MADISON, WI––Chris Johns anxiously circles his thumb around the rim of an empty Corona as he explains how his business partner in the remote-sex startup he hopes to showcase in January — at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas — stopped returning calls just days before Christmas.
Now, on the 10th day of silence, Johns slowly comes to terms with the revelation that his partner — whose promises he staked much of his company on — may have defrauded him.
He lights a Newport and reaches for his phone.
“We’re talking less than three weeks to Vegas, and I can’t get this bitch on the phone,” he says, as his partner’s voicemail picks up the call. “Everyone is ready to go; now this motherfucker wants to play games.”
Over the last four years, Johns, 34, and his girlfriend, Tabitha Rae, 26, have pumped nearly every dollar they’ve earned back into their company, Christyle Enterprises, which owns the adult webcam site doitchristyle.com.
Among a growing number of startups eager to cash in on the coming teledildonic revolution, Christyle Enterprises aims to open the world’s first digital brothel.
Teledildonics — or remote sex — refers to the two-way communication of tactile sexual sensations over the Internet.
Now, the Christyle Kitty models can touch — and be touched by — their cam-clients.
It gets stranger.
In 2014, Amsterdam-based Kiiroo rocked the $5 billion a year adult entertainment industry with an artificial vagina that, when synced with encoded content, turns masturbation into a thing that is done to a man rather than by him.
“Videos [operate] the device, so people can experience women like Pamela Anderson giving them a blow job,” explains Kiiroo’s chief technology officer, Maurice Op de Beek, on a call from his Amsterdam office. “These kinds of things are possible now.”
But in the realm of teledildonics, that which is possible is not easily done.
Last year, six startups were hit with lawsuits after allegedly infringing on a patent issued to Warren Sandvick, a 55-year-old Texan who hasn’t invented any teledildonic devices, but had the foresight in 1998 to anticipate the day when others would.
Sandvick’s patent — known as the Hassex patent — is the blueprint for how sexual aids and devices are controlled over a digital computer network.
Nearly 18 years after the patent was filed, it has become a lucrative piece of intellectual property, as entire industries begin to probe the technology’s broader potential.
Johns hopes to be one of the entrepreneurs who cashes in. After years of sacrifice and setbacks, he believes Christyle Enterprises has earned a shot to hang with the big boys.
“That’s all I’m asking for. I never said, ‘I need to be the only one’; just let me be one of,” he says. “That door hasn’t slammed shut yet….”
Within seven months of graduating from Stoughton High School, Tabitha Rae was pregnant and alone. Abandoned by her baby’s father, she took a job at Milio’s once her daughter was born, but earned only a subsistence wage.
She landed an audition at a Middleton strip club and was on her way to earning between $250 and $500 a night by the third song. Her new vocation stunned some members of her tight-knit family.
“My mom was like, ‘How could you do this?’” she recalls. “My dad just asked where I was working.”
In August 2011, she left Silk Exotic for Club Bristol, near Sun Prairie, and within a week she met a gregarious gentleman with a Florida twang.
“I was there to meet another girl, but [Rae] was sexy,” Johns recalls. “So, I bought a lap dance.”
Four lap dances later, Rae was smitten enough to call Johns the following day.
“A lot of guys will tell you that ‘you’re better than this, let me help you,’ but really they just want to date or fuck a stripper,” she says. “Chris was different.”
Johns soon discovered that falling in love with a stripper is one thing, a committed relationship with an escort is another.
Outside of her work at the club, Rae ran ads in the escort section of Backpage.com, a gig that kept her out most nights.
Johns, who has three children of his own, disliked the arrangement, but the $2,000 she could earn each week was not an insignificant sum. They didn’t have a plan, she says.
“It was hard because I knew he didn’t like it, but for me it was just going to work,” she says. “It would’ve been easier if it was just the two of us, but with kids, we needed the money.”
A serendipitous stroll down State Street in the winter of 2011 sparked a change bigger than either could have imagined.
As a panhandler stuffed the dollar they’d given him into a pocket overflowing with bills, they began to dream about how different things would be if they convinced 100,000 people each to give them a dollar.
“Then it just fucking hit us,” Johns says. “She got so many calls from people who didn’t even want to have sex, but would pay $150 to rub her feet. Why not [have live sex] in front of a camera and sell it to a few hundred people?”
