High-tech sex toys are a living nightmare with big dreams
I tried optimizing my sex life with high-tech toys and it was a nightmare
This is the second story in a four-part series on sex hacks for the digital age.
It is the worst of times for high-tech sex toys. It is the best of times for high-tech sex toys.
The dream of disrupting a stalled out sex toy industry through innovation and tech has garnered lots of hype over the past several years. From press to consumers to makers, everyone wants to buy into the potential of harnessing tech’s unprecedented power to optimize our sex lives. It’s like we’re all just holding our breath, waiting for the inevitable advancement that’ll cause an iPhone level of radical change to human sexuality so powerful that we start pearl-clutching over its Black Mirror-esque impact on society.
But after months of rigorous experimentation with about 30 of the award-winning and most lauded high-tech toys available, I’ve got bad news: The vast majority of these high-tech sex toys turned my love life into a living nightmare — a Kafka-esque labyrinth of horny troubleshooting.
From smart cock rings marketed as “Fitbits for sex” to a multitude of smart “interactive” vibrators, the internet of dongs is currently a sea of expensive gadgets that promise to blow your analog sex out of the water while often failing to deliver on basic functionality.
In this still nascent stage, many high-tech toys tend to invite only the worst parts of technology into your bedroom and (in some cases) inside your very body.
High-tech toys tend to invite only the worst parts of technology into your bedroom.
Yet at the same time, an influx of diverse startups and disruptors have wrought unmistakably radical change. By questioning old-guard conventions, many have ushered in a golden age of innovative toys that hint at what the bright future of sex tech can be.
I first dove into the world of high-tech toys with an open mind and even more eagerly open legs. While I began a naive believer in all the new erotic possibilities these toys purported to offer, I left feeling like a jilted lover with emotional and physical wounds and one too many broken promises.
“High-tech sex tech is in kind of a weird spot,” said Liz Klinger, co-founder of the Lionness smart rabbit vibrator, which tracks your orgasms then syncs to an app to give you detailed data and charted graphs. It’s one of the few toys I tried that actually delivers on its premise, empowering me to understand my body more and see my pleasure in new ways. “There are all these small to medium-sized cumulative issues that add up over time to become large problems.”
Even the high-tech sex toys that actually succeed in doing what they advertise fall victim to some of the fundamental issues plaguing the industry. Imagine all the everyday frustrations of technology: constant firmware updates incompatible with your device, maddening connectivity issues, malfunctioning hardware, faulty apps, unthoughtful user experience, numerous and legitimate privacy concerns. Now, imagine dealing with all that while also trying to fuck.
Lioness smart vibrator
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Lovely smart cock ring
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Take Bluetooth, for example, ostensibly the catch-22 of sex tech. Almost every smart toy requires it. But the invisible elephant in the room is that Bluetooth connection is incompatible with the inside of a human body, since water repels the signal and we’re 80 percent water. That issue only amplifies after getting turned on, since the vibe causing you to get wet hates everything about your biology. More often than not, if you use an internal Bluetooth-enabled wearable as instructed, it inevitably stops working.
This basic clash of the sex with the tech (and human anatomy) renders all those pricey bells and whistles you thought you paid for — custom vibrations, interactive control panels, app-controlled public play, long-distance couples toys that connect to each other, vibrations that respond to ambient sound, music, and voice — effectively unusable.
We-Vibe, one of the biggest names in high-tech toys with a corresponding app, is featured on countless top high-tech sex toy lists and yet proved to be one of the worst offenders in terrible tech. Hundreds of users have given its app abysmal reviews due to Bluetooth issues and crashes. It’s a true shame because, like many We-Vibe toys, their beloved couples wearable Sync earns its reputation for innovative design.
“We have been working very hard on a solution to this and will be announcing a new connectivity standard by the end of the year,” a We-Vibe representative said. Its app also recently underwent an overhaul (though all the old issues persisted for me).
While faring better in my tests and in app reviews, Lovense (yet another staple on high-tech lists) shared the same problems. The Lush 2, despite the box touting it as having “the best control range out of all Bluetooth toys,” continually dropped connection if I held my phone out at arm’s length.
A Lovense representative said these issues can be caused by clothing or parts of the body blocking the antenna (like closing your legs). “This is one of the limitations of Bluetooth as a technology that we do our best to overcome by optimizing our products hardware configuration,” they said.
