Sep 2, 2020
Sex Tech CEO Lora Dicarlo joins us to talk about what COVID-19 has changed in society and sex, and why the last thing you want is your Internet-connected dildo hacked by the Chinese.
Think back on the state of the world in January. Filled with the optimism of a new year, all bright and shiny with possibility, we went about our lives, maskless, taking for granted things like going out for dinner or drinks, watercooler chats with coworkers and maybe even the giddy anticipation of first dates.
We were all unaware suckers.
With the type of fury saved for mothers whose children have hung up on them angrily, or the historic trope of the “woman scorned,” COVID-19 giggled at our innocence and optimism and smacked us all around.
We’ve changed since then. We’re weary and cautious, knowing germs are everywhere and anywhere. We spent a good portion of the year inside. When was the last time you shook someone’s hand? If the answer isn’t “Um...March, I think?” you’re doing it wrong.
But not all is lost! There are some ways in which COVID might have a positive influence on our world, at least from a technological standpoint.
QR -- or quick response -- codes have been around since 1994, believe it or don’t. Invented by Denso Wave, a Japanese company, QR codes were designed to be a faster kind of barcode for products, parts and other items. Among the first adopters were auto manufacturers to make shipping and production more efficient. Eventually that grew from internal corporate uses, including food safety tracing following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease, QR codes were slowly introduced to consumers in the early 21st Century
But no one knew what to do with them. You’d have to download a special app to read them. Sometimes they worked, most often they didn’t. After a while, they were just boxes that looked odd and were ignored.
When COVID-19 hit, throwing everything into a tailspin, some retailers got smart. If customers are supposed to stay socially distant, and if controlling and limiting the spread of germs is of the utmost importance, could QR codes be used to point and shop instead?
QR codes are perfect for a pandemic-stricken world. Bars and restaurants have embraced with joy using QR codes taped or otherwise affixed to tables, doors, windows and other surfaces to allow patrons to read their menus without having to print out and sanitize them daily. Some are making it possible to incorporate online ordering via QR code-enabled functions, with patrons receiving a text when their order is ready. This not only limits interactions between customers and waitstaff -- angels and brave souls who do NOT get paid enough to risk their health in these times, by the way -- but it also allows establishments to have fewer staff on hand at any given time. This saves financial resources at a time when every dollar counts.
It’s an elegant solution, really, and one that’s likely to survive into the future. Not having to print menus saves money and time. It’s more sanitary. It’s easier to update an app or website linked to a QR code, and so much faster, than having to create new tangible menus when seasons change.
Some customers had grown a little more comfortable with QR codes, pre-COVID, as retailers like Starbucks, Macy’s, Whole Foods and some drug stores began using them as contact-free payment methods or linked with their loyalty rewards programs.
It also helps that it’s gotten easier to use QR codes -- no longer is a special app needed to make them work! Most newer smartphones have QR code readers integrated into their camera. Just open your camera, point it at the code and voila, there you have it.
Businesses were starting to feel optimistic about broader adoption of QR codes before the pandemic. A 2018 study from Juniper Research anticipated 5,3 billion QR-based transactions by 2022, a 400% increase over the 1.3 billion transactions in 2017. But COVID is likely going to help shatter that expectation now that North American and Western markets are buying in big time.
People love crediting The Simpsons with “predicting” the future, but let’s talk about the Jetsons. The show began in 1962 and anticipated treadmills, nutrition supplements to take the place of food, flying cars (ok, they weren’t perfect) and video calls.
The concept, and the technology, didn’t appear in a real, useful way until 2003 when Skype was rolled out. But most people who downloaded the program used it as a way to make free phone calls to other users, or to keep in touch with international friends before limitless texting or social media was as widespread and easy as it is now.
Skype was one of the first voice-over-internet protocol communication systems, retrofitting your computer to act as your phone instead of the other way around. By 2011, it was the cornerstone of Facebook’s video chat service.
Facetime was introduced with the iPhone 4 in 2010, but only really benefited other iPhone users.
But for non-iPhone users, for workplaces and for people who want to see their far-flung friends and relatives, COVID made it easier, and far more popular, to adopt video calling capabilities.
When offices were forced to close in early 2020, there was an immediate need for people to communicate and try and mimic the daily meetings and office check-ins they were used to in their places of employment. Very few places went to Skype for assistance. Instead, products like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, even Slack became the glue that held corporate life together.
Zoom, and similar apps like HouseParty, also brought friends together for socially distant gatherings and celebrations -- I had a series of video calls around my birthday at the end of April with family and friends -- while video call capabilities were integrated into Twitter and Instagram to make being face-to-face while socially distant even easier.
Zoominfo.com, a totally unrelated publication, found that video conferencing has grown an astonishing (but not really) 87% in the first part of 2020 alone. While other apps and companies also saw a bump, Zoom itself saw a 418% growth in adoption in just two months.
