What if ‘The Onion’ Made Drones and Sex Toys?
When it comes to technology, sometimes it can be hard to distinguish reality from parody. Was Peeple, the “Yelp for people” app, a joke or real? (Real.) Is Yo a joke? (No.) Is this reparations app real? (No, but it should be.) There are apps and devices bubbling up all around all the time-solving problems nobody ever knew they had. And it’s in this strange space that a little project called Object Solutions manages to be one of the most incisive critiques of technology around.
Object Solutions is a fake company, one that produces “solutions” for a variety of “problems” it has identified in the world.
The company is a dark, satirical take on the real machinations of product development; its creator, Ernesto Morales, is a designer and worked at a real product development studio for years. Past “solutions” include things like a “Fully Body Moist Towel,” which comes in a sleek black box and is, in fact, simply a wet towel inside beautiful packaging. Another invention is called the “Magnifying Spoon.” It’s a spoon, whose round end is a magnifying glass, to help picky eaters detect specks of dust and hair in their food.
Now, Morales has teamed up with sociologist Shelly Ronen, an expert on sex and relationships, and they’re creating “solutions” for romance. As with all of Object Solutions’s inventions, they take something that is almost plausible, and take it one step further. “I think we step into the space and expand it and try to press that feeling of, is this a joke? But is it? And really pushes in that place,” says Ronen.
In their presentations, Morales and Ronen trade off. He presents the sales pitch, and she takes the role of company scientist, substantiating each step with research and evidence.
Take the NeurAlign, a kind of reverse Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Two potential partners each don a neural mapping system, and doze off to sleep while the algorithms determine whether it’s a match. “If the merger is approved, the NeurAlign writes a compelling neural narrative of your falling in love,” Morales explains. “It triggers irresistible chemical releases, forges inextricable connections, and simulates indisputable memories that will follow you for a lifetime together. When you wake, your first date can commence as though it were your thirtieth. It’s an algorithmic—and rhythmic, too—manipulation of romantic reality.”
Ronen follows. “Following from neurologically mediated machinery for checking partner compatibility, this technology will entirely eradicate emotional maladaptive behaviors, and will culminate in the simplification of romance and seduction to an efficient algorithmic tournament.”
It’s not hard to walk this back a few steps to the emphasis so many online dating sites put on their algorithm. OKCupid’s Christian Rudder has made a career talking about how statistics and algorithms create matches. Jon Morra from eHarmony has given presentations about how machine learning can be deployed to find love. His talk is titled “Finding Love Through Science.” The Match.com algorithm is named “Synapse.” And there are independent projects in the works now that aim to use brain waves to match potential lovers.
Or take another Object Solutions invention: the Ring Finder Spotlight, a tiny drone that follows your hand around to illuminate the existence or absence of a wedding ring. The device comes with four modes: Commitment, Flaunt, Threat, and Single.
In Commitment mode the drone shines a nice beam onto your ring. In Flaunt mode, “The Spotlight twirls around your ring using twelve dramatic flyover techniques. It captures unforgettable video footage, including reaction shots from onlookers.” In Single mode you broadcast the opposite: “The Spotlight traces sensuous curves along the ring finger, helping singles spot each other even prior to handshake.”
This might seem like a lot of work to show off the status of your ring finger, but it’s not that far off from the lengths people go when it comes to showing off their wedding bands.
In 2012 the Canadian Government came out with a guide for female travelers that includes this advice: “Wear a (fake) wedding ring. Also carry a photo of your husband (or an imaginary one), which you can show to persistent suitors. Being seen as married will lower your profile and stave off uninvited advances.” The guide was released in 2012, but the advice still stands on its current guide even today.
A company called Gemporia made news last year with their plans to sell a “fidelity engagement ring” that tracks the wearer (the company assumes that person is a woman) using GPS. And there’s even this bizarre study that claims that the absence of a wedding ring is connected to parental neglect.
Several NFL players have special rubber rings made, so they can continue to wear their symbols of commitment during the football game. Kirk Cousins, the quarterback for the Washington football team, wears a special rubber ring any time he works out, made by a company called QALO, an acronym for Quality Athletics Love Outdoors.
QALO was founded by two men who explain on their website that “While we love our wives, and love being married, the reality was that our ring was getting in the way (literally) of our active lifestyle.” After hearing the same complaints from other men, “we searched for a solution that would allow us to show our commitment of marriage, and wear a comfortable wedding band that could withstand our active lifestyle.”
