A new generation of sex toys is here.

Manipulatable by the actions of a far-away internet partner, these sex toys — called teledildonics — are internet-enabled devices that let long-distance partners feel each other in real-time. For men, there are vagina-shaped sex toys, and for women, penis-shaped ones. What one partner does is picked up by sensors in the toy, sent over the internet, and felt by the other partner, and vice versa. The toys can also sync up to the action in adult films, like the now-defunct RealTouch.

It’s easy to condemn such things as weird or bizarre.

And I’d say that’s for good reason: Hooking up via vibrating plastic accessories attached to an internet-connected computer is clearly not the most obvious way for two people to be intimate. It is rather like a Rube Goldberg machine: an extremely complicated solution to a simple problem. Why go to such trouble to create virtual sexual experiences when real-world sex is possible without all the technology getting in the way?

But as jarring as they may seem, these technologies may actually be useful for things outside of the domain of internet fetishism. They are a very primitive attempt to solve an extremely important problem in computing — how do you create convincing physical sensations in virtual environments?

Today, we have relatively underdeveloped virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift that immerse viewers in 360-degree digital environments where they can move their head to look up, down, and around. But integrating elements of reality beyond audio to create a fuller virtual reality experience presents difficult engineering challenges. Surround sound is possible, but the other senses — taste, smell, and touch — are much harder to fulfill.

Internet-connected sex toys are a tentative first step toward physical feedback in virtual reality, just as (say) Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was a first step toward the impressive virtual reality visuals possible with the Oculus Rift.

If the initial application (internet sex), seems weird, that’s probably just human nature. Humans like experimenting with sex so it shouldn't be too surprising that porn has been a big driver of technology adoption. The adult film industry has been at the forefront of technology for years, at least since it picked VHS over Betamax. Technological innovations pioneered by the porn industry include online payment systems, streaming video, video chat, and DVD and HD video formats.

The same logic probably applies to sex with robots. In creating convincing human-like robots, it seems inevitable that researchers will experiment with making robots sexually convincing, as well as capable of various human tasks such as lifting heavy objects, performing manual labor, performing housework, fighting in war zones, etc. Designing robots that are sexually attractive and sexually convincing will hold important lessons for designing robots to interact with humans in other ways.