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Vibrator guru on pleasure tech: 'Of all the places you'd want a quality UI....'

Former bomb suit maker on how he saw an opening and... filled the need

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CES 2013 CES is the world's premier gadget-fest, so it's perhaps unsurprising that this year it would devote a keynote at its Digital Health Summit conference track dedicated to a device owned by over 50 per cent of Americans: the vibrator.

"Why shouldn't the same high-level thinking like that used in technology and other industries be used to increase pleasure in the bedroom?" asked Grant Bechthold, VP of product development at Standard Innovation, the Ottawa, Ontario company that has sold over 2 million of its flagship product, the We-Vibe, in over 50 countries since its launch in 2008.

"Of all the places that you want a quality user experience," he continued, "I can't think of a better one, can you?"

The improvement of user experiences, Bechthold said, has been common in the technology industry for some time, with start-ups innovating and bringing better experiences to the masses. "But in one most profound area of our life – sexual health and wellness – we have somehow eluded innovation."

Until now, that is, when sexual mores are changing, and people are becoming more comfortable with seeking technology that will aid their health and wellness, including their sexuality. "Sexology, and the study of sex and sexuality," he said, "has been newly recognized as a valid topic of scientific research."

Standard Innovation saw an opening in this area, and thought outside the box, innovating to fill the need. The We-Vibe – now in its second and third incarnations as the We-Vibe II ("The revolutionary sexual wellness gift") and We-Vibe III ("Now remote-controlled, waterproof and more powerful") – is not what one would readily identify as a traditional sex toy.

In fact, Bechthold recounted that an unnamed syndicated daytime TV show took a camera crew out on the street, walked up to passersby, handed them a We-Vibe, and asked them to identify what it was. One said it was a bracelet, another thought it was a Bluetooth headset, and a third suggested that it was a hand exerciser.

"When you hand the vibrator back to them and tell them [what it is]," he said, "you get that natural, visceral reaction of 'Ooo'!"

"Ooo" or no "ooo", Bechthold said that the We-Vibe had been embraced by the medical community, with both sex therapists and physicians prescribing the "couples' vibrator" to their patients.

And for good reason, he said. The medical community is now recognizing the health benefits of sex beyond the emotional and purely pleasurable aspects. He cited studies that have shown that people who have active sex lives derive benefits such as a more youthful appearance, an improvement in their body's immune system, the burning of calories, and the promotion of natural pain relief through orgasm.

About this last one, Bechthold said, "So the next time your partner has a headache, they should have an orgasm – the headache excuse won't work."

He ticked off a list of medical and research organizations that are studying sexuality, and said that his company has long relationships with many of them, and funds research into understanding problems of sex and sexuality.

"At Standard Innovation," he said, "our working mantra really is 'science meets sexuality'. We develop and validate concepts using advanced simulation and engineering technologies, as well as academic research and medical research."

To develop his products, he said, he first tests conceptual designs on a 3D library of 400 digital mannequins used in such industries as ergonomic and automotive design. He then fabricates prototypes using 3D printing and tests them on medical mannequins used by gynecologists.

Next, he provides prototypes to doctors and therapists and asks their opinions on not only the physical ramifications of the devices, but also their possible social and emotional effects. Finally, he taps his contacts in the academic world to run long-term studies on the finished devices before offering them for sale.

Some products, of course, never make it to market – Bechthold cited one that went through over a year of testing before it was finally rejected.

He compared some of the design problems he faces with those experienced by cellphone manufacturers: fine tooling, thermal specification, and wireless control. Cellphone manufacturers have it easier, though, he said, citing the unique problems that a wireless We-Vibe has. "Put two hot, warm salt bodies together, and let's cover up the antenna. Bit of a challenge there. Suddenly a dropped cellphone call seems small compared to a dropped orgasm."

The challenges he faces are quite different from those in his previous job of designing bomb suits and electronic countermeasures. "If you've seen The Hurt Locker, you've seen my past company's gear," he said. About that former career, one of Bechthold's past co-workers told him that what he's now doing is not all that different. "You're just managing a different type of explosion," he was told.

Of course, Bechthold's keynote would not be a true CES event if it didn't include predictions, and he was happy to oblige. "We are actively engaged in alternate technologies that produce desired stimulation," he said.

"I'm going to make a bold statement here," he said. "Nerve endings are easily tricked with today's technology. You can make your fingers feel surfaces, feel items through a variety of science and technologies. Our industry's primary mode of stimulation will not be motors and weights in the next three to five years."

Bechthold and his fellow vibe designers will continue to pursue their goal of facilitating sexual wellness and making sex "safe and fun," using whatever technologies they find most appropriate and effective, he added.

"Life is too short for bad sex," he said. ®

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