ILLUSTRATION: Gizmodo/Sam Woolley

Rich Lee wants to give you an orgasm—a “cyborgasm.”

For years, Lee has been beset by a dream of becoming a human vibrator, a bionic man endowed with an implant designed explicitly to bring pleasure to the opposite sex. By upgrading his parts down under to include a tiny vibrating device implanted just below the skin, he hopes to also upgrade his status from average Utah dad to that of a cyborg-era Cassanova. Turn it on, and the device will give his male appendage machine-powered capabilities that rival some of the world’s most popular sex toys, at least in theory. He calls it—wait for it—the Lovetron 9000. And he doesn’t just envision this cybersexual future for himself. He wants to sell it to you, too.

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Lee is a grinder, a member of a niche community of biohackers pushing the limits of what it means to be human by augmenting their bodies with all sorts of synthetic parts. He has tiny magnets implanted into his ear that function as built-in earbuds and other magnets in his finger just for fun. He has an implant to sense his temperature and another outfitted with near-field communication technology that he uses in conjunction with a text-to-speech app to make his phone read aloud bits of text.

In his most recent experiment, Lee installed tubes of energy-absorbing non-Newtonian foam under the skin of his leg to act as a sort of built-in shin guard. It was a disaster. After flying to California to have two friends with day jobs in the ER install the long, thin tubes of armor on both shins, his legs swelled up so much that his stitches burst, exposing the implant. Every time he stood up, his body was hit with a rush of sharp, tingling pain. One night, in a feat of grisly bravery, he braced for the worst and just yanked the implants out himself.

Still, he was not deterred. Some might view Lee’s body modification avocation as self-mutilation, but he sees it as self-improvement.

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“Someday I’d like to live in a world where everything you’re dealt is changeable, fluid,” Lee told me. “My conception of an ideal self is something like a Mr. Potato Head, where I can just swap in and out different prosthetics for different senses and abilities.”

The LoveTron 9000 is Lee’s riskiest and most ambitious project yet.

Documenting his modifications on YouTube has turned Lee into celebrity of sorts within the grinder community. Even among those that count having bits of electronics implanted in their body as “fun,” Lee’s excursions veer toward the extreme. But he is betting that won’t be the case forever. He foresees a world not too far in the future where the average person has implants that do everything from unlock their front door to, yes, improve their sex life.

I met Lee last month at the second annual Body Hacking Con in Austin, where hundreds had gathered to see early visions of this future on display. On the runway, models showed off new fashions meant to bestow new senses, among them direction and echolocation. In the exhibition hall, multiple booths offered to implants magnets and RFID chips on the spot. One booth offered high-tech manicures that embedded LED lights and NFC chips into sparkly acrylic nails. A fellow cyborg, the Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence, gave a presentation on his quest to transform himself into “Eyeborg” after losing an eye in a hunting accident and replacing it with an analog camera.

None of the wearables or implants on display, though, went quite as far as Lee’s vision for a cybernetic penis.

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Next year, Lee hopes the Lovetron 9000 might have its own booth at the conference, too. He plans to market the implant to kink-friendly consumers in hopes that it might become the next “it” sex toy, selling it via the Lovetron website directly to consumers who can then have the device implanted by a piercer or body modification artist from off his company’s pre-approved list. The procedure is relatively non-invasive, as far as implants go, and will likely skirt regulatory approval thanks to a lack of laws that anticipated anyone might ever want to implant electronics below their skin for kicks.

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As planned, the Lovetron 9000 will consist of a thumb-sized haptic device to be implanted just below the skin of the pubis, in the fatty skin just above the penis. After shaving, disinfecting and numbing the area with local anesthetic, a piercer would make an inch-and-a-half-long incision, creating a tiny pocket to slide the device into before stitching it all up. The Lovetron will consist of a motor, battery and a switch that allows the wearer to turn it off and on with magnetic force. Switch it on, and it will send a wave of vibration down the shaft of the penis. Lee doesn’t have any formal medical training, but a biotech company is assisting him in the design of the device. After two weeks of healing, Lee said, the device will be “ready for recreation.” A partner, he shyly pointed out, might also enjoy grinding directly atop it.

To Lee, the vibrating penis implant is an obvious and necessary expression of the blurring lines between man and machine.

