Cover Story: Sex-toy start-up Comingle raises stakes with the Mod
But can a DIY dildo made in the Dirty South free society of its sexual hang-ups?Thursday February 26, 2015 04:00 am EST
"Wanna feel my heartbeat through this dildo?" a bearded dude asks random newcomers at a recent social gathering. The typical greeting between strangers it is not. Neither is his handheld party favor, a five-and-a-half-inch-long silicone vibrator with electrodes connected to his chest that cause the thing to pulsate with the force of life. "Grab it together," he encourages two young women who've come to the Big House on Ponce de Leon Avenue for tonight's Ladyfest fundraiser. They wrap their hands around his magic wand. "Ohmigod," one of them shrieks, "is that your heart?"
Nearby, an energetic accomplice dances like no one's watching while waving a wired vibrator back and forth. A snowy image on the computer screen in front of him mirrors his movements as he invites passersby to test it out. Two more of his partners sit behind a table covered in sex toys and hold court with curious onlookers. One potential customer, feeling uninhibited in the moment, begins to explain her sexual peccadilloes before confessing her preference for body heat. "I like my dick hot," she tells them.
It's hard to tell which vendor display looks more out of place at this function — the table selling the homemade dildos or the one across from it selling homemade Rice Krispies Treats.
When asked to explain his business, dancing dildo dude offers up something between an explicit elevator pitch and a free love mantra for the new millennium.
"Our job is to make really weird shit through technology and sex, then give it away to the world," he says. He is Andrew Quitmeyer, a 28-year-old Georgia Tech PhD candidate and one-fourth of the team behind new sex-tech start-up Comingle. It's based in Atlanta of all places, which is unusual considering Georgia still technically bans the sale of sex toys that aren't marketed as novelty items. Comingle certainly has a novel mission. Composed of Quitmeyer, 31-year-old co-founder and Tech PhD candidate Paul Clifton (the man with heart-in-hand), Tech grad Craig Durkin, 31, and Georgia State University grad and artist Melanie Sachno, 26, Comingle intends to turn sex-tech on its head, so to speak, with a hackable open-source dildo called the Mod. After a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $50,000 on Indiegogo this month, more than 100 Mods have already been pre-sold. Comingle's next move is to ramp up the first round of manufacturing, with crowdfunding orders to be filled in July.
In less than two years, the student engineers and DIY hobbyists have stumbled into the forefront of sex-tech innovation. Now, finding themselves somewhere between open-source idealism and mass-market capitalism, they hope to spark a sex-positive revolution that could turn hush-hush foreplay into mainstream tech play.
Can a high-tech DIY dildo help free society of its sexual hang-ups? Sounds like a mission impossible. Or a job for the Mod squad.
For a bunch of techies, the thought of it all "just keeps getting weirder and weirder," Quitmeyer says.
If every start-up has its own culture, Comingle's is probably best defined by that word: weird. It comes up so much during our initial conversation at the nondescript Candler Park home that doubles as company headquarters that it begins to lose its weirdness after awhile.
Which is kind of the idea.
Quitmeyer talks about how shocked he used to be when he'd come upstairs to see a dildo sitting on the dining room table. Sachno recalls how much she'd giggle every time she had to say "dildo" when she first started working here.
Eventually, it became their new norm.
"It's kinda weird to me how not-weird it is," Durkin says. "At the beginning you're like, 'I'm gonna make hackable sex toys.' And part of my motivation when we first started was, yeah, let's work on something strange with my friends. But then as you go along you notice the response and how it resonates with people. It's like, 'Oh, you don't really see this as that weird?' That's kind of strange in itself."
The ability to cyber-control electronic sex toys — or teledildonics as it's called — is nothing new. The term dates back to the '70s, when IT pioneer Ted Nelson coined it to describe what he deemed the coming wave of cybersex. The thought alone brings to mind the kind of "digital good times" George Clinton riffed about on "Synthesizer," OutKast's 1998 song about the threat of virtual reality replacing authentic experience. It could be a fitting motto for Comingle's open-source approach. But unlike OutKast's depressing, dystopian view of a synthetic future, Comingle's sex toys are designed to deepen interpersonal relationships and nurture a sex-positive community.
