The Science of Sex (Toys)

Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling erotic romance novel by E L James, may not be an obvious source of inspiration for scientific research. But with the release of the much ballyhooed film adaptation this week, Sloan Science and Film has taken the plunge into the science of sex-toys. Vibrators, dildos, butt plugs, Ben Wa balls, handcuffs—someone has to design, engineer and manufacture them, and in recent years sexual enhancement products have become vastly improved with more sophisticated materials and engineering techniques.

Before Stanford production design graduate Michael Topolovac began designing sex toys, he founded two companies, one that manufactured underwater video and lighting products and then another called Arena Solutions, a cloud computing software business. Eager to get back into hardware design after eight years at Arena, Topolovac teamed up with Ti Chang, an industrial designer from the Georgia Institute of Technology, to form Crave, which is part of a new wave in high-end sex toy companies. Sloan Science and Film spoke with Topolovac about the history of vibrators, motor speeds, and why “the Orgasmatron” may never work.

Sloan Science and Film: So what is involved in engineering a better vibrator?

Michael Topolovac: The history of vibrators throughout the last one hundred or so years is a reflection of how design is related to the cultural attitudes of the era. The original vibrator was designed in the late 19th Century as a medical device to cure hysteria, because if women experienced sexual pleasure they were considered sick, as strange as that sounds. So the vibrators looked more like medical devices, and that’s how they were structured and thought about. That morphed into more of an appliance in the 1920s and 1930s—they became sexual objects and were camouflaged to look like massagers. Fast-forward to the 1970s—sex is more out in the open, but we weren’t exactly ready to embrace these products, so they took on this novelty life: funky, absurd colors and a cuteness element. So this was less about the experience for the user. Nowadays, we’re one of the few companies who take an elevated view: How do you approach it, from the materials used to how the vibrations are created, the feelings of those creations, how you charge it, how it travels. All those things were given a lot of thought.

SSF: So what were they made of before, and what are you making them with now?

MT: Generally speaking, they were made with hard plastic and soft plastic, which is still pretty common. Plastic was made soft with the use of Phthalates, but that’s unsafe. We embrace silicone, which is a soft surface, and we use lots of metal, which provides a more luxurious feel. This is safer and hypoallergenic, and also gives a better vibration experience if you design it properly.

SSF: How do you design it properly?

MT: Well, you can talk about motors—not just how fast it spins, but how do you design the counter-weight. We actually employ a fairly expansive user community, so we do a lot of field-testing. So there’s no one simple element, it’s all the different touch points.

SSF: What exactly is the motor device?

MT: With few exceptions, all vibrators are simple on a basic level: There’s a motor with a counterweight and the counterweight spins, and the offset counterweight creates vibration. But the density of the material, the size of the counterweight, how much it’s offset, the RPM of the motor, the magnitude of the motor, how that motor interacts with the actual object, how it’s married within the object—all those things have a profound effect on the vibrations. For example, one of the huge issues historically with vibrators is that the whole object vibrates, so the user’s hand gets vibrated as much as the actual erogenous zones that they’re stimulating. So the hand can go numb, which is not the experience the user is looking for. In our designs, we’ve done a lot of work to isolate the vibrations of the motor. So we have motors in tubes, in an isolation mount, so there’s a lot of subtlety there.

SSF: What is the optimum RPM of the motor?

MT: There really isn’t one. There isn’t like a universal frequency that works for all women. So we end up making our products with different heads and different control settings of intensity and speed and pattern types. So there’s no vibration that fits all.

SSF: What about shapes? There seems to be a new generation of two-pronged vibrators.

MT: It’s not the only way to do it, but there’s a value in that. One of our products is called the Duet, and having a vibrator with two motors allows it to surround the clitoris and that can create a different sensation that’s very appealing. But by no means do you have to have two motors to make a vibrator compelling. Our latest product, The Vesper, is a necklace that’s also a vibrator. So it’s a long thin pendant that you wear. It’s piece of jewelry, so it needs to look beautiful, but it also needs to function well as a vibrator.

SSF: Considering Fifty Shades of Grey, do you have any BDSM products and how have they been improved upon?

MT: We have a bracelet that becomes handcuffs, so it’s more of a jewelry piece. But it’s two leather straps that you wear on one wrist, and there’s a chain between them, and they can turn into handcuffs. A lot of handcuffs are made of lower quality leather or the metal isn’t very good.

SSF: Do you think those types of products are ripe for reengineering?

MT: Yes. With Ben Wa balls and certain bondage stuff, the materials tend not to be very good, and they don’t tend to think deeply about how they interface with the body or the hands. There’s certainly a lot of opportunity there for some more modern designs.

SSF: What’s the future of these technologies? Is there going to be something on the horizon like a smart vibrator that understands what you want like a Google algorithm?

MT: The industry has been very male-centric on how we view sexuality. At my company, we don’t see the future as some perfect device like “the Orgasmatron.” Pleasure is so much more complicated; there are so many levels to it. It’s emotional as it is physical. So while we continue to push the envelope on how technology helps enhance sexual experiences, it’s not likely we’re going to create the vibrator that’s going to learn your stimulus patterns and change the vibrations based on X, Y, and Z, because women are so complicated—we are all too complicated for that. So it’s just not that simple.