“It was just low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Rich Lee at Body Hacking Con in Austin, TX. IMAGE: Kristen V. Brown

If there’s anyone in the world who might seem like an obvious booster for a kinky cyborg sex revolution, it isn’t Rich Lee. With a bushy beard, nerd glasses and a penchant for plaid, his look is more Seattle coffee snob than extreme body modification enthusiast. Lee is a divorced dad of two young kids, and lives in southwestern Utah where he manages a warehouse for a packaging sales firm. When I asked him to draw me a sketch of his implant, afterward he was so embarrassed by the appearance of a penis on my notebook pages that he quickly disguised his handiwork as a goofy looking face with a long skinny nose.

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Lee got into the grinder scene back in 2008, long before there was a conference devoted to it. He grew up religious, feeling like there was little sense in considering the future since the Rapture was imminent.

“While I was interested in space travel and extreme technological advancement, it seemed frivolous in light of the approaching apocalypse,” he said. “So later in life I masturbated my way out of church and eventually found atheism. I replaced God and heaven with science and transhumanism.”

Years later, he was leafing through a stack of old magazines recently left behind by his grandmother. He was struck by the headlines—decades old news stories proclaiming that a world free of death and disease was just around the corner. Obviously, neither of those promises had ever been fulfilled.

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“I started to panic,” he said. “Once again I had taken a passive role in a future which someone else promised me and that I had zero guarantees of realizing.”

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He decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I started plotting ways to become the immortal mutant cyborg I always wished I was,” he said.

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On the internet, he found the blog of a well-known early biohacker, Lepht Anonym. Anonym presented an approachable vision for transhumanism, achievable with little more than some homemade cybernetics and a basic understanding of human biology. One of Anonym’s hacks was a finger magnet, an implant first pioneered by Steve Haworth, the Godfather of body hacking. As soon as he read about the implant, Lee made an appointment and drove 400 miles to Arizona get his first implant from the Godfather himself.

From there, his experiments grew bolder, with varying degrees of success.

In 2013, his earbud implants became his first undertaking to go viral. The idea was to create implants that would give him the ability to listen to music in a room full of people, on the sly. Haworth implanted two small magnets under the skin of Lee’s tragus, the small inner flap of his ear. Lee could wear a loose magnetic coil around his neck, hidden under his collar, and it would create a magnetic field that caused the implants to vibrate and produce sound. His plans for the device were ambitious. “I can see myself using it with the GPS on my smartphone to navigate city streets on foot,” he wrote at the time. 

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In practice, though, its capabilities have been underwhelming. The audio quality is not quite good enough to be audible in a room full of people. But Lee says he does still use the implants regularly, to listen to music and the news to unwind at the end of the day, headphone free.

His modifications often come with a sense of humor. His NFC chip was once programmed to make his phone say “self destruct sequence initiated. Detonation in 10...9...8...” any time he waved the finger with the implant under his phone. (“It was a neat party trick,” he recalled.)

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Two years ago, Lee nearly electrocuted himself in the bath while trying to come up with a mechanism to defeat hypothermia. He filled a bathtub with ice, then strapped an electric heating pad around his arm and got in. His question was whether a heating device implanted in one part of the body, like the arm, might be able to heat the body’s blood up sufficiently enough to stave off hypothermia as it circulated through the body. As he sat shivering and taking notes in the ice-filled tub, he noticed that the heating pad had sunk below the water, plug and all. He has yet to repeat that experiment, though fellow grinders revere it as the ultimate tale of grinder grit.

For the LoveTron 9000, Lee is working with a vaguely transhumanist company named Ascendance Biomedical to develop a prototype. Lee expects it to be ready for implant in three to four months. He’s even received a small investment from the company to help develop the custom micro electronics necessary to get a strong enough motor to sufficiently power the device while also keeping it small enough to implant without being too cumbersome or noticeable. He is currently seeking beta testers, though his first test subject, of course, will be himself.

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Lee insists all this is safe—the device will come hermetically sealed and he is relying on medical consultation to work out the details of the procedure. But medical professionals are wary of this growing set of DIY surgeons.

“Without even getting into the ethics of whether or not this type of body modification should even be attempted, I think any licensed surgeon would recommend against these kinds of do-it-yourself surgeries,” said Michael Terry, a professor in the plastic surgery department at University of California, San Francisco. Without a trained surgeon or sterile operating room, Terry said there is a much higher risk of infection, uncontrolled bleeding or nerve damage. In addition, he said, it’s hard to tell how the body might react to the implants themselves.

