Times, Jul 2015
“Maybe you see her in your phone, and she says ‘I miss you. I can’t wait till Friday when you get back from your business trip.’ That’s where we’re headed: Dirty Siri.”
[Note: This is neither the edit nor the pictures that were published by The Times Magazine]
When it comes to the future of sex dolls, there’s no better person to ask than Matt McMullen. “The next leap is dolls which interact with their owners,” he says. “But I’m not talking about sexbots. I’m not putting my eggs in the robot basket.”
A slight, unassuming man, with gentle manners and a sleeve tattoo, Matt isn’t a robotics guru, or an AI expert from Google. He’s the founder of Real Doll, the most life like sex doll on the market. When he launched in 1996, the sex doll was still inflatable and perpetually startled. Then Real Doll arrived – a stunningly lifelike, posable mannequin, that weighs 100lbs and costs around $6000 or more. It was a Rolls Royce in a world of Ladas. As internet porn exploded and fetish communities flourished online, McMullen’s Real Doll was celebrated on HBO, Howard Stern, and in the Ryan Gosling movie, Lars and the Real Girl, from 2007. And now he heads a 12 strong team, and he believes this year may be one of his best yet. The company estimates up to 400 dolls will be shipped out – that’s roughly one a day.
We meet me at his office in San Marcos, a scenic beach town just north of San Diego. It’s the kind of environment that makes you double take wherever you look. There are dolls everywhere, uncannily lifelike. Heads on shelves. And what appears to be a penis on his coffee table.
“It would be great to give the face 45 points of articulation, and all these subtle points of expression,” he says. “But it’s prohibitively expensive and it’s prone to breaking down, which just becomes an ordeal. Those robots at trade shows that interact with people? That’s because there’s a team there. When the cable breaks on the left eye blink, a man just opens up the back of the head and reattaches it, no big deal. But when it’s in your house and one eye’s stuck shut? Not a happy customer.”
We’ve been sold a dream of gorgeous, fluid sex bots. In an oft-quoted book, Love and Sex with Robots, from 2007, author David Levy assures us that by 2025 artificial emotion technologies will make robots so attractive to us, that we may fall in love with them. But for McCullen the fantasies of Ex-Machina and AI are immeasurably far off. The movie reference that most closely resembles the future is Her, starring Scarlett Johannson – she voices the character of a hyper-advanced Siri, that steals Joaquin Phoenix’s heart.
“Siri proves that it’s possible to talk to your devices,” she says. “And if the processor can learn from its interactions, then it can learn what you like or don’t like. I see these dolls as a peripheral for your smartphone. That’s attainable. So instead of your phone reminding you of something, the voice comes out of the doll. And you get the perception that the doll is your girlfriend.”
This is the sex doll vision he’s talking about: One of his Real Dolls is set up in a customer’s home, sitting in a chair, or lying on the sofa. Only now, the doll knows where it is, by its own GPS. It could call the owner to come downstairs. “Come and sit with me and watch TV.”
“When you’re away, maybe she texts you,” he says. “Maybe you see her in your phone, as you would if you were Face Timing with someone. She says ‘I miss you. I can’t wait till Friday when you get back from your business trip.’” He smiles. “That’s where we’re headed. Dirty Siri.”
When we take a tour of the production floor, McMullen asks me to refrain from taking photos of anything inside the moulds. “Those are trade secrets,” he says. “I’ve had people come from other doll manufacturers under the guise of someone who just wants a tour. And then they go back and try to rip us off.”
His success has wrought rivals. He now has competitors in Asia, a key market – companies like CandyGirl in Japan, and MicDoll in China. But American companies are in it too –like Private Island Beauties, and Sinthetics, which is run by a former employee of McMullen’s.
The production floor is a hive of activity. It’s a rugged workspace of sprockets and lathes and 50 gallon drums. And while it thoroughly destroys any illusion behind the dolls, McMullen says that customers enjoy a tour – “it reassures them to see how they’re made.” For the uninitiated, though, it’s an unholy sight. Bodies everywhere, in various states of completion. Headless torsos (because not all customers need the whole body). At one end of the room are the metal skeletons, set into moulds. “Key parts are stainless steel and titanium, the pipes are high grade PVC,” says McMullen. He sounds like a building contractor. And at the other end is an abattoir scene, of bodies hanging from hooks on a carousel. One of the Real Doll craftsmen is among them, whistling, and gluing on nipples.