Comingle is not the only open-source sex toy company. But the only other well-known outfit in the country, Orgasmatronics, is based in the liberal, legal-weed smoking state of Colorado. That's a far cry from the prim, prude Peach State. Georgia is so sexually repressed it's one of the few states in the union that still has a law on the books prohibiting the sale of sex toys for the sole purpose they were created: getting off. The "novelty only" obscenity clause hasn't been widely enforced in years, however, and was ruled unconstitutional by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006. That means the law is likely harmless now, according to attorney Alan Begner, who represents Starship, which is among Georgia's largest adult novelty retailers. Yet local municipality bans, like the one in Sandy Springs that made national news last year, are a constant reminder that sex toys still carry a huge stigma in the Dirty South.
There's even a page housed on Georgia Tech's Office of Information Technology website that spells out the state's obscenity law banning "any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs."
So how did a couple of Georgia Tech students find themselves at the forefront of open-source sex-toy technology?
Comingle's origin story might be the most unusual creation myth of any start-up. It involves electric eels, a shocking public erection, and an extracurricular rumble in the jungle.
Quitmeyer's experimentation with dildo design started in a place where passion runs wildest. While in the rain forests of Panama, conducting robotics research workshops in the summer of 2013 to help biologists track animals using sensors, he met a scientist interested in fulfilling a different instinctual desire.
"She came up to me and was like, 'You know there's another need that scientists in the jungle have. Could we build a dildo together?'" Quitmeyer says.
Her specific needs posed a design challenge. She wanted something small enough to maneuver around her genital piercings and quiet enough to use without disturbing her dorm mate. When Quitmeyer returned to Atlanta, he and Clifton, with whom he'd already talked about combining robotics technology and sex toys, continued to experiment. Things came to a head, quite literally, when Quitmeyer participated in the college hackathon Penn Apps in fall 2013. At Penn Apps, participants come up with their own projects and corresponding Indiegogo crowdfunding campaigns. Quitmeyer presented a prototype for an open-source digital condom called the Electric Eel. Intended to improve on the decreased sensitivity typical of standard condoms, the Eel stimulates its wearer with little electric currents.
"It was the strangest demo I've ever given in my life because I had mostly an erection the whole time," Quitmeyer says. "People were tugging on this breathing sensor that was then shocking my dick while I was standing in a huge wave of thousands of people cycling through." Fortunately, he kept his pants on.
The campaign immediately went viral, garnering 700,000 views and a ton of sex-tech buzz. Though they had no plans to actually move forward with the Eel, they felt like it was a start, Clifton says. "That was kind of the first moment where I felt like, yeah, we're onto something," he says. "Like, this open-source sex toy idea gets people excited."
To get a real sense of Comingle's DIY resourcefulness, a tour of the company's live/work headquarters is in order. While most tech start-ups reek of clichés, Comingle feels organic. There's no Ping-Pong table in the basement. No foosball in the living room. Not a Hacky Sack in sight. Who needs all that anyway when there are dildos on the dining room table?
Durkin does most of his electronics and software programming at the same table. A hanging rack in a hall closet is full of silicone dildos instead of shoes. A 3-D printer sits on a corner table in the room where Sachno writes the website's how-to articles when she and Quitmeyer aren't producing instructional marketing videos, like the one they used for the Indiegogo campaign. A drawing of a giant happy penis hangs on the wall. Sachno's been coloring it in with chalk to chart the success of their month-long Indiegogo campaign. With only a day left before the Valentine's Day expiration date, they've less than $1,000 to go, according to the chalk line climbing toward the tip.
"We're so close to making this dick splooge," Quitmeyer says.
The basement is where things really get cooking. At a makeshift soldering station, Clifton uses tweezers to construct the brains of the dildo. They call it the Dilduino, a term coined by a Georgia Tech friend based on the open-source Arduino circuit boards they use. To connect the microcontroller after adding the tiny components, they basically fry them up on a plug-in kitchen griddle like the kind used to make flapjacks.
"This is where all the magic happens," Quitmeyer says as he enters the basement's Sticky Room. Yellow foam insulation oozes from the ceiling and brick walls. It gives the place the aura of a surreal semen cave. "It's in our company charter to make as many puns as possible," Clifton says. Even Comingle's logo is a visual pun. It features a heart in brackets like a line of code.
