Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sex at CES: An uncomfortable coupling

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In 2011, OhMiBod, a burgeoning toy company run by husband and wife team Brian and Suki Dunham, was looking for a mainstream platform for its iPod-connected vibrator that let users screw to their own beats. After an initial rejection, the Dunhams petitioned the CEA and eventually made their way onto the show floor.

“I think it was great,” Brian Dunham says. “They said, ‘Let’s give it a try and if it works, great. If it doesn’t work and we get a lot of blow-back, then you know, you probably won’t be invited back.'”

The CEA let OhMiBod in under the same conditions as other exhibitors, prohibiting the “showing of film, photos, games or other software in the exhibit area which are deemed objectionable, including explicit or simulated sex, nudity or violence.”

According to Suki, OhMiBod was “tucked back in a corner” between Taser International and Yahoo! and didn’t feel completely welcome.

“We did, I think, get kind of checked on,” Suki Dunham says. “And I find it funny, because of course many of the tech companies hire talent for their booth, and they hire certain talent to get people interested in what they have to show, even if it’s, whatever it is, new tech in automotive. There’s talent there, meaning women that are very good-looking and all, you know, dressed up or sexy or whatever. We would never do that in our booth, because that that would be counterproductive for us, because we’re trying to push the ball forward, and to me that makes us regress.”

Sex was present at CES, but it wasn’t the same tits out, dick swinging sideshow that AEE once provided. Sex at CES was a decidedly more sterile affair, unless of course, it came in the way of booth babes selling also-ran HDTVs. The Dunhams say reactions continue to be a mix of juvenile giggles, knowing nods and genuine interest.

“We still get, every year, the comment, ‘Aren’t you at the wrong show?'” Suki Dunhams says. “Meaning that we’re not at AVN. People feel uncomfortable about sex. It’s really funny, but some men still act like 10-year-old boys when it comes to sex.”

Despite the sideways glances and juvenile commentary, CES is a big money maker for OhMiBod. In its five years at the show, the company has secured big distribution deals with retailers like Target and Brookstone, mainstream press coverage from publications like Wired and last year’s Best of CES Awards win for “Best Digital Health and Fitness Product.” It might seem that CES has warmed to sex as a legitimate money maker, but the recent addition of adult film studio Naughty America comes with a caveat that shows how little has changed since Fishbein first attended in 1984.

In an official statement a CTA spokesperson said, “When making decisions on any CES exhibitor, the Consumer Technology Association first determines if the exhibit/product fits into one of our stated product categories. In the case of Naughty America, we determined that the product truly fit under Virtual Reality, and helps demonstrate the range of content and usage for this ground-breaking technology. As a rule, adult content/products are not allowed on the CES show floor and do not fit into a defined product category. At CES 2017, Naughty America will be in a private meeting room, not featured on the show floor.”

Like the porn studios that came before it, Naughty America will be cordoned off, far from Samsung, Sony and tech’s other major players. Meanwhile, many argue that the next big shift in computing, virtual reality, could benefit from porn’s mass appeal in the same way that VHS did in the early days of home video. It’s impossible to quantify porn’s impact on technology, but this quiet codependence is far from over.

“The whole dialog around sex is always so uncomfortable so no one is ever going to proclaim how they respect the adult industry or how valuable it is to driving their technologies forward,” Holland says. “Did someone from Google come to talk to me about VR? Yes. Did they make me swear on a bible that I would not talk about it and identify them? Yes. Was Panasonic uncomfortable when their CTO was there about his involvement with me? Yes. But did he fly over from Japan to sit on a set with me? Yes. So people are pragmatists. You know? They’re not gonna upset their boards, they’re not going to shake up their consumer base.”

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