom about psilocybin and other hallucinogens, was that the psilocybin (well, technically, psilocin, a metabolite of psilocybin) acted as a particularly potent serotonin agonist, dramatically increasing brain activity, particularly in the pyramidal cells in layer 5 of the brain. If psilocybin lowered the activation threshold of these cells, reasoned I, then perhaps I became more aware of my body because I was better able to process existing sensory stimulation from the peripheral nervous system, and/or better able to integrate my somatosensory perception. It sounds plausible, right? Right?

Alas, some time on Google Scholar deflated that hypothesis. It turns out that the conventional wisdom about how hallucinogens work is quite likely wrong.

Conventional wisdom is that hallucinogens promote neural activity in cells that express serotonin receptors by mimicking the action of serotonin, causing the cells to fire. Hallucinogens aren’t well understood, but it’s looking like this model is probably not correct.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, psilocybin is a serotonin agonist and it does lower activation threshold of pyramidal cells, oh yes.

The fly in the ointment is that evidence from fMRI and BOLD studies shows an overall inhibition of brain activity resulting from psilocybin. Psilocybin promotes activation of excitatory pyramidal cells, sure, but it also promotes activation of inhibitory GABAergic neurons, resulting in overall decreased activity in several other parts of the brain. Further, this activity in the pyramidal cells produces less overall cohesion of brain activity, as this paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains. (It’s a really interesting article. Go read it!)

My hypothesis that psilocybin promotes the subjective experience of greater somatosensory integration by lowering activation threshold of pyramidal cells, therefore, seems suspect, unless perhaps we were to further hypothesize that this lowered activation threshold persisted after the mushroom trip was over, an assertion for which I can find no support in the literature.

So lately I’ve been thinking about TRPA1.

I drink a lot of tea. Not as much, perhaps, as my sweetie , but a lot nonetheless.

Something I learned a long time ago is that the sensation of being wet is extremely unpleasant, but it’s more tolerable after I’ve had my morning tea. I chalked that down to it being more unpleasant when I was sleepy than when I was awake.

It turns out caffeine is a mild TRPA1 inhibitor. That leads to the hypothesis that for all these years, I may have been self-medicating with caffeine without being aware of it. If TRPA1 is implicated in the more unpleasant somatosensory bits of being me, then caffeine may jam up the gubbins and let me function in a way that’s a closer approximation to the way other folks perceive the world. (Insert witty quip about not being fully human before my morning tea here.)

So then I started to wonder, what if psilocybin is connecting me with my body by influencing TRPA1 activity? Could that explain the aftereffects of a mushroom trip? When I’m in my body, I feel warm and, for lack of a better word, glowy. My sense of self extends downward and outward until it fills up the entire biological machine in which I live. Would TRPA1 inhibition explain that?

Google Scholar offers exactly fuckall on the effects of psilocybin on TRPA1. So I turned to other searches, trying to find other drugs or substances that promoted a subjective experience of greater connection with one’s own body.

I found anecdotal reports of what I was after from people who used N-phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester, a supplement developed in Russia and sold as a cognitive enhancer under the Russian name Ноопепт and the English name Noopept. It’s widely sold as a nootropic. New Agers and the fringier elements of the transhumanist movement, two groups I tend not to put a lot of faith in, tout it as a brain booster.

Still, noopept is cheap and easily available, and I figured as long as I was experimenting with my brain’s biochemistry, it was worth a shot.

To hear tell, this stuff will do everything from make you smarter to prevent Alzheimer’s. Real evidence that it does much of anything is thin on the ground, with animal models showing some protective effect against some forms of brain trauma but human trials being generally small and unpersuasive.

I started taking it, and noticed absolutely no difference at all. Still, animal models suggest it takes quite a long time to have maximum effect, so I kept taking it.

About 40 days after I started, I woke up with the feeling of being completely in my body. It didn’t last long, but over the next few weeks, it came and went several times, typically for no more than an hour or two at a time.

But oh, what an hour. When you’ve lived your whole life as a ball being carted around balanced atop a bipedal biological machine, feeling like you inhabit your body is amazing.