The Sticky Room gets its name from the translucent silicone contained in industrial-size buckets beneath a tabletop full of more early generation dildo prototypes than you can wag a finger at. They use what they call sock molds to form the silicone dildos, then place hard shells around them that resemble volcanoes from sixth grade science projects. The volcano-like shells help the dildos retain their shapes. The mechanics on the inside give the Mod life: three individual vibrator motors, USB ports for charging and hacking, and the Arduino boards featuring sensors and transistors. Constructed of 100-percent-body-safe silicone, the finished product is flexible even with its three separate vibrating motors throughout the shaft. USB ports make it compatible with laptops, smartphones, and a range of accessories to be released at launch.
It's hard to describe everything the Mod can do. That's the point of open-source technology. The innovations are endless. And they aren't limited to bona fide hackers. In fact, Quitmeyer and the rest of the team hope the programmable dildo will become a gateway for tech newbies to get into coding. Their website houses code and how-to articles that enable users to control the dildo remotely through the computer, turn your partner's body into a sensor and play it like a theremin, or, of course, feel it vibrate with the rhythm of a heartbeat.
"If debugging your dildo becomes a new type of foreplay, that would be a huge thing," Quitmeyer says, describing intimate scenarios in which he and his partner have found themselves in bed with a laptop hacking their hearts out.
It isn't mere product Comingle sells, but a platform that turns consumers into hackers capable of engineering their own interactive vibrators.
The sex industry, however, comes with a unique set of business challenges. In general, it's harder to open bank accounts and secure venture capital funding. "Making a dildo is the same as operating a live Web cam site out of Romania in their eyes," says Durkin. Even email is a pain, thanks to spam filters that weed out content considered explicit. "We can't use MailChimp because it's going to mess up their mailing reputation for their other customers," he adds.
Open-source is more than cutting-edge technology at Comingle — it defines company philosophy. Comingle's founders want to be able to give away the same innovations that enabled them to build the Mod.
"It's not only straight-up stupid but almost just a sin to lock up information that one discovers and put up, like, a fake paywall between you and somebody else who could use that information," says Quitmeyer.
Not to mention it also saves them from spending the five figures it could cost to hire a decent patent lawyer.
Of course, their idealistic approach could present a challenge when it comes to capitalizing on their creation. By modeling the business after such established open-source tech hobbyist companies as Adafruit Industries, Comingle's founders know there's always the possibility that a larger adult novelty company could copy their open design and move the Mod to market quicker. But it could also be a boon for a business built on the culture of customers returning to the source for hacking codes, peripheral add-ons, how-to videos and other updates.
"There's definitely a lot of pluses to being able to contribute to open-source software," Durkin says, while acknowledging the delicate balance. "But at the end of the day you have to run a business and make money somehow."
Not only is Comingle committed to the open-source tech approach, the team behind the start-up views sexual freedom with equal value. The group's interest in making a toy with universal appeal drew in early beta tester Sonia, a Boston-based undergrad and sex-positive activist who identifies as queer and gender fluid.
Sonia, who preferred to give a first name only, recalls her conversation with Quitmeyer last summer during his return trip to the Panamanian jungle. "He really told me, 'I want to make this sex toy modifiable so that you can personalize it to your own body and whatever feels best for you,'" Sonia says. "Because we live too much in this binary of women and men and no in-between, and we just have really rigid expectations of what type of sex we're supposed to have." She emphasizes the need for young adults to receive more positive messages regarding sexuality. "It's kind of this taboo topic, which is really strange because people think that young people are really sexually active. We are, but we're not really exploring. I think a lot of people aren't exploring new technology and aren't using toys. I have friends that I've talked about vibrators with, and they just look at me like I'm weird."
Another thing that distinguishes Comingle from old-school adult novelty brands is the start-up's refreshing marketing approach. They're not in the business of selling sexual deviance.
"There are a lot places you go to get sex toys that really emphasize the idea of the product they're selling being naughty or wrong or sinful," says Sam, a Georgia Tech alum and PhD student. He uses the Mod for intimate video chatting with his out-of-state boyfriend, who can control it remotely. "Everyone at Comingle is just super upbeat and positive and sincere. There's no sense of negativity. They're very positive; they're very happy and open. And they're trying to get rid of this stigma around talking about sex and sex toys and sexual gratification."
