Perhaps the only thing better than winning a prize is having it revoked. In terms of press coverage, anyway. And if it manages to highlight the plight of women’s struggles in technology, that’s a bonus. It’s also exactly what happened to Lora Haddock, who exhibited her Osé robotic massager at the world’s biggest tech conference, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2019.
Haddock’s design — a female-focused sexual pleasure device — won the Honoree Award in the Robotics and Drones category, but then the Las Vegas-based CES changed its mind. The awards’ organising body, Consumer Technology Association (CTA), told Haddock that products which are “immoral, obscene, indecent and not in keeping with CTA’s image” would be disqualified.
In terms of scandals related to consumer electronic shows, the rescinding of an award given to a sex toy is up there. (Though this year, CES appointed Ivanka Trump as its keynote speaker, which was not universally popular.) It pointed to a larger problem of women’s rights in technology — an object that was overtly female-focused (and designed by a woman) was not seen as an appropriate fit among innovation at one of the world’s biggest technology shows.
Haddock, who previously worked in the healthcare industry before starting the company Lora DiCarlo in 2017, can see the upside now. She tells Design Week: “We see what happened as an opportunity to have a conversation — which was hilarious and disappointing to us — because we view female sexuality as sacred.”
What proceeded was a “healthy” (and much written-about) dialogue — and the reinstatement of Haddock’s prize. In 2020, sexual wellbeing products were also displayed for the first time at CES in the Health and Wellbeing department. For Lora DiCarlo, the progress has been quick too. The Osé reached consumers last week — Haddock has been celebrating with her team the night before she speaks to Design Week — and there are two new products on the horizon; the Ondi and the Baci, both available for pre-order.
How do you create an intimate product with no dataset?
What makes the Osé different? It aims for a ‘blended orgasm’ — that is the ‘combined clitoral and G-spot orgasm’ and uses micro robotics to do this. Mimicking human touch — the lips of a mouth or tips of a finger — the hands-free device stimulates both the clitoris and the G-Spot at the same.
The device wraps flexibly around the pelvis so it can do this. But in designing the product, the relatively small and simple-seeming distance, proved a big problem. There was a lack of data available, according to Haddock. She says: “You can’t just ask someone: What is your pelvic angle? What is the shape of your pelvis?”
The answer was to create something that is “truly flexible” so that it could accommodate everyone’s bodies. The two new products are smaller versions of the Osé and perform two of its functions separately. The Onda mimics human fingers, while the Baci mimics the feel of a tongue (both won CES Honouree Innovation awards this year).
Same process, different output
On its website, the company proudly talks of its design and engineering team comprising ‘women, men, non-binary, gender non-conforming, straight and LGBTQ+ folks’. The company has around 20 members of staff, and five of those are dedicated to engineering — spanning mechnical and mechatronic (which focuses on both electrical and mechnical systems) design.
Kim Porter, director of engineering at Lora DiCarlo, says: “In other places you see mostly white, male, cis people and all of a certain age.” Porter, who has previously worked at Nike and founded her own product development company HatchOne, says: “We’re so fortunate to have so much diversity, because the concepts that come out are so varied.”
“The methodology of the way we engineer and design isn’t different from a lot of folks,” Porter says. “But how we sit down and listen to each other and bring in voices that you might think wouldn’t know anything about the product is different.”
Osé’s flexible neck is a classic example of this problem-solving. Another is how the team addressed ‘bi-lateral off-centring’. “Your vagina isn’t necessarily aligned with your clitoris,” Porter explains. “If a hand-free device works properly, you need everything to be able to move omni-directionally.” Others are the buttons on the bottom of the product, which when in use, won’t be seen by the user but can still be easily found and identified. These features may seem relatively simple, Porter says, but were some of the most complicated to design.
Fostering different viewpoints in the design process means that different needs are being addressed. Haddock says that the sexual health technology industry hasn’t seen true innovation in 80 years, and certainly what most people might imagine of sex toys — vibration, coy branding — are nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t want to do something that’s half-assed”
When it comes to growing the company, Haddock says the priority is into “ramping” up their internal skills and abilities. “I don’t want to do something that’s half-assed on mechanical, data or the firmware side — ever,” she says.
That’s in response to the questions customers have about Bluetooth and Wi-Fi features, or an app that the products could connect to. “We’re not experts in that space, we’re experts in robotics,” Haddock explains. “In order to do the first thing, we wanted to do it exactly the way we said we would do it.”
The next steps involved pulling experts on connectivity and data collection. The products are intimate, and electronics are complicated. “We want to make sure we’re doing it right way the first time with the experts in-house,” Haddock adds.
Other projects on the horizon include a ‘pleasure profile’ which will allow people to choose which product would be best for them (which can be a “daunting” task, the company’s founder admits). Haddock wants to prevent “people just coming to the website and saying: do I have a vagina or a penis? What do I need?”
“We don’t want to be binary about the ways we approach products or the way we approach pleasure,” Haddock says. “It’s such a personal choice with so many factors involved. And we want to make that as easy as possible for people involved.”
Can sex tech grow up?
Not even two years since the controversy at CES, Lora DiCarlo seems poised to keep finding “elegant” solutions to problems that have never appeared to be problems in the first place. And the speed at which products are designed is also accelerating; while the Osé took two years from concept to finished product, the Baci and Ondi took four months apiece, Porter says.
But does the wider issue — of women’s sexual health and wellbeing in tech — seem different? “It’s changing,” Haddock says. Having a platform at CES will help, as will the changing face of adult retail shops. So will a clarity on designers’ part about the place of sexual health and wellness in tech. “CES is where innovative tech is showcased,” Haddock adds. “And that’s exactly what we do — we make micro-robotic pleasure products that stimulate two crucial structures.”