CES, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas last week, had more than 4,500 exhibitors. But a sex toy startup from Oregon called Lora DiCarlo was not one of them. Lora DiCarlo made a sex toy, Osé, that uses micro-robotics to create a “biomimicry” effect which it argued is better than a vibrator.
The female-run company, formally called Uccellini, submitted its application for a CES Innovation Award — and it won. That gave it the right to exhibit at CES Unveiled, a pre-show party attended by many of the 6,500 press attending the show. But CES rescinded the award in October, and Lora DiCarlo’s sex toy was denied its chance to exhibit.
But Lora Haddock, CEO of Lora DiCarlo, didn’t go quietly. She raised a stink, and she probably got far more publicity than she otherwise might have because of her claim about the unfairness and inconsistency of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which runs CES.
“[Lora DiCarlo] does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program,” said spokesperson Sarah Brown, in an email. “CTA has communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo. We have apologized to the company for our mistake.”
John Parmigiani, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of industry research and outreach at Oregon State University, said in an interview with me that he was struck by the amount of research and detailed design that Haddock had done. He helped the university’s robotics lab turn the design into a product. He said he was stunned at CTA’s decision to take away the award.
I caught up with Haddock and Sarah Brown, director of marketing at Lora DiCarlo (clearly not the same as the CTA’s Sarah Brown), for a discussion about the issues this raised in a time of both #MeToo and female empowerment through “sex positive” products.
They were able to exhibit at Showstoppers, a big party that took place during CES, but not at the official CES Unveiled event or the show floor. Meanwhile, Naughty America, a porn company, was able to book its usual meeting room in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: Is “Lora DiCarlo” actually a brand name? Was that a name that came from somewhere else?
Lora Haddock: Yes, Lora DiCarlo is a brand name, our brand name. Lora comes from my family, on the Sicilian side, and then DiCarlo is a family name.
VentureBeat: Did that just sound like a good name for the company?
Haddock: [laughs] One evening I was with a couple of folks in a hot tub and a couple of glasses of wine and they said that sounded like the greatest thing ever, so we kind of ran with it. It’s working for us so far.
VentureBeat: Where do you stand now? Are you thinking of filing a lawsuit, or taking some other next step here?
Haddock: No, no lawsuit. To be honest, I’d love to bury the hatchet with CES if they’d consent to right their wrong. But we’re just going to continue to march ahead. Obviously, we plan to expose this, because we feel that it’s very biased. But we’d much rather spend our time focusing on our company and our product rather than digging ourselves into a lawsuit.
Brown: I think a large part of it for us is just that this is a conversation, this issue with gender bias at CES and gender bias in tech, the hostility in general to women and, I suppose, non-male participants in tech and at CES. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for a long time, and as much as we keep hearing “We’re diversifying, there are so many women involved,” the reality is that every year we have another problem, another thing exposed. Last year and the year before that they had no women keynote speakers. This year they finally made it 50-50, which is great, but realistically — if all it is is cosmetic, this is a conversation that needs to keep going. The Innovation Award is just another example of that problem continuing.
Haddock: Basically, the motivation behind this is to some real action and real change where gender bias is concerned within CES and the tech industry. The CTA, the Consumer Technology Association, is a big player in the tech industry. They have the power to make a big impact and make some amenable changes that level the playing field. This is an opportunity for them, rather than a strike against them. I’d like to see them make some real changes, and not just a couple of cosmetic things that they’re trying to patch up.
Brown: We have no delusions that we’re going to get our award back. But this is another opportunity for women, for non-binary folks, and for non-gender-conforming folks to stand up and speak out for themselves. We’re taking the opportunity to do that.
Haddock: That’s a big part of the conversation with female CEOs and female founders and female-focused products. In the startup world we don’t have as many opportunities to get venture capital funding. Women especially will just keep their mouths shut when stuff like this happens. When there’s impropriety in funding, impropriety in the way things are run, we keep our mouths shut because it’s dangerous for us talk about it. We’re perceived as complaining, or someone who’s difficult to work with, when all we’re asking for is equality.