Horrifyingly, if you lose the ability to control these internal toys via Bluetooth, that doesn’t mean they stop vibrating, no matter how desperately you press every useless button in its godforsaken app. On the flip side, you may find yourself on the verge of climax, reaching for your phone to intensify the vibration to get you over the edge, only to have your orgasm chased away by the maddening notification that, sorry, it’s no longer connected.
Connection drops are less catastrophic when used in the bedroom, since you can at least just take it out. During public play, however, Bluetooth connection issues were near traumatizing, once leaving me running to the bathroom in a panic and forced to wait in line while We-Vibe’s Jive went rogue inside me.
Hoping an external toy might fix the issue, I tried We-Vibe’s other public play toy, the Moxie panty vibe. After pairing it to my phone successfully in the bathroom, I tried giving my partner control of the app shortly after. Wouldn’t you know it, it disconnected. All attempts to reconnect it — including pointing my phone directly at my pussy in the middle of a club — failed. Lovense’s wand vibrator Domi, though, did miraculously maintain connection.
The only semi-reliable internal wearable I ever encountered was OhMiBod’s Esca 2. While it shares similar antenna designs to its competitors, a representative explained the longer and larger tail allows the Bluetooth chip to be closer to the top. But really, what more likely made the difference was OhMiBod’s reliance on Wi-Fi or cell signal, so I guess just pray AT&T’s a reliable sex partner to add to the mix.
OhMiBod’s panty vibe BlueMotion NEX1 proved the most reliable public play app toy. But unfortunately, I couldn’t use it in the way I wanted during a concert because the app crashed every time I tried launching its trademark Club Vibe mode. A representative told us this is due to the app’s current incompatibility with the iPhone 11 (which they’re working to fix).
Dame’s innovatively designed Eva II
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Mystery Vibe’s inclusive and versatile Crescendo
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While infuriating, analog remotes or buttons on the vibrator generally allow you to circumvent connection or app problems for close-range play (though at that point, spend that money on a luxury one like Lelo). But for long-distance couples toys — like Lovense’s Max 2 and Nora, OhMiBod’s Fuse paired with Kiiro’s Fleshlight Launch, or We-Vibe’s new pre-market equivalent Rey and Reina — those issues can render your $100-$350 toys unusable for the purpose you bought them.
Long-distance toys are supposed to connect to each other via app, often allowing you to video chat with your lover anywhere in the world, give them control of your toy, or sometimes even mimic each other’s movements.
Thankfully, most use internet connection and male masturbators aren’t usually internal. So generally, maintaining connection is easier. At least in theory.
Predictably, even after hours of troubleshooting and four separate attempts, We-Vibe’s Rey and Reina refused to pair. On the off-chance they did, the app froze so much I couldn’t test my toy’s alleged sensors for real-time syncing with my partner’s. The Max and Nora on the other hand, while winning for sheer functionality, proved that feature mostly only awesome on paper. In practice you need to stroke or penetrate yourself so vigorously for your partner to get a lagged response that you’re better off trying to cum together via telegram.
OhMiBod’s Fuse and Kiiro’s Fleshlight Launch are two individually great toys. But despite being named some of the best for long-distance couples, connecting them to each other relies on the boner-killing and limited Feel Connect app, which looks and navigates like a ‘90s webpage. That is, if your Launch doesn’t arrive defective, which my first one did, along with many others as described on the r/fleshlight subreddit. (Though Kiiro does acknowledge the problem and sends free replacements if you reach out to customer service.)
There’s so much fine print that prevents you from using high-tech toys as advertised. As someone who’s horny for audio, for example, I was eager to test Vibease’s audiobook and music-responsive vibrator Esthesia. But, I learned, both Vibease and We-Vibe’s Beat Mode are only compatible with Apple Music, making it irrelevant to 26 million Spotify users. Only Lovense’s app integrates both.
All in all, this combination of a million little huge problems shows just how saturated the market is with pricey toys flying by the seat of their pants to work. If you can believe it, these technological failures in sex tech are the best it’s ever been. When you combine all that with the fact that many sex toy companies don’t take returns, it can start feeling like a straight-up scam. (Though some state they will for malfunctioning hardware.)
Yet, there are ways to utilize Bluetooth that don’t render your high-tech sex toy a wildly inappropriate and expensive paperweight. The Lioness and smart cock ring Lovely, for example, both store data while being used and only require Bluetooth connection after to transfer it over to their apps. We reached out multiple times to the other most popular smart cock ring, ORing, but the company refused to send us a product sample for review.