The couple decided to build not just a company, but a global adult entertainment empire.
Following their money-making epiphany, Johns and Rae began filling notebooks with ideas on how to bring the panhandler’s hustle to scale.
Rae worked full-time at the club, while Johns learned to build websites at ITT Tech.
Unable to settle on a single idea, the couple formed Christyle Enterprises as an umbrella for a handful of affiliated ventures under the Christyle brand.
Among them was Rae’s line of Christyle Kitty-wear, an assortment of dresses, tank tops and booty shorts, as well as jewelry, like the diamond-encrusted Kitty pendant that retails for $1,500.
They also produce porn clips featuring client-requested content, which, according to Rae, trends toward “anything anal.”
“I don’t know why that is,” she says. “They like to see girls put things in their butt, I guess.”
The remote-sex-capable adult camsite, doitchristyle.com, is their flagship business. Distinguishing the site from thousands of others didn’t happen overnight, but in mid-2013, Johns found just the thing he believed would give him a competitive edge.
“There are thousands of sites, but none of them have this device called the Novint Falcon,” he says.
A pretty brunette in her early 20s is on all fours in an armchair as the Novint Falcon on the ottoman penetrates her vagina.
But the thrusts — around 50 per minute — are slapdash because someone forgot to lube the dildo.
Johns shuts down the Falcon, but lets the camera roll as Rae squirts a glob of gel onto her palm and greases the device’s dong. Both women giggle as Rae pats Sweet Paige with excess lube.
With the women back in character, the tri-armed Falcon starts to thrust and gyrate. This time, the dildo slides back and forth easily.
“Oh!” Sweet Paige purrs, gripping the backrest and nearly forgetting her line.
Johns zooms in.
“You mean, I can be fucked by anyone?”
“That’s right,” Rae deadpans. “You can be fucked by anyone.”
Novint Technologies in Albuquerque, N.M., introduced its highly anticipated Falcon in 2007 with the expectation it would surpass the mouse as the preeminent computer-game controller.
The Falcon, which cost millions to develop, provided a genuinely more immersive experience by simulating dozens of tactile sensations. With its sophisticated array of sensors, gamers could touch and feel objects within the games they played.
Although it generated considerable buzz in the gaming media, the Falcon failed to dazzle gamers themselves, some of whom mocked the Falcon’s obvious likeness to male genitalia in action.
It was such a spectacular failure, in fact, that 4,000 of them were collecting dust inside of a New Mexico warehouse when Johns contacted its inventor six years later.
Not only was its potential as a sex device readily apparent, but with the right software, Johns could scale human sexual intimacy down to a data signal communicated between two people in different locations, provided they both owned Falcons.
New to Johns, the Falcon was well known among interactive-sex companies.
“We tried to make it work at Vstroker, but gave up on it, not because the device itself isn’t cool, but it wasn’t made to do penetration,” says Vstroker co-founder Troy Peterson. “You didn’t get enough thrust.”
But Johns saw things differently. He demonstrated last July how the Falcon enables remote sex with a camgirl. After purchasing a $250 Falcon, the client downloads software from the site and then pays to have remote sex with a model.
“You can’t finger them through the screen, but you can make this dildo go in and out of them as fast, or as hard, as you want,” he explained. “Or attach any pocket-pussy you want and let her fuck you…movements will register on both sides.”
Teledildonic sex devices are not the cheap rubber novelties of your neighborhood porn store; they’re robots programmed to do for human males what automated semen collectors do for dairy cows.
Many see potential far beyond the the ardor of male masturbators, however. Jenna Owsianik, editor of FutureOfSex.net, says long-distance couples in particular will soon stay in touch using teledildonics.
She envisions touchable holograms transmitted over instant messages.
“Allowing other body parts, especially the hands, to transmit touch would really make remote sex much more intimate, immersive and realistic,” she says.
The Hassex patent — secured by Warren Sandvick in 1998 — has largely stymied the development of a robust teledildonic industry.
“So much money goes into patents — writing them, filing them, refiling them, protecting them,” says Peterson, who has a financial stake in Sandvick’s company, Hassex Inc. “If you’re able to get through the process, it’s your right to do what you want with it.”
The industry has proven fiercely competitive. A North Carolina company that brought the RealTouch masturbator to the market in 2008 limped into obscurity last year after being sued by Sandvick and others.