The last time it happened, I was in the Adventure Van driving toward the cabin where Eve and I are currently writing not one, not two, but three books (a nonfiction followup to More Than Two titled Love More, Be Awesome, and two fiction books set in a common world, called Black Iron and Gold Gold Gold!). We were listening to music, as we often do when we travel, and I…felt the music. In my body.

I’d always more or less assumed that people who talk about “feeling music” were being metaphorical, not literal. Imagine my surprise.

I also noticed something intriguing: Feeling cold will, when I’m in my body, push me right back out again. Hence my hypothesis that not being connected with my body might in some way be related to TRPA1.

The connection with my body, intermittent and tenuous for the past few weeks, has disappeared again. I’m still taking noopept, but I haven’t felt like I’m inhabiting my body for the past couple of weeks. That leads to one of two suppositions: the noopept is not really doing anything at all, which is quite likely, or I’m developing a tolerance for noopept, which seems less likely but I suppose is possible. Noopept is a racetam-like peptide; like members of the racetam class, it is an acetylcholine agonist, and while I can’t find anything in the literature about noopept tolerance, tolerance of other acetylcholine agonists (though not, as near as I can tell, racetam-like acetylcholine agonists) has been observed in animal models.

So there’s that.

The literature on all of this has been decidedly unhelpful. I like the experience of completely inhabiting my body, and would love to find a way to do this all the time.

I’m currently pondering three experiments. First, next time I take mushrooms (and my experience with mushrooms, limited though they are, have universally been incredibly positive; while I have no desire to take them regularly, I probably will take them again at some point in the future), I am planning to set up experiments after the comedown where I expose myself to water and cold sensations to see if the pain is reduced or eliminated in the phase during which I’m connected to my body.

Second, I’m planning to discontinue noopept for a month or so, then resume it to see if the problem is tolerance.

And finally, I’ve enlisted Eve to help do a controlled blind experiment involving capsules filled with noopept and capsules filled with confectioner’s sugar. Eve has offered to fill a month’s worth of capsules with each and then place them in numbered but otherwise unmarked bottles. The idea is to take the contents of one bottle, chosen at random with Eve not aware of which one I’ve chosen, for a month, recording how I feel, then take the contents of the second bottle for a month with similar record-keeping, and see if there’s any subjective experience that is not consistent with the placebo effect. (Yes, I know that a sample size of one is not exactly rigorous science. I’m looking for a way to connect with my body, not publish a paper.)

I’m fifty years old and I’m still learning how to be a human being. Life is a remarkable thing.

Call to the Interwebs: Looking for experts!

Most of the folks reading my blog are probably familiar with the high tech sex toy my partner Eve and I are working on. Essentially, we’re making a strap-on covered with sensors, that uses direct neural stimulation to allow the wearer to feel touch and pressure on the strap-on.

We’ve built several prototypes that validate the basic idea, and we’re excited to move into the next phase of development.

To that end, we need your help! We’re looking for two things:

1. A person skilled with molding silicone who is willing to work with us to do one-off and two-off custom castings that integrate sensors, electrodes, and electronics into the casting.

This person will know a great deal about custom-molding silicone and be willing to work with us with some fairly exotic requirements, like molding silicone with electrodes embedded in the surface.

2. A skilled electronics person with knowledge of RF analog electronics. I know digital electronics, and so far, the prototypes we’ve built have used electronics and firmware I’ve written. But I’m a bit rubbish with the electronics stuff. Specifically, what we need is someone who can design circuitry that can be controlled by an embedded microcontroller and can modulate the amplitude of an analog signal based on input from pressure sensors. Imagine a signal generator that produces a signal something like this:

What we’re looking for is someone who can design a circuit that will modulate the amplitude of this signal in proportion to the input from pressure sensors…but, naturally, the human body being what it is, the correspondence is logarithmic, not linear (hence a programmable microcontroller doing the work fo figuring out how strong the signal needs to be).

We do have a budget for accomplishing these tasks. It’s not a huge budget, mind you; we’re a small startup, and that’s how it goes with small startups.

If you are interested or know anyone who might be, please let me know! You can reach me at franklin (at) tacitpleasures (dot) com.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4
Update 5
Update 6
Update 7
Update 8

Update #7 on the sex toy you can feel

It’s been a busy month in smart sex-toy land.

