By Annalee Newitz
SHE LOOKED at me with her motion detectors as I rubbed the piezoelectric sensor between her thighs. Then I spun the potentiometers that jutted out from her chest like nipples. But it wasn't until I stroked the piezosensor on the back of her neck that she began to moan, first quietly and then loudly enough that she sounded like a thousand woman reaching orgasm together.
I was standing in front of a naked mannequin with the proportions of a porn star, her eyes replaced with fat lenses to detect motion, her nipples transformed into knobs, her sensitive parts covered in thin sheets of metal that could detect pressure. Jutting from her left ankle was a USB connector, and through a hole in her back I could see the wires that had helped her respond to my attentions. Her voice had come from two small speakers at her feet. I had just jacked off a USB device.
Her name is Moaning Lisa, and I fondled her at Arse Elektronika, a conference in San Francisco last week devoted to pornography and technological innovation. Her creator, Matt Ganucheau, is a local artist and musician who likes to work with what he calls "novel interfaces."
He designed Moaning Lisa specifically for Arse Elektronika, with help from conference organizer Kyle Machulis, to demonstrate the video-game-like properties of the human body. Ganucheau used neural network processing in her programming, and the result is that her responses are randomized. Each time you try to give Moaning Lisa an orgasm, you have to follow a slightly different pattern with your sensor-stroking.
That's what keeps me hovering around Moaning Lisa in fascination. Her interface, though attached to a strangely distorted female body, seems humane. She's a reminder that every woman has different physical sensitivities, and that sexual stimulation varies from person to person—indeed, varies from encounter to encounter with the same person. She suggests that we shouldn't mystify sex, because after all it's just like a game you play with piezoelectric sensors and potentiometers. Our bodies are a technology. Arousal is a program triggered by specific inputs.
Moaning Lisa is also a poignant conversation piece, inciting discussions that you never imagined you would have with strangers. I got to chatting with Ganucheau about why he doesn't plan to build a male version, and we immediately start talking quite directly about how men experience sexual pleasure, though in an oddly technical way.
"Male sex sensors are biased and not as spread out [over the body]," Ganucheau said. "Sure, there are deviances in distribution, but overall it's not as dynamic as a female. I find that if you go straight for male genitalia, the norm is that you are guaranteed to get someone off." This situation, he asserted, would make for a pretty boring game. You grab the genitals, and you win every time. I countered that this isn't true—men have sexual sensors and patterns as varied as women's. Neither of us had any proof other than our own experiences.
Aside from some pretty graphic discussions of sexual sensors, Moaning Lisa inspired a lot of admiration from the women who saw her at Arse Elektronika. Many of us had suggestions for Ganucheau, especially what you could learn from people's interactions with her. If he were to continue working on Moaning Lisa, Ganucheau said he would want to track how women respond to men playing with her. "It would be interesting to have a study where you had one male in a room alone with Lisa, and five women behind a one-way mirror watching, commenting on the interaction."
I have less complicated ideas. I think Moaning Lisa would be a good educational toy for women who are shy about telling their partners what they like in bed. She would provide a lesson in how hard it is to arouse somebody who gives you no verbal feedback until you randomly "score" with an orgasm.
"I see the female body as an instructionless, interactive puzzle," Ganucheau explained. Moaning Lisa is like a Rubik's Cube, a puzzle that you have to solve with your hands and your innate pattern-recognition ability. But with her exaggeratedly Barbie doll body shape—giant breasts, tiny waist—she's also a parody of female sexuality. She meets our expectations for what a sex doll would be, then frustrates those expectations by responding to salacious touches in a chaotic and peculiarly human way. That's what makes her a truly great piece of art. You cannot pin her down. You cannot forget her.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants to give Moaning Lisa some actuators.
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