As more companies infringe on the Hassex patent — and as its 2018 expiration draws nearer — the more aggressive Sandvick’s legal actions have been.
Before Kiiroo’s content-enabled masturbator could make a splash in the U.S. market, the Amsterdam-based company had to partner with Sandvick to license the patent.
“Without the U.S. market you don’t have a market,” Op de Beek explains, “because the U.S. people are the ones who want to try new things.”
At Christyle Enterprises, licensing the Hassex patent has been less of a barrier to the market than Vivien Johan Cambridge, a former oil drilling engineer who the couple partnered with.
Cambridge’s name is well-known within the small constellation of teledildonics, which he’s orbited since roughly 2002. That year he patented a way to create a data signal from “the displacement of fluid in an orifice by a phallus” that, in turn, regulates the “thrusting movement of the phallus.”
Cambridge’s contributions to teledildonics since then have been few, his business dealings murky. Johns’ first contact with him in late 2013 was to inquire about licensing the Hassex patent.
“At the time we didn’t know about [Sandvick],” he says. “We thought Vivien was the man, because we believed he owned the patent.”
Johns suspects Cambridge has intentionally stalled doitchristyle.com’s launch in order to pass off Johns’ work as his own.
“Vivien has spent the last eight years trying to get people to believe in him,” he says. “He’s depending on me for his success.”
Cambridge, 57, would answer questions only via email. Isthmus declined the offer due to the difficulty of verifying he was the one providing answers.
Cambridge’s dealings with Christyle Enterprises are strikingly similar to those with another entrepreneur, who in 2010 also saw potential in remote-sex-capable camsites.
After meeting at an adult webcam convention in Amsterdam, Chris Booth brought Cambridge on board to help bring his vision to fruition.
“He told us he would give us exclusive rights to the [Hassex] patent, but we would have to have a site that was ready to launch at the AVN show [in 2011],” he recalls.
Booth claims he invested thousands in the project, but Cambridge didn’t live up to his end of the deal.
“We paid $30,000 for a big booth at the AVN show to showcase something that didn’t end up working,” Booth says. “We left the show with nothing.”
Johns’ overhaul of doitchristyle.com last summer was beset by several disasters of its own.
Data on 1,700 paid clients was lost when a surge in traffic fried his servers due to inadequate bandwidth. Recovering the data, says Rae, cost “thousands of dollars.”
And if that weren’t enough, the Viroqua company developing some of its more technically complex features went belly up.
Around this time, Johns also learned about a rash of lawsuits filed against several teledildonic startups for infringing on the Hassex patent.
His company wasn’t on the list, but it easily could have been. The same truth that rocked Chris Booth’s world five years earlier had resurfaced at Christyle Enterprises: Cambridge did not own the Hassex patent.
Moreover, the deception led the company for two years to unwittingly infringe on Sandvick’s patent.
“I didn’t know what the hell to do at that point, except go around Vivien to see if [Sandvick] would let me license his patent,” says Johns. “Without it, we’re fucked.”
Owing to his own contentious relationship with Cambridge, Sandvick was sympathetic.
“I came to [him] and said, ‘this is who I am, this is my story, that Vivien had been scamming me and him for the last 12 months.”
Both men agreed to keep their conversation from Cambridge, with Sandvick assuring Johns that Christyle Enterprises will get a license to his patent.
When Johns and Cambridge last spoke on Dec. 18, the tension was palpable. “He’s catching on to the fact I know he’s full of shit,” he says. “I hope [he] isn’t being a bitch, because we’ve got models waiting, my income and Tab’s income…we got a lot riding on this.”
Sex work is a peculiar business for religious folks, but Rae and Johns say they’re following God’s plan.
“How can we be getting all of these blessings if God didn’t want us doing this?” Johns says. “It’s the only chance our family has not to be piss poor.”
Rae is a lifelong Christian, but Johns found God later in life, when he began reading the Bible with a fellow inmate during a stay at Columbia County Jail.
He believes God, on three occasions, has spared him from terrible fates. Once was when he was released from the Dodge County Jail in 2001 after felony armed robbery and false imprisonment charges were unexpectedly dropped.
The second came when he walked out of a hospital intact 15 days after falling 37 feet onto concrete.
Divine intervention struck a third time, he says, when a police officer pulled him over for driving an unregistered vehicle and drinking a Colt 40-ounce beer.