VentureBeat: I did think it was very strange that they’ve allowed various things into the show that you’d not expect, given what their answer was as far as policy. You had Naughty America, OhMiBod, Solana. A lot of their offerings seemed less tame than yours. It gets hard to parse the logic or the thinking as to what gets in and what doesn’t.
Haddock: I’d agree with that. It’s something we’ve done quite a bit of research on as far as past indiscretions. One thing we’ve found that tends to be a trend is they tend to allow more male-facing products in that industry. There tends to be more of an exception for male-facing products to be far more explicit in nature than female-facing products. Female-facing products seem to be expected to be far more demure and muted in their advertising, marketing, and the product itself.
Like you said, they have Naughty America on the floor. They have more explicit products on the floor. But they’re geared toward men. Where women are concerned we have products like breast pumps, vacuum cleaners, Kegel exercisers. There’s a stark difference between what’s allowed.
VentureBeat: Naughty America does say that they’re in a meeting room, as opposed to the floor.
Brown: They do have a divider. They have it hidden. I’ve seen a video of what their event space looks like and how it ends up. It’s interesting. But again, the fact that we’re talking about it, the fact that they’re there at all — they’re still present, and they’re able to present conversations that say, “We are at CES.” Even if they’re hidden, they’re still allowed to be there.
Haddock: Solana, the sex android, was not hidden whatsoever. She had a live interview that was done right there on the CES floor. There was no hiding that. To each their own, but that’s extremely explicit. There’s no hiding what that is. There’s definitely a double standard there.
Brown: There’s a place for everything. All of society right now — our entire industry, sex tech and pleasure tech, is going mainstream. You can see massagers in Sharper Image. You can see massagers in Brookstone. You can buy them in the store at CVS, albeit not at the price points these products should be sold at. Everything is going more mainstream. People are becoming more aware of the importance of sex and sensuality to general well-being.
I understand not wanting to have completely naked women on banners. Or naked women walking all over the floor, for that matter. But there’s a dissonance there, where you can be obscene, but only in certain ways.
VentureBeat: Have you done any research that’s been illuminating around booth presences over the years? It seems to me, having gone to the show for 20 years, there are a lot fewer booth babes than there used to be. I don’t know if it just shifted toward the fitness section, but not so much in the general area.
Brown: I agree, definitely. That’s why, when we talk about booth babes, we’re not really talking about that in the present tense. It’s important to point out the history. Very clearly CES has made great strides. Compared to what it was in the ’80s, today it’s very different. But we can’t pat ourselves on the back, or the CTA or anybody else, until there’s real parity.
As we said, we’re not planning on suing. We’re not getting angry. We’re not in an anger mode. We’re continuing a conversation that’s been happening for a very long time.
Haddock: They’ve made some changes over the years, and I commend them for that. But when you’re presented an opportunity to truly make waves — this industry really needs a more level playing field. When you’re presented an opportunity by a young company that’s been founded by women, that’s run by women, that’s extremely innovative, that’s partnered with one of the top robotics schools in the country to create this tech, whether it’s sex or not, you should be chomping at the bit to bring that company in.
Brown: In the end it’s really not just about creating an equal playing field. Every study that you look at out there, it’s to the benefit of any industry to involve more female CEOs, to involve more female-led companies. It’s not just equality. It’s also profit. People make more money. Innovation grows. We’re looking at different perspectives on how we approach technology, in every field.
This is something we said in the open letter, but the future of health tech could very easily be inside a sex toy. It could easily be in a vacuum, too, but that’s not quite what we’re talking about right now. [laughs] There’s just so much that can’t easily be dismissed.
VentureBeat: What’s interesting about the history is that CES and the show that became the AVN Awards, they were together at one point. People complained. They said, “Hey, this is taking over the show.” You had all these long lines of guys looking at stuff behind the curtains. And so they separated the shows, with AVN coming a couple of weeks later. It’s strange to consider that if they were still together, you might be allowed in.
Haddock: Not to go way, way back, but there are plenty of ways they could have done that differently and kept the two together in a much more synergistic relationship as well.
VentureBeat: It maybe goes back to what you’re saying about male-facing versus female-facing.
Haddock: That’s the biggest point here. If you’re going to separate it and say there’s absolutely no sex tech whatsoever, then there absolutely cannot be porn on the floor. You can’t have a sex robot for men. I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a space where this can balance out. Because you’re also talking about — they separated in, what, the late ’90s?