We’ve just finished another round of testing of the third-stage prototype design, and ironed out some bugs that cropped up with the first incarnation of the current design. We’ve demonstrated conclusively that the idea works, and works well–even with the crude hardware we’re currently using, we’re able to trick the brain into internalizing the device into the wearer’s sense of self.

It was fascinating watching the most recent beta testers. We tested with two volunteers. With one of the volunteers, I was able to tell the exact moment her brain worked out the sensation and internalized the dildo. She was running her hand along the dildo, and she said “I don’t know, it feels weird and kind of uncomfortable, it just–” and then the switch flipped and she said “Oh!” and grinned.

Unfortunately, we’re running into limitations in how much further we can take the design by ourselves, given that I’m building each prototype by hand. Right now, each prototype is a hand-made one-off that takes hundreds of dollars and several days’ worth of work to put together. There’s a lot of hand soldering of some very tiny and somewhat fiddly components involved with every new prototype, which then ends up getting tossed at the end of each round of testing. The current design can’t be sterilized, so I have to build a new one each time we beta-test with a different person.

We’re learning quite a lot from each test. One thing we’ve found is there’s incredible variability between different people in internal anatomy and neurology. Some people are approximately evenly sensitive everywhere in the vaginal canal; some people are more sensitive in the lower portion of the vagina than the upper portion; some people are more sensitive on one side than the other. That means the final device will have to be tunable to each individual who wears it, with the wearer customizing the intensity of stimulation from each individual electrode. That adds a new level of complexity to the electronics, not to mention the user interface.

The current prototypes are built by modifying off-the-shelf dildos with sensors and electrodes. The prototypes use copper electrodes, which have a very short life expectancy; the final version may have to use gold for the electrodes. We’re still researching that.

We’re researching quite a lot, actually. Now that we know the concept is sound, we’re moving toward a more research-intensive phase of development. Questions we’re still addressing include things like what is the maximum sensory resolution inside the vagina, how does it vary in different areas of the vagina, how does it vary across different people, what is the safest electrode material that offers good durability while being body-safe, what’s the minimum number of sensors the dildo must have to create the sensation of being part of the body, what’s the maximum number of sensors and electrodes past which the wearer can’t distinguish different sensations any more, and what’s the best signal shape to stimulate the sensory nerves in the wearer without being painful or unpleasant. (The first versions of the prototypes used a very simple signal generator; the most recent version uses a programmable signal generator.)

The prototypes we’ve built so far have all had an insertable portion designed to be worn vaginally. We’ve had many people ask us about designs that don’t require insertion, or that work with an anal insertable portion. That’s also something we plan to experiment with; we want to find out whether stimulation of different parts of the body will achieve the same results. We plan to do some prototyping of designs that don’t require vaginal insertion soon.

That’s where you come in, O denizens of the Internet.

We are looking for people to partner with to help us do more sophisticated prototyping. Right now, we’re in desperate need of a company interested in partnering with us that has experience doing short-run custom silicone molding, preferably in or near Vancouver, BC. We are also looking for an electronics engineer who is sex-positive and interested in this project, especially one with experience in doing switching and amplitude modulation of analog RF signals.

If you know of anyone with those skills who would like to be involved in this project, please let me know, either here or by email at franklin (at) franklinveaux (dot) com.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4
Update 5
Update 6
Update 7

Update #6 on the sex toy you can feel

Whew! Lots of things going on in the world of high-tech sex.

I’ve been hard at work on the second-generation prototype of the sex toy you can feel. The first-generation prototype was intended as a proof of concept rather than a usable sex toy; the sensors I was using were large and bulky, and made the strapon impractical to have sex with.

The second-stage prototype features a new and more powerful wearable computer, a larger number of much smaller sensors (each about as thick as a sheet of paper), and a completely redesigned vaginal insert. The new prototype took a while to assemble–mad science is hard!

Today, we reached a milestone. For the first time, one person (we will call her “Experimental Volunteer A”) had sex with another person (who we will call “Experimental Volunteer B”) with the prototype. Aside from a few minor design glitches which will be solved with the third-generation prototype, the sex went smoothly and was a great success. Experimental Volunteer A was able to feel the dildo moving inside Experimental Volunteer B, and there was much screaming, giggling, and moaning. A great time was had by all involved.