Fundamentally, though, the sex is rarely in conversation with the tech. Even the most laudable high-tech toys suffer from some of the worst, most broken, least intuitive software imaginable. That’s especially unfortunate because the time you most need an app to work intuitively is when you’re trying to use it to cum.
For the app-controlled toys listed above, several of the interactive slider panels to increase intensity are placed at the bottom of the screen. So anyone with an iPhone X or newer will find they can’t make it go up without the iPhone’s touch control interpreting it as you trying to force quit the app (which, honestly, is a reasonable assumption). App navigation is such a general mess that even the toys supposedly designed to heighten pleasure and optimize your relationship, like the Lovely, turn having a loving sex life with your partner into a chore.
“A lot of the bigger companies in the sex tech space are pretty apt at manufacturing and making physical products,” explained Lioness’ Klinger. And it’s true, many of these products are beautifully crafted in and of themselves. “But they’re just not savvy at other aspects of technology.”
Boy, does it show.
OhMiBod Fuse and Kiiro Fleshlight Launch
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Lovense’s Max 2 and Nora
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One story Klinger told captures just how clueless a large swath of the sex toy industry is about what it takes to make good technology. When she and her team of five went to one of the best, biggest high-tech sex toy manufacturers in the country to build the Lioness, they requested twisted wires. It’s an industry-standard in consumer electronics to strengthen Bluetooth connection and avoid drop issues. The manufacturer didn’t know what they were, though. (It’s literally just two wires twisted together.) So the small startup had to teach this major manufacturer in sex tech how to do it.
There’s also a lack of the open-source culture necessary for great software in the sex tech space, with companies being so secretive that it stifles everyone’s ability to innovate, Klinger said.
Often, she added, bigger companies crush smaller startups seen as competition by suing them into bankruptcy or pressuring them into acquisition. Up until last year, there was a patent on the technology needed for remote app-controlled toys that caused numerous innovators in the space to go belly up before even getting to market.
Then there’s the issue of venture capitalist bias. Beyond the usual bias against the women founders often responsible for the best sex tech I used, many are also hesitant to invest in the nascent, risky, untested and still taboo sex tech industry.
How sex companies turn a profit and a lack of human-focused design are two other major problems holding back innovation, said Lora Haddock, CEO of one of the most anticipated high-tech toys coming out later this year.
Often big companies are racing to churn out toys that boast new functions every year. By prioritizing expedited product development and incremental or overstated innovation, they oversaturate the sex tech market with toys that overpromise and underdeliver on quality and functionality. Also consequently, much too little time is spent testing the actual experience people will have while using these devices in their most intimate, vulnerable moments.
“A lot of companies take this bottom-up approach. They’re like, ‘OK, well, we’ve got a motor. We’ve got this much money. We have this kind of tech. So let’s pull it all together into a package and see if it sells,’” she said. “That’s fundamentally the wrong way to engineer pleasure. That’s not looking at how people want to experience pleasure.”
At times, it feels like the absolute last thing these designers considered is whether or not the tech implemented actually improves or hinders your sex life. Or, in some cases, whether their product is compatible with human beings that have Bluetooth signal-blocking vaginas and assholes.
“That’s fundamentally the wrong way to engineer pleasure.”
There’s also an exceptional blindness to female genitalia in sex tech, particularly evident in the virtual reality and interactive toy category. I found myself unable to test most of them because, often, only male toys are optimized for VR sex experiences.
I did manage to try one of the few that is, OhMiBod’s smart interactive vibrator Fuse, to watch interactive 2D porn on the FeelConnect platform. Unsurprisingly, there were far fewer videos optimized for it compared to male toys. Incredulously, I also noticed that the Fuse was vibrating and responding in tandem with the male performer getting his genitalia stimulated rather than the female.
Talk about immersive, amiright?!
I’m also now particularly wary of high-tech toys priding themselves on being “the world’s first toy for X new sensation.” More times than not, they only prove why no one was asking for it in the first place.
Lelo’s multi-award-winning Ora 2, advertised as “the world’s most intelligent oral sex simulator,” boasts a baffling design and patented SenseTechnology that went from barely capable of grazing my clitoris to nearly rubbing it clean off. It’s the world’s most intelligent toy to apparently have no idea how the female anatomy works. Meanwhile Lovense’s Osci 2, “the world’s first oscillating g-spot toy,” punched my interiors so vigorously on the lowest setting that I felt the internal bruising for days.
What the current state of sex tech does is peddle a ton of products that integrate tech and innovation because they can, but not at all because they should.
That’s why the best of them tend to come from startups that begin with a specific, unfulfilled need or desired experience, then craft the physical product from there.