“We have a nipple menu now,” says McMullen. “You can choose the color, size. And a couple of weeks ago, we introduced the vagina menu too. That’s what I’d be doing, if I wasn’t showing you around. I’d be working on my vaginas.” He points out his work desk, where about 10 precious flowers await his delicate touch. The menu offers 11 varieties, some moulded from adult film stars. “Every woman is different! Some are more smooth, some more textured, or more prominent, the lips are thicker…”
Real Doll is big on choice. Customers are invited to build the rubber woman of their dreams, right down to the freckles and eyebrows (real human hair available) and whether she has capillaries (wisps of red thread) on her eyeballs or not. Some customers even demand an entirely unique body type, just for them – no one else is allowed that mould. Those go for $50,000 and take up to six months. And it’s not always a sexual thing – the military once asked him for some bespoke training dummies. Sex therapists have bought real dolls as treatment tools. Jewelry vendors have bought dolls to model their wares online. “Everything is customizable,” he says.
That said, he has his limits. No children, and no animals. “I have been asked,” he says. And no celebrities, although he’ll customize a doll to suggest a celebrity. though.”
As with any business, innovation has been critical. Over the years, McMullen’s dolls have evolved in all sorts of ways. In 2001, he gave them replaceable faces – attachable by Velcro at first, and now magnets. In 2007, the bodies became lighter and had more points of articulation in the spine, neck and shoulders. And in 2009, he introduced detachable inserts for what he calls the “mouth core” and the genitals. This was a quantum leap – now, one no longer needed to wash the whole doll after use. It’s a cumbersome business, lifting a 100lb stiff weight into a bath. And the mouth core, incidentally, is ribbed.
He has attempted to introduce robotic enhancements along the way. They’ve seldom worked though.
Take his interactive sensory response system – you squeeze her boobs and she says oh I like that. “We put sensors in the breast, the vagina and some in the hands,” he says. “And they sent a signal through an ethernet cable, plugged into the back of the doll, and the software would pull from a bank of audio clips. There were like 30 clips for each region.”
He rolled this out for nearly four years, but his customers were underwhelmed. It was too expensive at $1500, they said. And for his part, it was too difficult to install.
He has tried internal heating, to get past that cold, sticky feel of the rubber. “We had three different versions of a heater but we haven’t released any of them. Either it’s not completely safe, or it didn’t get warm enough, or it got too hot. Now I’m more focussed on heating the private area of the doll versus the entire body.”
He even got his dolls to gyrate at one time – a step into the animatronic arena. He installed a motor in the chest cavity. There were various speeds and sequences. “I won’t say she’s fully twerking, but that kind of thing,” he says. “But the downside is the noise factor. You hear this rrr-rrr, rrr-rrr.” He sounds like an old windscreen wiper. “It’s just not a turn on.”
When it comes to robotics, McMullen is torn. “Sometimes I just want the doll to be a doll you know? There’s a reason they’re timeless. They inspire the imagination. What we’ve found is that doll owners really don’t want a high level of robotics. But you should ask them yourself.”
It’s a big day for Ben tomorrow (not his real name). He’s taking his wife to her very first Doll Meet. He read about it on Dollforum.com – some 60 doll owners meeting up at a secret location in Pennsylvania, and bringing their dolls. These Meets happen often, all over the world. Ben went to one last year. He was new to the subculture, he’d only just bought his first doll. And he confessed to the other doll owners that he hadn’t told his wife yet.
“They were like ‘what?’” He laughs. “’You better hope she doesn’t find out on her own…’”
If there’s a stereotype of a doll owner, it’s a lonely single man who’s been wounded by his relationships with women. Perhaps he’s lacking in social skills. And there are many doll owners who tick those boxes. But not Ben. Now 53, he’s a successful painting contractor from New Jersey. He’s married, with a 25 year old daughter, and he lives a gregarious, active life – he has nine antique Harley Davidsons, he goes kite surfing, plays the drums in a Pink Floyd tribute band, and he owns four parrots.
“Four parrots and four sex dolls!” He laughs. “You see my wife’s menopausal. The frequency of intimacy isn’t there anymore. So last year I bought a doll. And wow – I was blown away!”
The sex felt realistic. The penetration anyway. And Ben was able to overcome the lifelessness of his new partner. “It’s the visual of a naked woman in front of you. And the eyes, they’re so real! You can set them up to look right into yours. I don’t know, it’s no one thing.”
When he told his wife, he says she was more perturbed that he’d kept it from her, than anything else. (She declined requests for an interview). What smoothed the transition was his wife’s interest in photography, which is a huge part of the doll scene. They often look stunning in photos – the sculpted bodies, the unblemished skin. In the hands of a practiced photographer, they can be hard to separate from the real thing. But the spell is broken in the “flesh” if that’s the word. The dolls instantly look still and cold. So the illusion of photography is critical to the fantasy. On Dollforum there are frequent photography competitions.