One of the areas of focus for the near to mid term future will be doing some research on the neural density of the inside of the vagina. I haven’t been able to locate anything in the literature that talks about this. It’s going to be one of the design factors in how many neurostim electrodes the final device will have, as there’s little point in having a number of outputs that exceeds the wearer’s ability to differentiate between them. We may end up having to do some research to find this out.

We’ve also received word that the patent application is in the hands of the US Patent Office, so at this point we’re able to say “Patent Applied For.” Patent applied for! When the PTO publishes the application, we’ll be able to say Patent Pending.

I’ve already started to take the things I’ve learned from today’s experiment to make some design changes to the third-stage prototype.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4
Update 5
Update 6

Sex tech: Wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care

The street finds its own uses for things.
—William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Imagine, if you will, a device you strap onto your lower arm. This device has a bunch of embedded myoelectric sensors that respond to hand movements, and accelerometers that track arm movements. Yoked to these is a Bluetooth transmitter that relays a stream of data about your hand position and arm motion to a computer or smartphone. Sound exciting?

Meet the Myo, a gadget in search of a purpose.

It’s a neat, if pricey, device still in search of a killer app. It comes with a PowerPoint plugin that lets you flip through slides by waving your arm in the air. There’s an interface for Skyrim, though it’s a bit laggy and you can’t play for long before your arm gets tired. There’s also a bit of software that lets you control a small drone with arm gestures, though with less precision than a conventional remote control. It’s very much a “build first, look for a function later” gadget, reminiscent of many tech innovations from the age of the dot-com bubble.

In most industries, the “build it and they will come” approach to project engineering is looked at with less and less favor these days. I am a long-time mad scientist with a particular flair for designing and building all manner of high-tech sex toys, though, so to me “build it and they will come” is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

As soon as I saw a demo of the Myo, my mind instantly went to sex. Controlling a device remotely by gesture and motion? What could possibly be more fitting in a sex toy? (In fairness, I did once, many years ago, build an Internet-controlled sex toy called the Symphony—a name that might perhaps be more appropriate for a device that you can operate by waving your arms. Dance, my puppets! Dance!)

So imagine my surprise when I Tweeted that this would make a cool controller for a sex toy and shortly thereafter one showed up on my doorstep, courtesy of AV Flox over at Slantist.

Electronically, the Myo is a Bluetooth LE radio, a set of myoelectric sensors, a suite of accelerometers, and a low-power processor core running proprietary firmware. Information from the myoelectric sensors is interpreted and translated into a set of posture information. This information is combined with data from the accelerometer and transmitted as a series of gestures and motions.

Conceptually, it looks a bit like this:

The Myo communicates with a laptop or smartphone. The laptop or smartphone interprets the messages from the Myo, then sends appropriate commands to an Arduino with a Bluetooth board connected, instructing it to to run (or stop) a vibrator attached to the motor driver.

The Arduino is a small single-board computer that was designed to do easy experimenting with programmable devices. Think of something like a Raspberry Pi, only far simpler and without an operating system. You can get many additional boards for the Arduino to do all sorts of things—Bluetooth, WiFi, networking, sensors, motor drivers, and other boards exist. The Arduino and its add-on boards are designed to be stacked on top of one another, to make project development easy.

The laptop or smartphone is necessary because of Bluetooth’s design. Bluetooth is a computer-to-peripheral technology. A Bluetooth network uses a master/slave topology, which means a Bluetooth peripheral can’t communicate directly with another Bluetooth peripheral—a “master” device like a laptop or smartphone is needed as an intermediary. When I first started working on a Myo-controlled sex toy, I did the development on a Macbook Pro laptop.

The Hardware

For the first-generation version of the gesture-controlled sex toy, I opted to use an Arduino Uno with a Red Bear Bluetooth shield and one of Kyle Machulis’ Pen15 vibrator controller boards, largely by virtue of the fact that I already happened to have all of them sitting on my workbench.