The upcoming Osé from Lora DiCarlo was born from Haddock’s dream to create an automated device that helps people with vaginas achieve the elusive “holy grail” blended-orgasm. It’s all without vibration, focusing instead on mimicking human motions that adapt to a wide variety of bodies. They’re also not releasing any of their initial products with Bluetooth or app integration, since right now that tech isn’t helping anyone get off.
Lioness will also soon launch a new algorithm feature that makes the raw data more understandable to users. The tech was easy to figure out. But the team wrestled with how to frame the analysis, knowing that the wrong approach could negatively impact someone’s perspective on their own sexual experiences.
But honestly, sex toy companies don’t deserve all the blame. At the heart of the biggest problems facing sex tech is a fissure between the sex and tech industries that’s been bubbling for years.
Despite initially leading the way in tech advancements, Silicon Valley gatekeepers have been trying to distance themselves from the taboo sex industry. It all culminated in a scandal with Lora Dicarlo at 2019’s CES. Initially, the committee gave the Osé a coveted award for innovation in robotics, before then revoking it after deeming the product “obscene” (aka used for sex).
The Lora DiCarlo team publicly called out CES for its shortsighted policies against sex tech and clear double standard against women versus men’s pleasure tech. Eventually, CES reversed its decision, reinstated their award, and announced a change to its policy banning sex tech from the show floor — at least on a trial basis for the upcoming conference in January 2020.
“We can only grow as fast as the rest of the tech world grows. So if we want the kind of quality tech needed to build great products, we need to keep breaking down doors, coming to tech conferences, and saying, you know, we belong here. We need to keep lifting each other up,” said Haddock on the divide between the industries. “We’ve been sequestered off into a corner for so long, we’re only getting the crumbs at the bottom of the bag right now, and it’s not working.”
In spite of all the numerous difficulties facing the sex tech and its makers — and despite feeling almost triggered at the sight of most high-tech toys these days — I still wholeheartedly believe in their bright future. To be clear (and I hope the individual product reviews below show) even the companies perpetuating some of the worst problems still produce laudable products with groundbreaking innovations. And there’s no shortage of desire to fix those issues.
“Right now we’re boxed in by what’s available. But the possibilities of technology are endless, and will continue to evolve as human beings do.”
“Right now we’re boxed in by what’s available. But the possibilities of technology are endless, and will continue to evolve as human beings do,” said Haddock. “We are seeing huge breakthroughs in the tech every day.”
What the Lora DiCarlo team is most excited about recently is a whole new category of advancement in sex tech called material science. It allows the properties of the material used in toys to change, expand, and contract in ways that mimic human touch. When combined with the micro-robotics they’ve already created, it can turn the silicone material into sensors that learn through AI how to reshape and react to your body in real-time.
Toys that truly act, feel, and emulate human contact have been the pipe dream of sex tech for decades (actually, some of the worst companies pretend to have figured it out). But Haddock believes we’re on the precipice of discovery (though it’s important to note that, the Osé has yet to release or prove its functionality).
By testing dozens of high-tech toys, I set out to discover how they might help us have better sex in the digital age. The many promises of sex tech — whether they deliver on them or not yet — are irresistible in that regard.
Often, technology is used as a scapegoat for the problems we face in modern intimacy and sex. And while the internet and smartphones have irrevocably changed human sexuality, through porn or sexting or dating apps, evidence on whether or not its effects are negative remains to be seen.
The people making sex tech right now will in many ways determine whether the needle goes one way or the other. In this crucial moment, we have the opportunity to support those who have a true vision for how tech can become a force for good in our love lives.
“At its best, sex tech helps you explore and understand your body more in a safe environment, discover better pleasure, and find more comfortable ways to communicate that, either to your partner or by yourself,” said Haddock. “That’s all we’re doing here. We’re trying to create tech for a better world that lets people understand their own bodies better.”
High-tech toy Reviews
The Lovely 2.0
The best idea with the most milquetoast result, this smart cock ring gives tips for better sex with an algorithm that combines data gathered during penetrative sex and “desires” selected on its app. Unfortunately, cock rings notoriously suck at stimulating clitorises, take several inches off the wearer, refuse to stay in place once juices start flowing, and get in the way usual methods for climaxing. Needing to accommodate the cock ring made the “personalized” tips (less personal than expected, once suggesting I “try spanking”) moot since it’s not how I usually fuck. Its ugly, unintuitive app also doesn’t encourage the habitual use needed to deliver on its awesome concept. However couples with difficulty communicating sexually, it might be worth it.