Ryan Fitzpatrick, the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, wears a metal ring and told The New York Times in 2011 that he opts to keep it on because “It stands for something. It’s not like I’m trying to throw a message in anybody’s face. It’s just a personal thing between me and my wife. It’s important for me not to take it off.”
Let’s compare all this to Ronen’s fictional scientist follow up. “Compensating for human error and the temptation to infidelity, the Ring Finger Spotlight cannot be left at home absentmindedly; nor can it be slipped off at the gym.” Not so far off, eh?
Or what about the Object Solutions TouchTrainer, a “navigation system for your hands across the terrain of your lover’s body, where the journey is just as critical as the destination.” The Touch Trainer uses “skinserts” beneath your skin to guide users where to put their hands and for how long. “At the start of your session, your only task is to decide on which of the three suggested routes your partner will follow. You and your partner can finally lose yourselves in the experience. After all, your next move will be indicated clearly, and any wrong turn will be re-routed. The path to pleasure has never been so direct.”
We might not have skinserts just yet, but there are a host of educational sex devices and apps out there that treat sex as a series of predetermined moves and not a conversation between two people. The Happy Playtime app (Link NSFW duh) aims to teach women that masturbation is totally normal (which is a great message) by showing them how to masturbate. You are encouraged to use your mouse or finger to stroke a little cartoon vulva as it responds. Nevermind that this vulva is an actual cartoon and not your vulva, or that different women like different things. Some people think that humanoid sex robots will be used to practice new techniques on a human who won’t judge you.
When Morales and Ronen do their presentation, it is often followed by a workshop, where they invite participants to come up with their own solutions, based on a few key terms or questions. Morales pulled out a few of them when we spoke.
One team created a “sting ring” that a person would wear around and, before sexual activity, use to prick a partner's finger to test for STDs. (Not unlike the color-changing condom that some claimed could detect STIs.) Another team came up with a pill that magnetized bodily fluids so that they wouldn’t mix. Another team dreamed up a website that allows long-distance couples to get sponsorships that help pay for their travel. If a company donates money to Mark and Adam, one of them will carry a suitcase with that company’s logo on it, and so on.
Often, Ronen says, participants find this object invention surprisingly fun and rewarding, and she says that that’s part of what they’re teaching people. Startups and apps don’t get born because nobody is having fun. “There’s a reason why these things happen this way, there’s a pleasure in turning the world into input that need outputs.”
Each Object Solutions pitch is wrapped in the sleek salesmanship and storytelling that a real company might employ. Morales does his part, using his experience as a real product designer to make these dystopian devices almost believable. But they’re also almost believable because they’re not all that far from the kinds of pitches that tech reporters like me get every day.
Last year I was pitched a period tracking device by “five typical guys who were tired of the drama, discourse, and sometimes absurd fights they would come home to with their wives and girlfriends when they had no idea it was ‘that time of the month.’”
Last month I got something about a magical device that could provide “new hope for depression, Parkinson tremor, sleep disorders—alternative to drugs.” The product in question was being sold as “neurotech” that “interacts with the brain's natural oscillations and encourages them to ‘follow’ our oscillations which gently restores the disturbed rhythms back to their normal state.”
Last week entrepreneur Amanda Chantal Bacon was in the news for her unbelievable lifestyle. She sells something at Urban Outfitters called “Moon Juice Brain Dust.” The product is described thusly: “Moon Juice Brain Dust is an adaptogenic potion that lights up your brain and increases mental flow by feeding neurotransmitters and brain tissue. Neuron velocity and vision are fine tuned by toning the brain waves, in particular the alpha waves that connect to creativity.”
These are all real products that Object Solutions follows right to the edge. But while they teeter in the realm of reality, Object Solutions jumps off the cliff. The NeurAlign implants memories. The Ring Spotlight is a literal drone that follows you around. Another solution controls utilities in your house and only releases them if you perform enough intimate acts with your partner.
Morales hopes that by taking things a step further people will start to see the creepiness that already exists all around them. He hopes that people will take a look at the Ring Finger Spotlight or the “then go out into the real world and see that it actually can sometimes be indistinguishable to the experience you just had with Object Solutions.”
Because sometimes the truth is stranger than design fiction.