The Arduino is a small electronics board, roughly the size of an index card, that’s easy to program and capable of talking to all sorts of peripheral hardware. As a controller for a sex toy, it’s a bit large and clunky. Combined with a Bluetooth board and a motor control board, the whole ensemble is about as big as a pack of cigarettes; not exactly discreet. There are several much smaller development boards available, and a later version of this project will probably be about the size of a quarter.

The Arduino, Bluetooth board, and motor controller, all stacked atop one another, look like this:

The blue board on the bottom is the Arduino itself, and contains the processor, power supply, and USB interface for programming. The red board in the middle is the Bluetooth board. The green board on top is the Pen15, an interface board designed specifically to run a sex toy from an Arduino. All together, this stack of boards cost about $40 or so.

The Software

Assembling the stack of components to make a Myo-controlled sex toy was the easy part. Writing the software turned out to be a bit more aggravating.

There are two parts to the software: a program running on the laptop (or smartphone, but for convenience I wrote the first version on my laptop), and a program running on the Arduino. The laptop software needed to pair with the Myo and the Arduino’s Bluetooth card, accept incoming data from the Myo, figure out how to translate those data into sex toy functions, and then send appropriate commands to the Arduino. The software on the Arduino needed to accept those commands and run the vibrator accordingly.

The Myo does a lot of on-board processing to figure out what hand gestures are being done, then sends the gesture data to the computer. It can recognize certain gestures, like making a fist, spreading your fingers apart, and tapping your thumb and forefinger together. It also sends information from the accelerometers, to report motion data.

For the first version, I wanted to keep things simple. I decided to look only at hand gestures, rather than arm motion. Making a fist, I decided, would turn the vibrator off; spreading my fingers would turn it on. (I opted not to control the speed of the vibrator, even though this is fairly straightforward for the Arduino to do, just to keep things simple.) This let me ignore accelerometer data and look only at hand gestures.

The Arduino software was relatively straightforward. The Arduino Bluetooth card comes with a programming library, which, much to my dismay, failed to work right out of the box. That’s surprisingly common in the world of Arduino development, where hardware and software is often designed by small groups of dedicated enthusiasts and may or may not work as expected the first time. An hour’s worth of Googling and some trial and error let me get the Arduino Bluetooth library working, and after that, things were a lot easier. I chose a command that would mean “vibrator on” and another that would mean “vibrator off,” and wrote a simple program that would poll the Bluetooth card looking for those commands and send the appropriate signal to the Pen15 board. All in all, the Arduino side of the equation took an evening to get sorted.

The computer/Myo side was a bit more complicated. The Myo I received was one of the first to ship, and the Myo’s software development kit was a mess when it was first released. (It’s still something of a mess now.) I had considerable difficulty pairing with both the Myo and the Arduino—something that wasn’t helped by the fact that Mac development is usually done in a language called Objective-C, and my experience with Objective-C is limited. It’s mostly like C++, mostly, but there are just enough differences to trip up anyone accustomed to C++.

I finally gave up on accessing the Myo directly and opted for a shortcut. The Myo comes with software that maps Myo gestures onto the keyboard, so I decided to make things even easier by going that route. I mapped an open-hand gesture to the letter ‘a’ on the keyboard and a fist to the letter ‘z,’ and decided to write the software so that it would send a “vibrator on” signal when it saw the letter ‘a’ and send a “vibrator off” signal when it saw the letter ‘z.’ I figured once I had that working, I could get more fancy and sort out accessing the Myo directly later.

It took a good bit of time to get even that part working. The software development kit for the Arduino Bluetooth card is, if anything, in an even more sorry state than the Myo SDK. It took a lot of hair-pulling to get the sample code to work properly, and it tended to break whenever I tried to modify it.

In the end, I did finally get it to work, after a fashion. It was (and still is) quite crude: it recognizes only two Myo gestures, which it translates into “run the vibrator at full speed” and “turn the vibrator off.” The software still has a maddening habit of losing touch with the Arduino occasionally, for no reason I can discern, but it works.

The test

I decided to try out the vibrator with one of my girlfriends who was visiting from the UK, where she lives. We had just finished a whirlwind three-week camping tour of ghost towns through the Pacific Northwest, a journey I am still chronicling.

We spent her last night in Portland at a hotel near the airport, and I thought, hey, this would be an awesome time to take the new toy for a spin, and maybe even get some video of the device in action. She thought that idea sounded splendid.

