I'm standing in the studio at Engadget's San Francisco headquarters, holding the remains of a pulverized, cream-filled doughnut. The pastry's sticky, off-white filling clings to the shaft of a bright pink vibrator, taped to the end of a silver, cone-shaped device with three arms that come together at a point and a horseshoe-shaped base. This disembodied robot boob is the Novint Falcon, a one-time game-changing game controller turned teledildonics legend.
NSFW Warning: This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts.
Kyle Machulis, hardware engineer and sex-tech enthusiast, is here to reenact a demo he posted to YouTube in August 2007. He may have been the first person to strap a dildo to the failed haptic game controller, but he wasn't the last. Since its debut, the Novint Falcon has popped up in tech demos for VR sex suits, adult social networks and as a next-level cam-site interface. So how does a device go from PC-gaming sweetheart to would-be sex-toy wunderkind?
Nearly two years after its announcement, the Novint Falcon seemed poised to change the way we game. The alien-like controller, with its origins in a national laboratory, promised to bring sophisticated haptic feedback to your desktop, allowing users to actually feel the games they played.
It had been a bumpy road to market, but by the summer of 2008 Novint had picked up a number of major licensing deals, secured distribution through big-box stores like Best Buy and managed to impress the gaming and tech press through demos at CES and GDC. The headlines were largely positive, but no one was ready to call it a success just yet. After years of refining its vision and business model, the company had landed on a play for the video game market that could bring industrial-grade haptic controls to consumers worldwide. It just needed to secure another round of funding first.
"It really makes you feel like you're in a game. It's the first time you really are the character instead of just controlling the character," Tom Anderson said.
In its short lifespan, the Novint Falcon was used in medical, industrial and architectural training and visualization. Heavyweights like Chrysler, Mobil, Chevron and Lockheed Martin adopted it, but according to Novint founder and CEO Tom Anderson, the vision for the company had always been consumer applications. Video games presented the perfect interface to introduce a device that Anderson speculated would "fundamentally change computing."
"At the time, people said we were crazy, you know, these are $15,000 advanced robots -- there's no way that you're going to take this down to a consumer price point," Anderson says. "But to make a long story short, we did. We took the price down from $15,000 to under $150 to manufacture them and manufactured them in quantity in China."
The company had a tough go during the dot-com crash but managed to stay afloat. Now, with its eyes set on the gaming market and a device that could be sold for roughly $250, Anderson and his team were ready to make a play for the consumer market. It was time to show the public what this thing could do.
"For video games, it's an amazing technology," Anderson says. "You can feel a gun recoil, you can feel a golf swing, you can feel every bump a car goes over when it slams into something in a racing game. It really makes you feel like you're in a game. It's the first time you really are the character instead of just controlling the character."
The tech and gaming press echoed Anderson's enthusiasm after the device made its round on the trade-show circuit.
Joystiq called the Falcon an "ingenious piece of design," and then-Engadget columnist Ross Rubin said it was "one of the most promising PC interface peripherals to come along in years." Everyone seemed to agree: The Falcon was a good thing that could only get better.
Even with a warm reception from the press, mainstream adoption would be an uphill battle. Not only was the Falcon significantly larger and more expensive than most controllers, it was also lacking the most important element: games. The device was introduced to market with a handful of fun but rudimentary mini-games and a port of Half-Life 2, but without big-name titles, it was going to be hard to drive mass-market appeal, and without a strong user base, it was near-impossible to secure integration with big-name titles.
"We'd go to a game publisher and say 'I want you to support our new device,' and they would say, 'It's amazing but come back to me when you have a million install base,'" Anderson says.
In order to break free of the "chicken and egg" conundrum, Novint started buying up the "3D-touch rights" to major video-game franchises. "We were buying something off of them they didn't even know they had: the sleeves off their vests," Anderson says.
The first publisher to take the bait was Electronic Arts.
"When we closed with EA everything was going perfectly, really," Anderson says. "We were hitting all of our milestones, all of our investors were happy, we were about to get much broader distribution. We were talking to the consoles as well. They said, 'If you can get game support, then we want to carry you with our devices.' PlayStation, in particular, when we told them about the EA deal, we were ready to move forward and get support for the PS3. So everything was coming together perfectly."
According to Anderson, Novint closed the deal with EA in May 2008. But it was already too late. The Great Recession was well underway and by the beginning of 2009, Novint was operating with a 10th of its staff, sales were weak and funding had all but dried up.
"We found ourselves in a car we couldn't continue to put any gas in," Anderson says. So he merged with ForceTek, which was looking to use the Falcon's 3D touch technology to create a haptic exoskeleton. The time had seemingly come and gone for the Novint Falcon and Anderson exited the company soon after.
Years before, however, a floppy, purple silicone dildo had signaled a new direction for the Falcon. The semi-hard phallus haphazardly strapped to the end of the device's three, rotating arms stabbed aimlessly into thin air, foretelling an unexpected if unwanted future for the one-time game-changer.
