IT'S CALLED TELEDILDONICS, and it may be the safest sex of all: virtual sex.
Sophisticated computer technologies conjure up imaginary partners so real, so lifelike, that well, you get the picture.
Developers of virtual reality, or VR, dismiss the notion of electronic sex as tasteless and unrealistic. Among VR researchers, who tend to be a serious lot, the idea of turning their leading-edge technology into an electronic inflatable companion is almost too much to bear.
But good taste aside, virtual sex may wind up being one off-shoot of VR, which uses computers to create artificial worlds -- and people -- with which real people can interact.
"Can you do it? Yes, I think you can," sighs Dr. S. Kicha Ganapathy, director of the machine perception division of Bell Labs, the research arm of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. "No serious researcher is working on it, but we all admit . . . the possibility of it."
Researchers say the idea of creating cyber-sexpots with the wink of an eye (actually a VR-wired goggle) is little more than a misplaced fantasy of people who don't really know what the technology is all about.
Jaron Lanier, a noted VR expert, says imaginary partners created through virtual technologies would be akin to "simulated party dolls." And anyone who thinks otherwise, he says, "is not informed about what we're doing."
"Aside from questions of taste and titillation, the idea of virtual sex is absurd on its face because it doesn't match where the technology is," says Mr. Lanier, founder of VPL Research Inc., a leading-edge VR firm in Redwood City, Calif.
To be sure, VR sex technology has a long way to go to mimic the real thing.
For one, VR worlds tend to look cartoonish or surreal, not exactly a great setting for a romantic interlude.
Then there's the problem of blurred vision. Humans who enter VR worlds (typically by donning special headgear or goggles) often experience blurred vision if they move too fast, the result of computers that continuously calculate changes in scenery to keep up with eye movements. The lag time can be disconcerting to participants, in some cases causing nausea. Strike two for VR in the romance department.
And VR researchers still don't know how to mimic the sensation of touch, which is incredibly well-developed in humans. The reason, in part, is because complex tactile feelings can't be relayed by sight or sound, the two strong suits of VR. Ditto for the sense of smell.
Even if these basic problems could be easily solved, researchers say virtual sex will probably never measure up because there's
no substituting for the real thing.