Before graduating with a double major in art and sociology, Sachno wrote a lengthy paper about the responses she received as a woman working for a sex toy company. She got a lot of odd looks initially. "But then, when you start talking to them about everything that our company embodies and what we believe in, then the conversation is really different. It's not in the mindset of deviance but rather exploration and a celebration of sexuality," she says. "Sexuality is so diverse that you have to actually think outside the box of how to cater to different sexual profiles. And we do a good job of exploring that."
The Comingle team's work has also been self-stimulating.
"Working on this project has given me an avenue to discuss my sexuality and other people's sexuality more openly," Clifton says. "That's fed back into my own life, and it has given me more to think about what I like and what I'm into."
For the most part, each team member recounts being raised by parents who, despite liberal or conservative leanings, tended to share one thing in common: They rarely, if ever, talked to their kids about sex. The only exception among the group comes from Quitmeyer, who recalls his mother being "incredibly frank," he says, "almost to a fault." Like the time, around age 10, when she gave him a bunch of prophylactics to play with. "She just dumped out a big pile of condoms and my younger sister's like jumping in and flinging condoms around. And I'm like, 'Mom, this is weird.'"
That same sense of playful experimentation comes across today in Comingle's identity. The start-up's how-to videos can be downright hilarious. Like the one where Quitmeyer takes a fake cum shot to the face using a dildo outfitted with a turkey baster filled with imitation semen made of yogurt. In others, he and Sachno demonstrate the ability to control the Mod remotely by strumming a guitar or using touch sensors that cause the dildo to rev up as your partner moves closer. And they do so by showing less skin than the average music video. Instead of NSFW titillation, the demos pique intellectual curiosity.
Still, the social stigma exists, and it may be hardest to overcome in academia. Their extracurricular project hasn't exactly been embraced in Georgia Tech's Digital Media Department, where PhD candidates Quitmeyer and Clifton are on track to graduate later this year. Because it's a sensitive topic, they're careful not to shove the Mod down anyone's throat on campus. They prefer to let other people initiate conversation about it, if at all. But there's also a running joke between them about Quitmeyer's adviser's hands-off approach regarding Comingle.
"After a year and a half of work, he thinks it's a giant prank," Clifton says.
"He's a great guy," Quitmeyer adds, laughing. "But whenever it comes up, he's just like, 'How's the dissertation going?'"
Quitmeyer's adviser Michael Nitsche declined via email the opportunity to comment for this story, since Comingle "did not grow out of any research or even direct project from Tech," he wrote. It's understandable why he'd want to distance the university from a sex toy company, but there's clearly a strong connection between the kind of robotics and digital media research Comingle's founders are exploring academically and entrepreneurially. That they've done so without going the stereotypical Silicon Valley college-dropout route should be a feather in Georgia Tech's cap.
Comingle is in the process of pivoting from research and development to manufacturing, following the success of the crowdfunding campaign. The biggest question ahead is whether they'll keep that part of the operation in-house or partner with outside manufacturers to ease the burden and cost. During the prototype design phase, the cost of making each Mod averaged around $1,000. Since selling more than 100 at $159 each, they'll have to figure out a cheaper process without risking the quality and safety guaranteed in open-source design.
Neither Quitmeyer nor Clifton has written off a career in academia yet. The work they've done outside the classroom has positioned them well for that. And there are signs that universities are evolving. In Australia, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology is seeking PhD candidates to research the future of digital play, with a focus in interactive sex toys. And the adult novelty industry is opening up at home. Currently generating nearly a billion dollars a year, according to estimates by Jay Scheinberg of Atlanta-based sexual aide manufacturer Liberator, the whole industry is making a big move into the mainstream. Following the success of franchises like 50 Shades of Grey, traditional online retail sites such as Target.com now offer products that would've been unthinkable years ago.
And with overall growth in the sex-tech trend, the future for Comingle could be equally bright.
"I think we can be the Google of sex," Clifton says, half-jokingly.
"Is there anything bigger than Google?" Quitmeyer asks.
"China" Durkin says.
"The China of sex!" Sachno exclaims.
"I think that there's a good possibility that this could be a very successful company," Clifton says. "I don't understand how Google is as huge as it is. That blows my mind. To be as big as Google, we would have to make a billion sex toys a year or something like that. I don't know. I think that sounds ridiculous. But ridiculous is the name of the game at the moment."