Mingling with Comingle: ATL's New Sex Toy Startup

Comingle has kept busy since their inception, and not just in the nerdisms of electronic product development. Mingling with their peer industry, the sex toy industry, has been rewarding to say the least. In a very short time, they’ve gone from at home dildo molding experimentation to workshopping in San Fran for the Arse Elektronika sex and tech fest (and being awarded the 2014 Golden Kleene award for Most Innovative Sex Toy) as well as receiving enthusiastic success for a Crowdfunding goal (which ended on Valentine’s Day).

These bustling ATL-based sex toy entrepreneurs behind the vibes are staking revolutionary ground by offering up their knowledge to those willing to build their own prototypes. Comingle’s communal perspective and strong support of DIY methods stand out in a competitive market of highly guarded secrets. Their aim has always been to develop “open-source sex technology that enables novel, embodied means of interaction, new modes of stimulation, and methods for safely building and modding sex toys yourself". Nerdy surely is sexy and in this case your brain isn’t the only thing buzzing!


Who is Comingle?

Comingle is Paul, Andy, Craig, and Mel. We're a bunch of academics, artists, engineers, and designers from Atlanta. We're interested in the intersections of DIY culture, sex, technology, arts, community engagement, health, and happiness. We started Comingle to make something cool and make it easy and fun for people to talk about and explore sex in new ways. We like to make things and engage with the world around us on as deep a level as possible, whether it's urban foraging, hiking across Panama, or hacking electronics.


How was Comingle created?

Andy and Paul both research tangible interaction design, which focuses on how people will interact with the physical world when it has tiny computers and sensors embedded all over it. Paul's research focuses on the more esoteric questions of how people actually interact with technology, while Andy's focuses on how that technology can be used in very specific situations (like ethnologists in the jungle). During his fieldwork, which involves teaching people electronics, a woman asked Andy if he could help her make a vibrator, which led to the realization that DIY, embedded sensing, and sex could be a really fun space to work in. After some discussion with Paul, they figured out a few cool projects that explore those ideas and realized the project could make a good business. Based on their discussions, they decided that Comingle would be completely open-source in order to both support hackers interested in making sex toys and bring new people to DIY electronics through sex.


What are the limitations and issues surrounding open-source in regards to sex tech?

The core issue with open-source has always been the disconnect between the rhetoric it uses about freedom and access and the realities of limited access to the technology. So it's as much a question about the limitations of technology in general, as it is about the issues of open-source. Technology is already exposing people to sexual experiences they might not otherwise know about and making it less intimidating to have those experiences and talk about them. Open-source can add this by making it easier for people to make whatever experiences they can imagine. However, this all relies on access to technology, which is limited by money, and in the case of computer programming, education. So open-source has this great opportunity, but it might potentially only be available to relatively rich, relatively well-educated people. Here's an excellent talk by Leah Beuchley that kind of covers some of that. So, for us, it's important to not just get caught up in the rhetoric around open-source. Instead we try to make our work as accessible as possible, so in addition to all the high-tech stuff we do, we document projects that cost a lot less and don't require any computer programming or electronics skills, so that people interested in open-source sex technology have a way in to the community.


How do you feel about Atlanta as a homebase for Comingle?

I'm kind of biased, having grown up in Atlanta, but I see it as a great place for people to start creative enterprises. While the creative communities around the city might be fairly discreet, they are also typically really welcoming, really open about what they're doing, and not very hard to find. Atlanta has all the same exciting stuff going on as any other large city, but to me, in Atlanta, it's easier to engage with the many different communities that do creative work. The people here are also really supportive of each. They want to see new things get started and succeed. Atlanta's also really diverse, and that diversity includes people with lots of different relationships to sex, and so having access to people with different sexual preferences helps us with our work as well. On the flip side, Atlanta (and Georgia in particular) can be really conservative. There are actually laws in Georgia that say you can't sell devices that are intended for the stimulation of genitals, which is why all the sex toy boxes say "novelty use only” on them, and we all heard about Sandy Springs and the vibrator prescription nonsense. So we have to be careful how we talk about what we're doing and be pretty sensitive to who our audience is to make sure we don't cross any lines. It hasn't caused us any real problems yet, but it is something that we are aware of and keep in mind when we're showing our work.


How long did it take y’all to build your first prototype?

We've been building prototypes for a little more than a year, some of them take longer than others. Our first prototype was made from a mold that we made from a dildo we bought online (Black Friday sales last year). We put a bunch of cheap vibrating motors in it to test whether we could: 1) cast a dildo with vibes in it, and 2) feel the movement of the different motors turning on and off in sequence. That process took about a week, from reading online about silicone molding and casting, to buying the silicone and making a mold and casting everything. We made a couple more simple prototypes that took between a week and three weeks over the course of a couple months, then we figured we were ready to make a complete version of the vibrator (like you see at the top of the article), and that actually took us about two months. To make that vibrator, we had to make a set of 3D models, figure out how to support all electronics in the mold, get the circuits working exactly right. . . There were a lot of small details that we had to figure out, and it took a little while to get it right, and it still had a bunch of problems, which we've solved and are about to make another round of improved prototypes. There's documentation up about how we made the most recent prototype on our web site.

Is the sex toy industry competitive?

So broadly speaking, I'd say we, as a small company, have seen a lot more support from other companies and individuals in the industry than we have seen competition or aggression. However, business is business, and there's always going to be people who want a big ole gooey bite of your slice of the pie. So we got a cease and desist letter a few months ago from one company about a patent that we resolved, and then in July, we got sued for patent infringement by a different company about a different patent. We think that that is bogus. The patent is bogus and the fact that we're getting sued about it is bogus. It's not even clear what they want from us. And this is all historical, too. . . The adult industry has traditionally been kind of underground and often the people involved were kind of skeezy. That's all changing, and I like to think that in the next several years it will all be out in the open, and it will be a lot easier to work with people than against them, especially given that we're really trying to make tools for other people to use to enhance their own pleasure and experience.


What are your plans for the future with the company?

We're ultimately looking to create a sex-positive online community that focuses on sex-technology. We want people to have a place to share ideas, get feedback about how to make stuff, and promote technological education through sex. We'll document our work, and we hope that other people will add to our repository so that the community isn't just us talking about our own work. We'll be selling kits and components and vibrators so that we can keep growing the community and responding to its needs. We also want to further develop the educational aspects of what we do. We want to provide a set of tools (sex toys and resources) so that people interested in learning to code or design electronics can develop those skills just through spending time messing with what our vibrator can do.

Check out Comingle’s gallery of non-vibrating dildos on Flickr.