When Machulis repurposed his Falcon as a desktop fuck machine and posted a video of it to his blog, Slashdong, in 2007, he may have unwittingly set the stage for its reinvention. Machulis, who was working as an engineer on Second Life at the time, had been following the development of the Falcon over the years.
"I was and to this day -- it's something like 9 years old now -- am still enamored with it, Machulis said. "It's such an amazing experience, especially for the cost."
"It's made to go in your hand, not in your butt," Kyle Machulis said.
Machulis got his hands on the device before its consumer debut and created a simple proof-of-concept program he now calls "crude and stupid." He's not wrong. The program takes advantage of the device's force controls to thrust back and forth in a sort of wild stabbing motion, like a drunk teenager aimlessly thrusting his way through his first time. In the demo video he posted to YouTube, a bright purple, anatomically correct dildo is strapped to the end of the device, taking advantage of the modular control knob that would have allowed gamers to attach a gun for first-person shooters, for example.
The Falcon may look like a sophisticated robo-fuck machine to the untrained eye, but as I found out during our doughnut demo, it lacks the precision and force to properly penetrate a pastry, much less a contracted human orifice. That's not to say it couldn't be the proverbial "hot dog in a hallway," but where's the fun in that?
"It's made to go in your hand, not in your butt," Machulis says, pointing out that in order for the Falcon to operate with any level of precision, it has to communicate with the computer running the application thousands of times per second. But technical limitations only partially explain why the Falcon has yet to take off as a legitimate sexual aid.
In 2013, six years after Machulis' video hit YouTube, a company called Happy Haptics Inc. announced plans for an adult social network called FriXion that would allow users to communicate with their genitals anywhere in the world. The company painted a picture of an adult Facebook that leveraged the Falcon outfitted with either a vibrator or a sex sleeve like a Fleshlight, for remote sex. The company promised one-on-one as well as group teledildonic experiences.
Happy Haptics released a number of proof-of-concept demos of its own, showing users manipulating the devices by hand to simulate sex and called on beta users to test out the social network. Then, in July 2015, the company went dark. It stopped updating its Facebook and Twitter pages with no warning. Soon after, Machulis reported that FriXion had been named in a patent suit along with a handful of other teledildonics companies for infringing on a vague patent covering any "method and device for interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks."
FriXion was foiled by a patent troll going by the name of TZU and it seemed the Falcon was doomed to the annals of vaporware. But like an old dick fortified by Viagra, the Falcon just won't quit. In 2014, Motherboard called a modified Falcon "The Robot That Makes Virtual Sex Feel Real." It was referring to a demo of the device by Japanese sex toy outfit, Tenga. The company strapped one of its signature sex toys to the device and synced it to an XXX anime video game that users would experience in virtual reality. Vice's Brian Merchant admitted that he hadn't actually penetrated the contraption, but seemed optimistic about its potential. He said his "brief encounter with Tenga's wiry gadget was enough to see a glimpse of the future of onanism."
Earlier this year, a totally not real and NSFW virtual-reality sex suit reignited the public's fascination with the device. It turned out to be an April Fool's joke by Illusion VR, the company behind Tenga's earlier anime sex simulator. I described it in an earlier column as a clumsy combo of "the Novint Falcon, a Tenga sex sleeve, a pair of silicone breasts, what appears to be a Gear VR and a white spandex bodysuit covered in black velcro straps and power cords."
Despite the ridiculousness of the thing and the no-duh timing of its release, major online news sources were beside themselves about the possibility of a full-body, haptic sex suit. Unfortunately for the Falcon, the Illusion VR hoax was just that.
While Tenga and Illusion were busy selling a fantasy to a public thirsty for sex robots, Chris Johns and his wife Tabitha Rae were building on a dream that put the Falcon at the center of its modest Madison, Wisconsin-based cam operation, Doitchrisyle.com.
According to Johns, the couple has gone through the appropriate channels to avoid a suit with TZU, and after a recent server crash is rebuilding its site to allow users to have virtual sex with Tabitha and a small stable of other performers Johns refers to as "virtual girlfriends." Johns plans to sell sex-toy ready Falcons to customers, who will be able to manipulate a performer's device using their own, or vice versa.
DoitChristyle.com, which debuted at AVN in 2014, currently contains a grid of lingerie-clad models and the promise of a "hot and sexy new website, coming soon." Johns says he has a limited supply of "less than 10,000" Flacons that will be available for purchase to VIP customers when the site relaunches at an undisclosed date. While he acknowledges it is no longer in production, Johns is confident that the Falcon will rise again.
"The select people that we have had try this experience have absolutely loved it -- even the performers," Johns says. "Quotes like 'I'll never use my hand again' have been mentioned several times."
He echoes the enthusiasm I've heard repeated ad nauseam since I first heard of the Falcon. Whether it's being used as an industrial simulator, a haptic game controller or a futuristic sexual aid, just about everyone agrees, you just have to try it to understand its potential. Nearly 10 years in, however, potential is just about all the Falcon has to offer ... potential, and a mutilated chocolate doughnut.