Unfortunately, the software had other ideas. As often happens, somewhere between being tested on my workbench and being tried in the real world, it decided to quit working. I debugged frantically while she lay naked in bed waiting. Eventually, she fell asleep, and the opportunity was lost.

Later testing would have to wait for a more favorable time. Eventually I was able to get it working again, but the moment to use it with her had passed.

The future

The current prototype gesture-controlled sex toy is quite primitive. Put together, it looks like this:

The hardware is still clunky. I plan to rebuild it using a DF Robot Bluno, which combines the Arduino and Bluetooth on a tiny board roughly the size of a quarter.

This should make it possible to create a discreet, miniaturized sex toy that can be worn in public. I have one of these sitting on my workbench, but haven’t had a chance to play with it.

Eventually, when I’ve made more progress on the strapon the wearer can feel and I have time to return to this project, I plan to refine the software, adding accelerometer control and allowing the vibrator to be controlled more precisely—perhaps by adding patterns to the vibration. (I have visions of doing a PowerPoint presentation at a business function while one of my partners sits in the audience wearing this device, as it responds to the same gestures I’m using to control the PowerPoint slides.)

Finally, I want to compile the control software for my iPhone, so I don’t have to lug around a laptop wherever I might want to use it. I can keep the iPhone in my pocket, where it silently listens to the Myo and sends signals to the sex toy.

The possibilities of remotely operated, Bluetooth-controlled sex toys that respond to wireless sensors, controllers, and other devices has a great deal of potential, especially if you’re a mad engineer like me. There’s rich territory here, just begging to be explored by intrepid adventurers. The early Myo prototypes are, I think, merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I can hardly wait to see what else is possible!

Update #5 on the sex toy you can feel

A lot of folks have been emailing me asking for an update to the project Eve and I are working on to build a strapon dildo covered with sensors that the wearer can actually feel.

We’ve been spending so much time working on this project that it’s been hard to keep up with blogging about it. I’m currently halfway done with a stage 2 prototype that’s way more advanced than the first prototype, and I’m excited about getting it done. We’ve also been talking to several amazing mentors and investors who are helping to make this thing a reality.

We also had overwhelming responses to our surveys–apologies to everyone who wanted to do a Skype or in-person interview I wasn’t able to schedule. The schedule filled up within minutes of putting out the call for interviews. We did a survey that got more than 1,700 responses and dozens of in-person and Skype interviews, which told us that there are lots of people who want this device.

Eve and I are really excited. We’ve had really positive conversations with a couple of investors in the last couple of weeks and hope to have all kinds of good news for everyone soon.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4

Update #3 on the sex toy you can feel

A while ago, I had an idea on how to create a strapon that the wearer can actually feel, as though it were part of your body. The idea took off, so my partner Eve and I started a company and commissioned an engineering firm to do a design proposal. We recently tested a first-generation prototype, and discovered that not only does the tech work, it works far better than we expected.

Things have gone a bit crazy since then. We’ve received an avalanche of support and interest, and we’ve been talking to folks from all over the place who want to see this device become a reality.

I’m working on a second generation prototype that’s a lot more sophisticated than the first-generation prototype. It’s an interesting bit of engineering, for sure.

Still quite crude, but I’m refining it very rapidly. Right now, the main area I’m concentrating on is sensor design. The second prototype will have much more sophisticated sensors and will actually be usable for fucking (the first prototype wasn’t really suitable for penetration).

We’ve also been doing tons of market research, and the results have helped steer us toward a design that will work well for a lot of people.

If you’re interested in keeping up with this project, we’ve set up a Mailchimp email list. Feel free to add your email to the list! You can find it here:

Sign up for email list: http://eepurl.com/bP8m4f

Feel free to publicize this link to anyone you think might be interested!

We’re hoping to present the second-generation prototype at this year’s Arse Elektronica convention in San Francisco in October. Stay tuned!

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4

Update #2 on the sex toy you can feel

A while ago, I had an idea on how to create a strapon that you can actually feel, as though it were part of your body. The idea went crazy, a lot of people expressed overwhelming support, so my partner Eve and I started a company and commissioned an engineering firm to do a design proposal.