The casual user can sign up for a Zoom account and make unlimited 40-minute calls for free. Business clients can make longer calls for a subscription. And at this point, we’ve all had a chance to play around with the various stock and customizable backgrounds built into the platform to fancy up those boring conference calls. A video game developer also said, very simply, the call quality is just better in Zoom than other apps, including Google Hangouts.
Smartly, Zoom also announced early on in lockdown that it was making its technology available for free for school districts as a way to try and help kids and teachers stay connected and finish the year from their homes.
The bottom line: there’s a reason retailers are now offering “video conferencing style” sections in their clothing ads. As workplaces find a way forward in the era of social distancing, video conferencing is an effective tool to keep workers connected, allow managers to check up on employees, and it’s not likely to fade away when a vaccine allows everyone to return to the brick-and-mortar office. Assuming that happens. Someday.
How, in the world of a highly contagious and possibly fatal disease, are people having sex with their partners? Is the risk an adrenaline junkie’s aphrodisiac? Are there some who find masks irresistible? Does the pandemic make a naughty nurse fantasy even more enticing?
Early on in the lockdown, the New York City Department of Health released some guidance to help people stay safe while getting their rocks off. In advice that spread as quickly as the virus itself, the city reminded people that “you are your safest sex partner” while also providing some, uh, tips for those who wanted to share the experience.
The department also encouraged holding off on threesomes or other group sex romps, to wear face coverings (in addition to condoms, of course) and avoid kissing, and to consider taking a break from in-person hookups. “Video dates, sexting, subscription-based fan platforms, sexy ‘Zoom parties’ or chat rooms may be options for you,” the advice continues.
In what might be a first, NYC also encouraged people to incorporate kink: “Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face-to-face contact.” It also urged people to explore mutual masturbation -- each partner taking care of themselves while close to the other, but with physical distancing and face coverings to reduce the risk of transmission.
Sex workers were given similar advice by the government of British Columbia, acknowledging the “considerable support” these men and women were providing each other in this difficult time - emotionally and financially. It also encourages the use of sexting, video calls and other communication tools, along with “less is more” methods of arousal like erotic massage, stripteases and positions that don’t involve face-to-face contact.
But let’s be honest: We want to know how sex will be transformed by technology as a result of COVID.
“Sex tech is more than sex toys or objects used for sexual stimulation,” starts an article in The Conversation. “It is a billion-dollar industry that builds a wide range of products for interactive, immersive and connected erotic experiences. This includes but is not limited to: virtual, augmented and mixed reality, ‘teledildonics,’ dating applications and platforms, online erotic games and artificial erotic agents (or erobots) such as sex robots, virtual partners or erotic chatbots.”
The sale of sex toys and dolls has exploded in the past few months, as has the market for sex-tech startups. A study on erobotics from the University of Montreal found that the “private sector is racing to develop new erotic products, to occupy an untapped sextech market that is estimated to be worth $30-$120 billion.”
Teledildonics, or smart sex toys connected to the internet and, therefore, partners in other locations, have been on the fringe for a while, but according to Cams.com, there’s been a 20% increase in people logging into websites and interacting with sex workers and model’s toys since the onset of COVID. The models’ income also increased by about 20% at the same time. InputMag did a deep dive into smart sex techology and found any and all kinds of connected technology have seen profound increases in interest and usage since lockdowns started in March.
At the same time, familiar partners and players, like Pornhub and other erotic sites, saw a spike in traffic almost immediately -- Pornhub alone saw a 13.7% spike in traffic in March alone -- while apps designed around sex have also received more attention. Spain-based Emjoy, “an erotic audio guide app,” had a 45% increase in downloads since early March, along with a 160% increase in usage; Beducated, based in Munich, had 185% more activity, mostly from binge-watching sexual education courses.
When it comes to toys and accessories, especially of the higher-tech variety, the market has mostly been dominated by products designed by men with their needs and interests in mind. Lora DiCarlo, a woman-led company, is changing that. If the name sounds familiar, it should-- in 2019, the company was awarded a highly coveted recognition from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas for its Ose’ product for women, only to have the award taken away and deemed inappropriate, despite dozens of other male-oriented devices not only recognized but openly displayed on the convention floor. CES later thought better of it and re-awarded Ose its Innovative Robotics Award after facing considerable backlash for being straight-up sexist.
“When women and femmes show up in the technology industry, consumers get their hands on incredible devices designed specifically for clitorial and G-spot stimulation, achieving incredible partner or solo blended orgasms,” the company states on its blog. “Female-founded companies promote both pleasure and equity through high-tech microrobotics.”
The company offers not only toys for women, but access to certified sexual wellness coaches -- sex isn’t just about getting off, it’s a key component in overall health, and let’s face it, our physical and mental health is pretty taxed right now.
Moving beyond toys for solo or partner use, there’s also the possibility that people will embrace virtual or augmented reality to simulate sex with digital partners in virtual worlds, or go beyond that and take up extended reality (XR), a technology just starting to be used by doctors to train their colleagues around the world in a shared virtual environment.
Just be safe out there, friends. And be like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: No kissing on the mouth.