Adult Themes: The rise and fall of America's first digital brothel

If someone forced you to describe RealTouch Interactive in just two words, you'd probably call it a "digital brothel." And rightly so, as the North Carolina-based business specializes in teledildonics, wearable gadgets that let people "have sex" through the internet; a technology that lets paying customers connect with consenting partners online. In 2012, RealTouch was on the rise, getting featured in HBO's Sex/Now documentary series and Amazon's original comedy series Betas. But despite the positive press, the company's fortunes took a nosedive. RealTouch found itself unable to sell its hardware and, what's more, it is now catering to a dwindling group of existing customers. It wasn't the moral majority, however, that pushed the sex-tech outfit to the brink of collapse. It was patent licensing.

The Backstory

RealTouch launched in 2008 as a subsidiary of the Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network, a service that streams thousands of movies from its own site and also owns the popular video site PornoTube. The company's initial teledildonic hardware, simply named the "RealTouch," consisted of a male masturbator -- a motorized sleeve placed over male genitalia in order to simulate sex, designed to work in sync with a set of specially modified movies from AEBN's back catalog. For example, if you watched a movie where a male performer was penetrating another person, that thrusting motion would be replicated by the device. If that performer were to then quicken (or slow) their pace, the device would follow suit in real time. It wasn't the most elegant of connected-sex solutions, though, since it required its own USB "mini tower" and power supply to connect with a desktop PC.

The biggest challenge RealTouch encountered with its foray into connected sex toys was ensuring that video and motion data remained in sync for the users at home. To overcome that hurdle, the company had to abandon existing streaming-technology solutions in favor of a proprietary one built by an in-house engineering team. Instead of transmitting two separate streams (one for video and one for the device's motion data), RealTouch's patented technology combines them, ensuring that the onscreen action remains in sync with the hardware.

The Online Cathouse

In 2012, RealTouch added a dildo called the JoyStick to its stable of connected toys. The JoyStick had a capacitive exterior that could be used to sense any form of touch. When I spoke to "EJ," RealTouch product manager and one of the figures behind the business, he told me that producing a capacitive surface that could handle the sensory input initially proved difficult as liquids (in this case, lube and bodily fluids) confuse capacitive touch devices -- much like how your smartphone goes haywire in the rain.

With the JoyStick, RealTouch launched its Interactive division, a business segment wherein webcam "models" could perform sexual acts to the JoyStick for a fee. Those sensations would then be relayed, along with the live video, to paying male customers from around the world. As for the pricing model, EJ says RealTouch "tried to empower the models" as much as possible by letting them set their own rules and price structure. That means models get to individually determine how much to charge for specific sexual acts on a per-client basis, control what they will and won't do on camera and even what's said to them. To give you an idea of how this bears out, the current rate for oral sex from a RealTouch Interactive model ranges between $30 and $60, with something involving penetration costing roughly twice as much.

RTI's current stable of models are entirely female, this heteronormativity seemingly at odds with the limitless reach of the internet. EJ said that when the site first launched, it had both male and female models, but "the gay crowd just wasn't interested in it," leading those performers to lose patience and depart. It certainly wasn't an exclusionary choice, since the technology was originally designed for same-sex interactions as well, but for some reason "it didn't seem to appeal."

Even without the support of a gay male customer base, RealTouch was starting to scale new heights, and it wasn't long before the company began to flirt with mainstream recognition, landing mentions on (at the time) unaired shows from HBO and Amazon. It was at this point, however, that the wheels began to fall off. When RealTouch launched, the company had to license some minor haptic-interaction patents for its teledildonic tech since they covered any sort of internet-based touch events; licenses set to expire in 2013. But when RealTouch offered to re-up the agreement for a similar amount, the company was rebuffed. In fact, EJ claims the owners of those haptic patents wanted "far more [money] than what was realistic."

The Fall

The clock was ticking, for both researchers who were working on the second generation of RealTouch hardware and the factories that were preparing to manufacture the fifth run of the original. The licensors strung out their negotiations beyond the hard date AEBN would work to, forcing RealTouch to shut down. An agreement was eventually reached with the licensors, but by the time AEBN had signed on the dotted line -- and for something close to the original price -- it was too late for RealTouch.

The timing could not have been worse. Shortly after the shutdown, Amazon's Betas and HBO's Sex/Now both aired, sending mainstream interest in RealTouch's products through the roof. By that point, however, the company had no choice but to exit the market. The backers had pulled out; the factories had moved on; and all RealTouch could do was continue to support its existing customer base with hardware troubleshooting, but not product repair. "Customers break their devices through wear and tear, but we don't have the ability to replace them," said EJ.

AEBN has, so far, refused to throw more money behind the project, and with no cash available to build replacements, RealTouch now sits on a slow train to oblivion. The company still has a few treasures gathering dust on its shelves, however, including nearly finished second-generation versions of both the JoyStick and RealTouch.

There's also the company's unreleased "couple's product," a device designed for the internet generation's sexual habits. EJ wouldn't comment directly, but it appears as if RealTouch intended to create a connected-sex-toy version of Chatroulette -- the once-popular site that lets people initiate random conversations with total strangers over webcams. In this case, people of either gender would be able to engage in casual cybersex with the first person that tickled their fancy.

EJ remains hopeful that a deep-pocketed investor will arrive just in time to rescue the company from the doldrums, but the prospects remain dim. Mainstream investors aren't too interested in adult brands, and there are few companies within the adult entertainment industry wealthy enough to put up the million-plus dollars it would take to resume production. RealTouch, for its part, would welcome a deal to sell or even license the teledildonic technology to another brand in a heartbeat, but so far none have shown interest. For all its innovative promise pioneering the connected adult entertainment industry, RealTouch, it seems, is destined to exist as a footnote in the history of technological sex.

[Image Credits: Amazon Studios (Betas), RealTouch Interactive]