VentureBeat: I think 2001 was the last year. I don’t know if that’s exactly right.
Haddock: In any case, if you’re going to separate out only a handful of things that are sex-related, if you’re going to pick and choose, and not allow somebody like us, or someone else that does a very classy, very innovative product, at that point it’s just capricious. It’s arbitrary.
Brown: Also, a big part of it is, we’re 20 years out from that period in time. The massive strides that have been made with the technology that’s going into pleasure products — it’s light-years ahead. We’re using medical-grade silicone now. We’re using different types of polymers and plastics for the motors. We’re using robotics, of course, which is not something that’s really been used in pleasure products before. We’ll continue on that trajectory.
VentureBeat: The robotics element, how necessary do you view that as far as making the product better? Is there a way to explain the value there?
Haddock: In creating micro-robotics, we’ve also created bio-mimicry, the mimicry of human motions. In that, we’ve been able to eliminate the need for vibration. We’ve created a product that acts very similarly to a human partner, which is far more effective than just using vibration. It moves in the right way, in the right places, and can fit each individual user. It can be customized for a particular person. It’s absolutely essential for this product, and in the years to come you’re going to see more and more of that trend.
VentureBeat: I guess you can’t just call it a vibrator anymore, then.
Haddock: [laughs] Well, we don’t call it a vibrator! Just to give you a bit of background, I’ve worked for Lelo for the last five years. I’ve seen the way that the industry has grown and the new types of technology that are getting integrated into these products. I worked in product development previously. People are looking for new sensations.
One thing that hasn’t been done in this space is really creating something that makes you — first of all, it’s hands-free. It also stimulates both the G-spot and the clitoris. Most of the time people end up using their hands. They’re either holding two separate toys, or they’re using something like a rabbit vibrator. It’s still something you have to hold onto. By having these robotic technologies and these personalized features in the product, you’re really creating a space for people to do other things.
Whether it’s the ability to just zone out, and not have to be active while you’re using it, or maybe they want to watch something, but the fact is — women use their brains a whole lot when they’re masturbating. It’s the most erogenous zone in your body. If you can’t concentrate on what you want or what you’re doing, it actually makes it much harder to achieve orgasm.
VentureBeat: I pretty regularly get tech-related pitches from sex toy makers. The market seems vibrant.
Brown: It is. It’s still growing. I’ve been involved in this for a long time. I’ll be attending AVN this year. We attend the internal trade shows like ANME. There are always new people joining in, especially women. Right now I’m loving, absolutely loving seeing all of these brands jumping into the market and saying, “Companies run by men just aren’t making products for women’s bodies, or for gender-non-conforming or non-binary folks.” They’re getting in and saying, “I’m going to make something for me and for people like me.”
That’s where a lot of the vibrancy is coming from, I think. We’re finally starting to see that diversity in adult. We’re starting to see people who, before, may have worked in stores or been involved in parts of the business, but they weren’t CEOs. They weren’t directors.
Haddock: Those people are now looking at products and thinking, “I could make this better.” Another part of that, too, and the reason for this surge in the industry, is just the social acceptance overall of sex, of masturbation, of sex toys. There’s an increased use for therapeutic purposes. There’s an increase in internet sales. The global sex tech market is predicted to explode to nearly $30 billion by 2021.
VentureBeat: Who compiles that figure?
Haddock: That’s TechNavio. They do every industry analysis, looking at who the major players are and what the market looks like. We pulled their report and it’s very promising.
VentureBeat: I guess CTA is just not keeping up here.
Brown: You know, I think they’re missing out. This is something a lot of people are talking about with older industry groups. It’s like cable TV. Cable doesn’t innovate, so you have people like Netflix who come in and innovate for them, taking away a massive amount of their subscribers. Either you change, or someone’s going to make something new and different that includes a lot more.
There’s a huge opportunity here, especially within the diversity area, for CTA and CES to be a leader in that space. Not just dealing with the PR fallout that happens every year, but really sitting down and putting together a strategy around how you put in more people, more exhibitors that are diverse.
Haddock: Taking steps to get ahead of the game, rather than just reacting and dealing with the cleanup.