In the meantime, I’ve also been working on the idea independently of the engineering firm, so last week I put on my Mad Scientist hat1 and built a simple proof of concept.

Then I went to my friend Emily and said “hey, I have this prototype of a computerized strapon with sensors and a wearable computer and stuff, do you want to help me test it?”

“Sure!” she said, because my friends rock. (I love my life.)

So two days ago, I showed up at her house bearing the crude prototype. “Okay,” I said when we were safely in her bedroom, “this bit goes here, and that bit goes up in front like so…”

There were some design flaws in the first version–the wires leading from the computer to the electrode weren’t quiiiiiite long enough, so she ended up doing this one-legged dance trying to put it on. When it was all powered up and running (which looked quite odd–the sensors mounted to the big purple dildo all have little red lights that come on to show the sensor is working, so the overall effect looked a bit like a prop from a 70s science fiction porn flick), we spent some time adjusting the signal generator and making sure everything was working, and then got to it. I touched the sensors and had her describe what she felt. At one point, as I knelt in front of her stroking her cock, it suddenly struck me exactly what I was doing. “Man,” I said, looking up at her, “this is really obscene.”

“But Franklin,” I hear you ask, “how did it work?

Emily wrote a really good writeup from her perspective on her blog, appropriately titled “Brains, Bunnies and Boners.” Here’s an excerpt:

I stood sporting a sizable electrode-covered, purple erection as this man knelt before me stroking the blinking phallus. Looking dreamily into space, I concentrated on this new sensation and how to communicate it. He asked questions that had nothing to do with arousal and everything to do with programming or nerve density. It crossed my mind briefly that this was a strange situation. Covered in wires, half naked in front of a man I’m not intimately connected to, waxing poetically about the sensation of him passively stimulating my g-spot. Meanwhile he educates me on the corresponding connections between penis and vagina, sensitivity wise. […]

I see him touching the wirey and weird strap on, the sensation of that cock hitting my pubic bone becoming enough to fully trick my mind. The arousal of the plug flitting electrical currents over my internal nerves quickly translates into a thought of, “wow if he keeps doing that I’m going to get a hard on during science and that will be embarrassing.” Except logically I know I already have a hard on. A big purple one that he brought along for me to borrow. My brain has already made the adjustment in the five minutes we’ve been testing this to believing in the new genitals.

So the answer is it works really, really well. Far better than I expected, given how primitive the prototype was. Within minutes, it seemed her brain had internalized the dildo as part of her body; she said that touching the dildo felt like touching her. Which was amazing. I’d expected just to validate that the device could be made to work; I didn’t expect it to work that well.

Eve and I are actively pursuing making this device a reality. We’re currently enrolled in a venture accelerator program in Vancouver and we’re doing market research to validate the market for this device. Interested in being interviewed as part of that market research! Hit me up in email! franklin (at) franklinveaux (dot) com.

1 By which I mean my Mad Engineering hat. Well, technically, my Mad Engineering Magnifiers for Precision Soldering.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3

Sharks and Loathing in Las Vegas

I am a man who wears bunny ears.

As I write this, Eve and I are on the last leg of our book tour–six events over the next four days and we are finally done. Part of the tour took us through Las Vegas. And Vegas…Vegas is not what I expected.

Close your eyes. Imagine Las Vegas, that epicenter of sin and decadence in the desert. What do you picture? Giant neons. Slot machines. Organized crime. Women in huge feather headdresses. Not, you might think, the sort of place where a man in bunny ears would exactly stand out…

…and you’d be wrong.

Vegas is, it seems, not prepared for a man in bunny ears, oh no. The hostility with which the Las Vegas culture1 responds to the sudden appearance of a man in bunny ears in its collective midst is remarkable.

But let me backtrack for a moment.

As Eve and I have traveled the country talking about polyamory and ethics and such, we’ve brought a stuffed shark with us. The shark, who joined our team2 in Atlanta, has made appearances all over North America, solely for the purpose of being exploited.

It started as a lark, you see. There is a friend of Eve’s, and this friend is a marine biologist who studies sharks. He also writes angry blog entries in response to phony stories on the Discovery Channel, stories with lurid titles about how mermaids might be real (spoiler: they aren’t) and speculating whether Megalodon, the enormous prehistoric dinosaur-shark, might still be alive (hint: it isn’t).

