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Weird science: Lisa the foreplay robot

Senior Editor Donald Bell discusses the Moaning Lisa foreplay robot and its implications for digital audio.

Photo of Moaning Lisa mannequin head.
She's got motion sensors for eyes and so much more. If you're not offended by seeing a mannequin's nipple, then click here to see behind-the-scenes photos of how Lisa was constructed. Donald Bell / CNET Networks

Could the next frontier of gadget interface design be modeled after female sexual arousal? Multimedia artists Matt Ganucheau, Kyle Machulis, and Kelly Moore have designed a female mannequin that uses strategically placed sensors to control audio playback. The mannequin, affectionately named Moaning Lisa, was unveiled at the recent Arse Elektronika conference, as part of a showcase of emerging erotic-based technology. While Lisa is currently programmed to only play a catalog of more than 200 female moans, her open-source architecture is capable of handling anything from an MP3 music library to advanced audio synthesis.

It may sound like Weird Science, but Matt promises that Lisa's technology is nothing mystical. A cutaway in Lisa's back reveals a Make controller board that works as a hardware router for all the touch-sensitive sensors mounted on the mannequin's more sensitive areas. A USB plug found on Lisa's ankle connects to a nearby computer that handles the software end of things. Matt developed Moaning Lisa's unique software using a visual programming language called Max/MSP. The program uses a neural networking algorithm to monitor all of Lisa's sensors and determine her state of excitement, which in turn modulates both her volume and number of moans. With some help from Matt and Kyle, I've put together a slide show of Lisa's construction, to help other lonely tinkerers.

Beyond the juvenile theatrics, there are some advanced principles behind Lisa that could filter into consumer technology. With Lisa, Matt and Kyle consciously avoided simplifying the mannequin's "arousal" to just a slap and a tickle. Instead, Lisa's software monitors the sensors for speed, duration, and sequence of touch input, along with an element of chance that may cause Lisa to not respond to you, no matter how smooth your moves. With advanced multitouch interfaces such as the iPhone grabbing the world's attention, could the next generation of interfaces be engineered for deliberate unresponsiveness? Imagine an iPod that will only power on based on the unique pressure of your grip, or a pet robot that responds preferentially to your voice, rather than your girlfriend's. The technology behind the Moaning Lisa project actually has practical applications that could reach into next generation Tickle-Me-Elmos, or post-Guitar Hero game controllers. Personally, I'm hoping for an MP3 player that can sense my mood (or someone else's) based on interaction, then find an appropriate soundtrack for it.