VentureBeat: Did you get anywhere close to having a direct conversation with the CTA?
Brown: We had a very quick repartee a couple of times. You’ll see that in the PR packet.
VentureBeat: I read all that, but it didn’t sound like much of a conversation.
Haddock: Yeah, they neglected to really address any concerns or issues that we raised. That’s unfortunate.
VentureBeat: I mean, it would be hard for them to explain why they let these other exhibitors in.
Brown: We’re not really sure about that. We’re not sure about what sort of grandfathering is going on. Some of these companies have been exhibiting for almost a decade, still. But then you see one-timers or brand-new folks that pop into CES. One thing that was very confusing for us was the fact that they couldn’t tell us why we were no longer eligible. They couldn’t answer any of those questions.
What we’ve created is extremely innovative. It’s a bit of a technological anomaly in our industry. We have some of the most amazing engineers working on this, along with a partnership with Oregon State University and their college of engineering. It’s no easy feat. It was very hard to hear that suddenly, after we’d gone through the entire process, and been selected as an honoree — suddenly we weren’t eligible. We never got an explanation.
VentureBeat: Do you think that maybe one of the answers is just to create one of these sub-sectors or marketplaces within the show where adult companies can gather?
Haddock: That might not be a bad idea. I guess I can’t really infer that I know how to run the CTA or CES. I can’t say that I know what the answer to that would be. But I certainly know that this is not a good way to approach this kind of situation, especially with society constantly evolving in the way that it is.
Brown: For me, creating a subsection — here’s a room in which you can have all of the pleasure products and sex toys and “adult products” — we already have industry trade shows that are specific to the adult industry. I think what’s more interesting and more revolutionary is putting products that use robotics in the robotics category, or putting products that use VR into the VR category. That’s where you see a real impact. You normalize things.
Part of this is networking, right? You meet vendors. You meet retailers. You’re introducing people to the idea of robotics inside of a pleasure product. Whoever thought that you needed to be able to tweet from your refrigerator? But now we have refrigerators that talk to Twitter. There’s so much about innovation and the way that people ideate and how the industry grows and how connections are created between different types of products and different types of technology. It’s really limiting when you’re telling people, “No, here’s this little dark room.” Before 2001, before AVN, that’s really what it was. And they said, “Screw you guys, we’re going to start our own party.”
VentureBeat: There’s an interesting parallel in the video game industry. They took off to do E3 in the 1990s because CES — they outgrew CES to some degree, but CES also probably didn’t want to have all these addictive, violent games out on display that were bad for kids. The game industry said, “OK, we’ll go do our own show.”
Brown: When you put something off into its own space — to me, the largest take-home for me, when I found out about this whole thing with the CTA rescinding the award, was CES saying, “You’re not good enough. This area of health and sexuality is just not worthy of innovation.”
That, for me, is the big point in the conversations that we’re building here. First, it’s really specifically women’s sexual health and wellness. And in general, we’re not talking about — there’s a place for explicit sexuality and a place for kink and exploration and all of that. But I don’t think anyone is talking about having, say, fetish gear at CES. We’re talking about products that are very clearly designed with anatomy and physiology and technology in mind.
The Lora DiCarlo brand is not a brand that will be using extreme nudity. We’re sex-positive and gender-inclusive and we hold that to be very important parts of all of our identities, individually and as a company. The idea that female sexuality is not worthy of innovation, that it’s not worthy as being seen as innovative — that’s an even bigger conversation.
Haddock: We really just want to continue the conversation for women in tech. That’s very important for us. We could have let the ball drop and focused on our company, but allowing women and non-binary folks to have a seat at the table — it goes right in line with our culture and our values. That was important enough for us to really be steadfast about this decision.
Brown: The way that our company is structured, we’re primarily female. We have LGBTQI members of the team who are extremely — our technical director, who will be at Showstoppers with us, is female-facing queer.
VentureBeat: You were able to get into ShowStoppers and show this?
Haddock: Oh, yeah. They said, “Yeah, come on in!” [laughs]
VentureBeat: So you do at least get that chance.
Brown: Definitely. There’s interest in this and interest in these products around tech and around CES. It’s just CES itself that hasn’t quite figured it out yet.