There are trolls on the Internet, and some of these trolls want to believe in mermaids and Megalodon. So they follow Eve’s friend about online, posting pictures of him and diatribes about him with the Twitter hashtag “#nerdsexploitingsharks”.

Which is, thought we, absolutely begging for hijacking.

So, half an hour before I was scheduled to do a lecture in Atlanta, I darted out in frantic search of a stuffed shark to exploit. I found one at the Atlanta Aquarium, and it’s been accompanying us ever since, being photographed in exploitative situations and posted to social media under #nerdsexploitingsharks.

So. Back to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas doesn’t like a man in bunny ears. Las Vegas especially doesn’t like a man in bunny ears carrying a stuffed shark.

Now, there are many ways to carry a stuffed shark. If you ever find yourself in Las Vegas wearing bunny ears and carrying a stuffed shark, you might try one or more of these carry techniques. I present this information in the name of Science!3

The Security Blanket

An attitude that says “Yes, I have a stuffed shark, and what of it? I need my shark if I am to face a cold, cruel world.” Advantages: Few people will approach a person who uses a shark as a security blanket. Disadvantages: Few people will approach a person who uses a shark as a security blanket.

The ‘Shark? What shark?’

Who, me? I’m not carrying a stuffed shark! Oh, this? How did this get there? Advantages: From the front, you simply look like a man in bunny ears, not a man in bunny ears with a stuffed shark. Disadvantages: Las Vegas loves guns. The sight of a man in bunny ears with his hands out of sight might upset some folks with delicate sensibilities, and some of those folks with delicate sensibilities might be armed.

The Casual Carry

This technique challenges the observer: “Yeah, I’m carrying a stuffed shark, and how do you like THEM apples?” Advantages: People might assume you’re a famous performer, or, failing that, an eccentric Mob hitman with a pistol inside the shark like that one scene in Hudson Hawk, only with a shark instead of a teddy bear. Disadvantages: People might assume you’re barking mad.

The en garde!

Yeah, I have bunny ears. And a shark. Which might or might not contain a concealed pistol. Don’t fuck with me. Advantages: People give you a wide berth on the sidewalk. Disadvantages: You might get shot.

The Binky

Similar to the Security Blanket, but less neurotic, the Binky tells the world that, yes, the world is cold and cruel, and yes, your shark helps you navigate the rivers of cruelty all around you, but you don’t really need the shark. You just like the shark, okay? Advantages: More relaxed and casual than the Security Blanket; this attitude tells the world you really can stand on your own two feet. You know, if you want to. Disadvantages: Small children point at you.

The Bromance

“I love you, man!” This attitude tells the world you and your shark have a special friendship…but, like, totally in a heterosexual way. Advantages: It’s totally, like, a heterosexual thing. Not, like, that other thing. Disadvantages: You may be mistaken for a dudebro. Who wears bunny ears. And carries a stuffed shark.

The Two-Handed Casual

“I’m just carrying a stuffed shark from one place to another place. Nothing to see here. Move along.” Advantages: Very workmanlike. People won’t get the impression that you’re, y’know, attached to the shark or anything. Disadvantages: It’s still pretty weird to see a guy in bunny ears carrying a stuffed shark, no matter how workmanlike he may be. Plus you don’t have a hand free to drink alcohol, play slots, and convince yourself that this thing you’re having is fun.

The Secure in my Masculinity

This pose shows the world that you’re absolutely certain of your manhood and you’re not too threatened to express your true feelings, even if you happen to be in the middle of one of the world’s largest casinos. Advantages: People will stay far, far away from you. Disadvantages: Unless they’re security.

1 Insofar as Las Vegas can be said to have a “culture.” My observations of Las Vegas culture suggests it is made up primarily of people who have no idea how to have fun desperately trying to have fun and convincing themselves the thing they are having is, indeed, fun. And alcohol.

2 Was purchased and exploited.

3 I am frequently asked “are you a scientist?” I usually say “no.” I think I am probably going to have to start saying “yes,” so when people ask “what kind of scientist? Chemist? Biologist?” I can say “Mad.”