Are 'Ready Player One' Haptics the Future of Sex?

The virtual world is getting more intimate.

Warner Bros

The release of Ready Player One this weekend will ignite several conversations about the role of virtual reality in the future. Many of the innovations found in the film and Ernest Cline’s bestseller of the same name already exist in the market in some limited capacity, suggesting the film’s dystopian realities could influence how these advancements are used. So, if haptics could let people fully immerse themselves in whatever reality they desire, how will this change human access to sex?

Cline’s dystopian novel creates a VR-driven society plagued by war. Those that want to reach OASIS can access the virtual reality simulator through a visor and a pair of haptic gloves, giving the person the ability to touch and fully experience items that aren’t actually there. This could be petting a cat or grabbing a body part, and human intention in the OASIS seems to reflect human interest today. People are in search of a $500 billion prize, but can make time to live out whatever fantasy they can dream.

In the book, Wade’s purchase of ÜberBetty, an anatomically correct haptic sex doll, is not unlike the virtual and robotic sex aids that already exist on the market. There’s a lucrative sex doll brothel in Barcelona, while virtual reality sex games spill into the tech scene.

That specific haptic sex scene was scrubbed from Steven Spielberg’s film, but the suggestion of haptic sex still lingers. In one scene in the movie, where Art3mis and Wade dance in zero gravity, Art3mis asks him what he can feel in his haptic suit as she begins to touch him. Various erogenous zones on his body begin to light up.

By design, haptics in the market serve the consumer by letting them touch what they normally could not. That means that, in theory, haptics can grant the user access to items, experiences, even people, that would otherwise be off-limits. As the innovation becomes more pervasive in the market, so too must a conversation on how society defines consent.

In 2016, Hong Kong-based graphic designer Ricky Ma built a $50,000 robot in the image and likeness of Scarlett Johannson. The humanoid robot looked eerily like the actress, but was programmed to say things like “you’re so cute” with a flirtatious wink before submitting to Ma’s desires. Despite it being Johannson’s precise face and identity, there was nothing she could do about it. In the virtual and robotic sex industry, she does not have sovereignty over her own image.

U.S. law is rushing to catch up with technology in fighting “involuntary servitude” of a person’s image, celebrity or otherwise. Ma’s usage of a person’s face without permission could be seen as “the humiliation and mortification of having [a person’s] picture displayed in places where he would never go to be gazed upon” in a courtroom, but there is no clear line drawn in deciding whether the virtual or robotic image is too similar to the person, or just similar enough.

And yet, webcam company CamSoda was able to partner with RealDolls to create “VIRP,” or “Virtual Intercourse with Real People.” With VR sex already a booming market, demand for haptic accessories that can make virtual touch feel real will continue to rise. Today’s market confirms what Ready Player One suggests, that people do want a convincing sexual experience through the use of VR.

The haptic suits in Ready Player One are more advanced than current market offerings, which are still at a simple commercial starting point. Oculus Touch and HTC’s Vive Controller offer the VR experience through standard controllers, Apple is chasing multi-haptic capabilities, while a crop of haptic accessories continues to enter the market. Tech companies like Tactical Haptics have announced controllers that can integrate shear force surface haptics, not unlike what’s available in Ready Player One, while other haptic accessories continue to improve and diversify.

While the influx of virtual reality accessories has granted people access to entirely new worlds, these virtual worlds are still relatively lawless. As haptics continue to offer more realistic and intimate sensations of touch, society must reckon with its already blurred understanding of sexual agency, both in the real world and the virtual one. The dystopian nature of Ready Player One is a chilling enough reminder to have these conversations now.

Ready Player One is out in wide release now.