Getting up close and very personal in virtual worlds
Virtual sex has taken a step forward via software, but it throws up some discussion about real-world fidelity and how we behave online
People have been getting it together online for years now, whether it's via dating and contact websites or virtually via their avatars in online worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. But it took a Florida plumber to develop a system that further blurs the line between the virtual and real worlds.
"I've been called the Hugh Hefner of the digital millennium," says 47-year-old SL entrepreneur Kevin Alderman. "I consider myself a facilitator and an innovator." Alderman was quick to sign up to the virtual world program when it launched in mid-2003. And while he happily lost many an hour to cyberspace, there was something about SL that annoyed him.
"The characters on screen - the avatars - couldn't touch. There was a barrier in the coding and they'd bounce off each other." Alderman set up Eros, which is now a multimillion pound software company, and the next step on the evolutionary ladder for cybersex was born.
Using the SexGen software developed by Eros, users can "interact" with each other more fully. "We go the full spectrum from a kiss or caress, right through to all the positions of the Kama Sutra - anything you can imagine. You type, or say, what you want to do and the avatars do it. And they make a full range of noises."
Eros also customises avatars so you can turn your run-of-the-mill onscreen representation into any type of anatomically correct stud or vixen you can think of. Alderman's own alter-ego - the rugged lothario Stroker Serpentine - is now something of an SL legend. "And then I met Fyre Rain, who I love dearly and became my online partner," he says.
Which would be a fairytale ending to the story ... if it were not for the fact that Kevin is happily married with two children. "I'm very honest with my wife about what I do, we have a strong relationship, and I couldn't do this without her support." His wife, Debbie, agrees. "I absolutely don't think it's cheating - because she's a cartoon character in my mind," she says.
"He might be physical with himself, but he's not actually physical with her, and that doesn't bother me. It's a role, a fantasy, a character." But what of the emotional connection he has with a woman who lives nearly 1,000 miles away, with her own real-life husband and children? They claim to be in love with each other; doesn't that count as adultery?
"No [it's not emotional cheating], as you can have an emotional relationship with many people, but that doesn't make it adulterous," says Debbie. She also didn't have a problem when Kevin's online partner started getting jealous because he wasn't spending enough time on SL, or when Kevin met Fyre Rain in the real world. ("It was very nice," said Kevin. "There wasn't any sexual awkwardness, it was just like meeting up with an old friend, although it was a little odd when we went back to having sex online.") However, Debra does concede: "If she was hot and 20 I might have to think again."
Dr Sarah Munwah, a pyschologist from Berkeley University, doesn't agree. "I think it is very much cheating, and I think they're kidding themselves if they don't think of it that way. This is a situation where you have to be withdrawing some of your energy from [your wife] and your family in order to pursue another relationship. You wouldn't feel comfortable doing that in the real life, and it may not be skin to skin, but you're still doing essentially the same thing."
Aside from issues of adultery, Munwah admits she finds SL fascinating. "It is a very interesting area in terms of psychology. Because of the barrier the virtual world creates, people feel less inhibited and will experiment with experiences and personality traits they would not normally consider.
"The real question this leads to is, which relationship is more honest? The real world where people are often embarrassed to say what they really feel, or the virtual whose mask allows relationships to develop uninhibited?"
Both online infidelity and real/virtual world relationship development were investigated in the BBC One documentary Wonderland: Virtual Love and Cyber Space in January. The programme followed "Carolyn" as she receded ever more into the virtual world, spurning her husband and four children, for "Elliot".
Things came to a head when "Carolyn" flew from Pennsylvania to London. Alas it turned out, that the real-world "Elliot" didn't quite match up to his muscle-bound, weapon-clad, topless online persona.
"I think I had more hopes that it [the relationship] could be carried outside of SL," said a weepy "Carolyn" who subsequently returned home to rebuild her real-life marriage.
So what does the future hold for online lovers? Alderman sees the future becoming even more interactive. "We sell products that remotely actuate, erm, 'marital aids', from within the virtual world. I can have a device operated halfway across the planet."
Alderman believes that his $40,000 sensor suit which he uses for avatar development, converting real-life movements in to digital movements, will be able to be used in real time when internet speeds quicken.
Having a stroke
And he is working on a way to combine this with other technology which could lead to scenes that were once only the realm of sci-fi movies such as The Lawnmower Man. "There are systems - haptic technology - that use electronic pulses to contract muscles. So by using this as an interactive device you can actually feel like someone is touching, or stroking, or caressing you. We're currently looking into them ... they're only a couple of years away."
Many a Second Life addict may well never leave the house again.
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