“As soon as I bought Grace – that’s what I call my first doll – she was like a muse,” Ben says. “I was doing these shots that were like eye candy for men. It was so inspiring! And now my wife is posing and shooting the dolls too.”
The sex part is private. Some couples reportedly bring the dolls into bed with them as part of their fantasy life. But Ben’s keep it quite separate. “It’s like a guy watching porn,” he says. “She knows it goes on, but she doesn’t want to know.”
In posing the dolls, he’d ascribe them personalities. Grace, his first, did all the things he does – play the drums, fix motorbikes. Roxanne, his second, however, was distinct. “She’s like a vagabond gypsy,” he says, “and she loves to eat ice cream in rude and suggestive ways. Oh she’s the ice cream queen!”
Ben isn’t in the least bit inspired by the predicted dawn of the sexbots. “I’d rather infuse personality myself,” he says.
At Doll Meets, owners often take the dolls out to pose them in nature, and take photos. But the rest of the time, it’s just a get together. Benita Marcussen is a Danish photographer whose exhibition of men and their dolls opens soon in Copenhagen. She shot the photos at successive Doll Meets in the UK and the US.
“It’s quite sweet, really,” she says. “They’re very kind to each other. Very respectful of each other’s dolls, always asking permission. Can I touch her hair? I never saw any dollswapping or anything like that. Most of the time, the dolls just stay in one room, while the men go and drink beer and have barbecues. It’s just a weekend away.”
There are all kinds of men in this culture, apparently. Matt says his customers range from their 20s to their 70s. Benita has seen wealthy attorneys and business owners at these meets, as well as men who had to save for months to get one doll. And the sex isn’t even that prevalent.
“They don’t just have sex with them whenever they want,” she says. “They’re cold, they’re heavy. They need to be moved to the bedroom, posed, and heated with an electric blanket… it’s quite an operation.”
And some of the stories are extreme. Men who have lost their wives to cancer, and bought a doll in her stead. Men who treat their dolls like life partners. Davecat is a public doll owner who has invited documentary crews to film him watch TV with his doll, talk to her, eat with her. Some doll owners have married their dolls and sent the pictures to Matt at Real Doll.
Ben is not so caught up. He’ll have sex with his dolls as they hang from their necks from the rafters in his basement. “Sometimes I haven’t had sex in a week and she’s right there hanging, and she looks good!” He roars with laughter. “Oh I lead a blessed life. It’s so full. One thing I never do – and that’s complain.” On Dollforum his screen name is alottahope.
Ben’s Harley Davidson collection has been neglected lately. The dolls are taking over. And for Matt, this is exactly the analogy. “It’s a subculture just like bikes or cars,” he says. “They’re collectors. Some people have 10 or 15 dolls, and they look after them like they’re Rembrandts! This is what people forget – these are pieces of art. Forget that it’s anatomically correct!”
“Anatomically correct” is code for “you can have sex with it.” And this is the disconnect between the art of Real Doll and its sexual function – you don’t find Rembrandts with a detachable vagina. But McMullen stands firm. “This is way more than just porn,” he says. “My whole career, I’ve pushed really hard against that. This is my art. If I was doing sculptures out of marble, no one would question it.”
The original Real Doll was an art piece. That’s how this all started. McMullen was a young art graduate, working at a factory, making Halloween masks. And he decided to start using the moulding techniques in his garage to make figurines about a foot or two tall. He made a series of exotic dancers. They were selling quite well. So he formed a company – Abyss Creations, so-called to be at the top of the alphabetical list at conventions. When he made a one-off life size model, he had no thought of its sexual purpose. But his first customers, asked for a hole. “And the rest is history,” he says.
Today, like Ben, McMullen feels grateful for his good fortune. He has four kids, he’s happily married to wife #2, and he’s doing something he loves for a living. Creating art that helps people in their lives.
“I’ve come full circle,” he says. “There were times over the last 20 years when I felt I was working at McDonalds, I just had to keep pumping stuff out. But I’ve grown older now. And I’m having a second wind. I’ve always thought of this as my claim to fame, kind of. And I’m inspired again – I have all these ideas.”
Top of that list is Sexy Siri. And now that he thinks about it, maybe some mild robotics would be feasible. “I’ve looked at the technology, and you can do some subtle expression, maybe tilting the head. Maybe even moving the mouth. It’s not going to synch precisely but…”
So Sexy Siri’s going to be badly dubbed?
“Sure. But it’s the voice that matters. Synthetic speech can come off very, for lack of a better word, robotic. If we focus on getting a sexy voice, then you won’t care if it’s badly dubbed. I promise. That’s why Her worked. The voice was Scarlett Johannson!”