“These are just a few of the many reasons why there is such a complicated credentialing procedure for surgery centers, and why it takes years of research and clinical studies to obtain approval for any implanted medical device,” Terry said.

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Lee, though, is not the only one banking on the economic potential of implantables. For years, startups like Grindhouse Wetware and Dangerous Things have sold implantables and the kits to implant them with to a growing community of grinders across the U.S. and Europe. The demographics of that community may not surprise you: it’s largely young, white nerds, the same groups of people who populated early hacker collectives and internet message boards.

But some see that starting to change.

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“In the beginning all the questions I got were technical,” said Amal Graafstra, the founder of the Seattle-based Dangerous Things, as horde of conference goers swarmed him to watch a demonstration of him unlocking a door lock with his hand. “Now it’s like, what can I do with this? The general public is interested.”

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Moon Ribas, a performance artist and “cyborg activist” who has a chip implant that allows her to feel seismic activity, recently co-founded Cyborg Nest, a company designed to bring whimsical implants to the masses. Their first product is an implant that allows the wearer to “sense” north by vibrating every time their body faces magnetic north. Rather than being embedded below the skin, it sits just on top, held in place with four piercings. Since launching in December, the North Sense has sold about 250 units. Ribas said that she was surprised to discover that the buyers were not all grinder types. One set of parents, she said, even bought the implants for them and their kids.

Lee is trying to curb his expectations—he doesn’t exactly expect vibrating pelvis implants to go flying off the virtual shelves.

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“I think it will take a while to catch on,” he admitted.

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Still, he anticipates enough people will be interested to make for a viable business.

“I plan on selling 100,000 in the next five years,” he said.

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At a hotel room meeting of some of the community’s most prominent grinders, they discussed how to deal with the eventual regulatory scrutiny that growing public interest—and concern—might invite. Regulations for implants typically only apply when the implant is considered a “medical device,” but the magnets and RFID chips body hackers gravitate toward for now don’t fall into that category. But the community is quickly moving beyond those boundaries—one company said it was planning to have an implant that interfaces directly with the body’s nervous system ready within a year.

Lee and his fellow grinders are ready to move forward whether the world is ready for them or not.

“Genetic modification is the moral and ethical thing to do,” Graafstra argued during a talk on the ethics of biohacking. “The ethical thing is to advance human society.”

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It’s clear, though, that the rest of the world is not quite there yet.

Lee has experienced this firsthand. This fall, Lee’s ex-wife petitioned for custody of their two children, arguing that his hobby is a disturbing and dangerous one that makes him a worse parent. “I stopped sharing joint physical custody,” the motion read, “because Rich has chosen to expose our children to his disturbing behavior of do-it-yourself surgeries and bio-hacking.” Until a court date later this year, Lee has been stripped of shared custody.

The custody battle, though, has so far not impeded his plans for the Lovetron. For Lee, implanting vibrating cybernetics in his nether regions isn’t just about being the guy at the party with the most interesting hobby. It’s destiny, the obvious path of human evolution, “low-hanging fruit.”

On the last morning of the conference, I sat in a hotel room where five or six grinders were crashing, as a revered (and anonymous) DIY surgeon worked to extract a poorly implanted magnet out of a man’s finger. The man sat stoically, looking in the opposite direction as his surgeon anesthetized him, then pulled back a flap of skin and began digging around in his finger for the magnet. Thirty minutes of digging elapsed, and still the rogue magnet had not been found. The room sat in near silence, following an earlier scolding.

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“Fuck man,” the DIY surgeon said, pacing back and forth, then taking a hit from a vape.

The magnet, it turned out, had slid into a pocket of skin near that man’s tendon, deep in his finger. A stronger magnet had been necessary to pull the magnet out. The culprit of this conundrum was only slightly larger than a broken tip of pencil lead. After a bad implant done by friends at home in Portland, the magnet had been causing him discomfort for over a year. And, to boot, it didn’t even work. Undaunted, he got two more chips implanted while at the conference.

“Anything you implant will eventually have to come out,” Lee told me. “We implant them with that in mind.”

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Maybe, in that case, we are not quite ready to embrace our inevitable cyborg future after all.