In February 2013 at Long Beach, I stood on a stage in front of 1500 people, all of whom had paid a lot of money to attend the week-long TED event. Trying to appear casual and confident but nervous as hell inside, I began my talk with the question, "Why is sex so damn good?"
The first time I'd asked the same question was a few years earlier, in a post-coital moment with my then-girlfriend. "Maybe it's because of the five senses," she replied with savvy. And that's how I was introduced to multi-sensory design.
At the time, I was working as a professor of industrial design, a job that required me to teach and think about design (fantastic), and write academic papers (not-so-fantastic). Having spent some time reading these papers I came to a simple conclusion: they are very, very boring and I wanted nothing to do with them. Part of being a designer is that we can use design-thinking to create solutions for almost any problem; this includes making academic research more interesting. So I decided to use the five senses as the basis for my research.
Lee in the midst of his research
After hearing my former girlfriend's statement on the five senses, I needed a way to test out the theory. To this end, I created a 'five senses diary.' Within this diary, I would record various experiences in my life according to their impact on my senses. However, this would be no ordinary journal. Instead of containing written entries, each experience would be recorded in the form of a graph [see sample graph 1]. The x-axis of this graph lists the five senses. The y-axis records the level of intensity a particular experience has on each sense, on a scale of 1-10. I took to the research with relish, eating great dishes, riding different types of motorbikes, scuba diving in the tropics, and even learning how to fly an airplane. Remember, all this was for the sake of academic research (although admittedly, there may have been a hint of self-interest involved). I also recruited friends and students to contribute their own entries. Over the course of three years I was able to accumulate numerous results for a variety of experiences.
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And this is what I found out. The reason why we enjoy pickles and lettuce in hamburgers? Taste aside, that crisp texture and sound as we bite into these crunchy morsels balance out the soft, squidgy experience of the rest of the burger. That the original Nintendo Wii was the first console to really involve the sense of touch to gaming, and helped drive Nintendo's stock values to an all-time high in 2007. That some people still prefer reading from a bound block of wood pulp rather than an e-reader because there's a certain texture and smell that can only come from paper. That the act of free-falling-while-spinning in a light airplane ranks higher on the five senses graph than bungee jumping [see figure 2]. That any experience can be greatly enhanced by including more of the senses.
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Corporations have also taken to multi-sensory design. Singapore Airlines developed an exclusive scent that's used in their airplanes. This is a brilliant idea as they really have a captive audience on long-distance flights. Brands like Harley Davidson, Intel and Pringles can all be identified by a distinctive sound, even though this sound has nothing to do with their products' core functions. In Harley's case, they even attempted (but ultimately failed) to patent their machines' rumblings. Audi's design department has a 'Nose team,' a wonderfully named group that sounds like something Willy Wonka would have dreamed up. And they really do design the smell of the interior of Audi's cars.
Core77 has set a design challenge to envision the future of sex toys. This is as difficult a challenge as it is awesome because of the subject matter. Sex is so much more than a simple act of procreation. It's a glorious, powerful activity some of us spend far too much time being fascinated and motivated by (myself included). Our sex drive has even lead to the widespread adoption of new technologies such as the VCR, as it was the first technology that allowed for viewing porn in private. There's also the internet (self-explanatory). And then there's the field of robotics, and along with it, the development of humanoids—a documentary I watched a while ago on the BBC suggested that they would be useful in the sex industry (humanoids, not the BBC). Once again, we see an example of a technology being developed that has a direct connection to sex. It's telling that a whole slew of scientists and inventors are spending inordinate amounts of money and time developing robots that look, feel and behave like humans so that we can have sex with them.
Of all the results I received during my five senses research, only one activity came even close to being the perfect five senses experience: great sex. And this makes sense. It's only during sex that sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are all highly stimulated, making this the ultimate multi-sensory experience. So when designing the perfect intimacy product for the digital age, I can't speculate on what the sex-toy of tomorrow should look like, but I do know what it should feel like. Just like the real thing, it should involve as many of the senses as possible. Because that's what makes sex so damn good.
Jinsop Lee is an industrial designer and winner of the TED Global Talent Search in 2012. In 2013, he gave a TED talk on his design theories about the connection between the five senses and good design.
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This article is part of the Core77 Sex-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technology and design are shaping the future of intimacy and sex.
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