The Lioness tackles the astounding gap in data on male versus female sexual pleasure by making a device that lets you gather it yourself. While the app has issues (like deleting some session data), this tangible perspective on your pleasure is invaluable to those who’ve received nothing but shame and misinformation on what’s happening down there. Combined with the journaling function, the Lioness makes you question everything you assumed about sex, like what the “best” orgasm looks like or the relationship between “tightness” and your own pleasure.
The biggest surprise hit, the Elvie blew my expectations of Kegel exercisers out of the water, with one of the best-designed apps in sex tech that actually encourages the habitual use needed to make it effective. Unlike many other smart exercisers, it monitors if you’re doing Kegels safely and simultaneously dispels myths about vaginal tightness (did you know pelvic strength can change depending on time of day or month?), also avoiding a presentation of your progress that makes it feel like a misogynistic Tightest Pussy competition.
Innovation in design and sensation
Basically the vaginal version of a cock ring, the Eva’s unusual uterus-looking design is singular and, unlike cock rings, places the stimulator on the anatomy that actually needs it. Inserted inside the labia, it’s a finicky fit with lots of room for error, including mostly restricting you to missionary, not fitting different body shapes, and (in my case) sliding out right when things get hot, heavy, and slippery. This radical approach to a hands-free partnered toy needs more iteration, but is a huge leap in the right direction. (Click on the Sex Toy Revolution article below for a review of my preferred Dame innovation, the Fin.)
Wooooo boy. After bad experiences with particularly Lelo’s claims of “new” “patented” “sensation” “technology,” (hello Ora II) I was ready for their Wave line to at best disappoint and at worst destroy my insides. But the “come hither” motion tech, combined with one of the best dual-stimulation rabbits around, was well worth the hype and price.
The Womanizer changed the game for clitoral stimulators by popularizing pressurized suction instead of vibration. While others have followed — like Lelo’s Sona Cruise claiming to improve the tech with “sonic waves” (lol) — the Womanizer remains the OG on delivering near-involuntary orgasms unlike any I’d ever experienced in my life. It’s not necessarily the “better” or “best” orgasm, but it’s the toy I turn to when all else fails.
I don’t know what oral sex the Ora thinks it’s emulating, but it’s the worst I’ve ever had (and that’s saying something). Despite being heralded as one of the best, most innovative toys by many, the Ora is nothing more than a beautiful-looking moron. It’s award-winning SenseTouchTM technology appears to get off on your pain, and not in the hot way.
A Swiss Army Knife of sex toys, this bendable, inclusive, versatile powerhouse justifies its price by letting you experiment in countless ways (check out the Playbook on their site). One con is its beautifully designed but overwhelming app, with a paralyzing amount of customization options. Like all Bluetooth-enabled toys, it drops connection often, so preset your favorite patterns onto the vibe. Mystery Vibe’s new Tenuto wearable is like a much-needed evolution of the cock ring, more reliably stimulating clitorises and also the cock itself.
One of the top-rated couples wearables, the Sync innovates with a U-shaped design that actually delivers on dual clitoral and g-spot stimulation during penetration — unlike many others of its ilk. Some reviews fault it for not staying in place, but it fit my configurations perfectly and was one of the only toys to truly get me woke to the joys of this g-spot thing I kept hearing everyone rave about. But pro tip: don’t even think about using the app during sex or public play, and opt instead for the remote.
Kiiro Fleshlight Launch and OhMiBod’s Fuse
While the toys themselves are by far the best of the long-distance options, they come with the nightmare of using the Feel Connect app. If you can get them to sync up with your own personal IT team, the responsiveness to each other still lags. There’s no in-app video chat function to connect with your partner, but considering how the app is hanging on by a thread as it is, I get why.
Max 2 and Nora
After the hell of troubleshooting the Rey and Reina as well as dysfunctionality of the Feel Connect app, Max and Nora’s seamless pairing and functionality was a godsend. While the toys’ two-way interactivity is an overstated feature, it does work. Sadly though, as sex toys themselves the Max and Nora feel like the worst quality of the three we tested (though perhaps that’s justified for its lower price point).
Rei and Reina
Like most of We-Vibe offerings, these are high quality toys with the worst quality tech in the business. This pair was the most infuriating and unusable as long-distance toys. They’re still in the premarket phase and not sold through retailers yet, so there might be improvement later. But considering how well We-Vibe toys fair with the app, I wouldn’t hold my breath or orgasm for it.
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