While cuffed inside the police cruiser, Johns prayed the officer wouldn’t find the loaded .45 handgun or the quarter-ounce of coke he had in his car.
As the beam of the officer’s flashlight danced around inside his car, dispatch called out that a robbery was in progress at a nearby pizza joint.
“This broad had me uncuffed in seconds, telling me to drive home safe,” he says. “God made Domino’s get robbed before she found the coke or the gun.”
He finally got the message from up above, he says. “Why else would these things have happened?”
Rae “was a little lost for a while,” too.
“We grew up pretty conservative,” she recalls. “My parents kept us away from everything. Now everything we do is a sin.”
Since her early days as a stripper — even before she knew pole tricks and how to handle guys who “try to put their fingers in holes” — Rae has found sex work empowering.
“The respectable gentlemen know going in that if they talk to the girls, they have to pay.”
Rae identifies as bisexual, often starring in the same-sex pornos clients order. This isn’t without its challenges, either.
“It’s hard to find a female who wants to fuck on video,” she says. “But they won’t have any problem grinding on some old-ass man [in a strip club].”
When necessary, Johns steps in as male lead, even with actresses other than Rae.
“If it benefits the company, it isn’t cheating,” he says.
The Christyle name was contrived not to evoke the divine, but rather elegance. The name plays on the Cristal champagne brand, the preferred bubbly of czars and hip-hop stars.
What began as a money-making hustle has evolved into a legacy project for Johns’ three children and Rae’s daughter.
The couple is gunning to provide a classier experience, more Playboy than Penthouse, with a skillfully designed site that, unlike most camsites, is uncluttered and subdued.
“With us you won’t have to look at 50 performers to find the one super-sexy girl, because we’re picky about who we attach our brand to,” he says.
Several women have contacted the couple about working for the site, but just three have committed. Like their cam performers, the couple are ready to see a return on their $40,000 investment.
“I’ve never seen a hundred grand in my life, but people in this industry shit it,” he says. “MyFreeCam.com makes about $1 million a week. If we can make .05% of that each month, we’ll be happy.”
It isn’t a question of whether the company’s remote-sex service can make money, but whether it has the rights to.
Cambridge eventually returned Johns’ calls, but didn’t offer much beyond excuses for why the software he was paid to develop wasn’t ready yet.
According to Johns, Cambridge has also backpedaled on their deal regarding the only two-way haptic device currently available — the Novint Falcon.
Before Johns could cut a deal with its inventor in early 2014, the facility where the robots were stored went into foreclosure.
Cambridge swooped in with an offer to pay down the inventor’s mortgage in exchange for exclusive rights to the full inventory of 4,000 devices.
Cambridge allegedly promised half of them to Johns.
“After he acquired a multimillionaire partner last year, shit was different,” Johns explains. “But it was my idea he pitched that got him this partner. Vivien is supposed to build a site for him, but he hasn’t — he can’t. That’s why he needs mine.”
More important is what Cambridge didn’t say during that call or subsequent ones, which was that Sandvick died of a heart attack on Dec. 2, 2015, in Lubbock, Texas.
Johns learned of Sandvick’s passing nearly two months later. He understood now why Sandvick hadn’t gotten back to him.
But Cambridge may not have known about Sandvick’s death, either. Troy Peterson — on behalf of Hassex Inc. and Sandvick’s family — held the news close until shoring up Sandvick’s unfinished business, including the licensing agreement with Christyle Enterprises.
Days before he died, Sandvick — who no longer owned the patent, but retained the right to license it — told Peterson about a company in Madison, Wis., that had had contentious dealings with Cambridge.
“He said he felt bad for these guys because they had done all of this work,” Peterson says. “It was one of the last things he worked on.”
Johns couldn’t believe his luck.
“Do you know what this means for us?”
But he wasn’t ready to uncork the Cristal just yet. Doitchristyle.com will relaunch in a week or so, but without the Falcons, or a gentle nudge from God, there is no market penetration, no ardor to consummate, no sex to remotely engage in.
He’s hopeful, however, that with the Hassex patent rights secured, Cambridge will finish the software and deliver the Falcons for his clients. Johns’ small inventory is reserved for the models.
“Once we’re live, you can still move the dildo in and out of them.”
After skipping the AVN show last month, Johns’ optimism is alive, but shrinking.
“This motherfucker dodges me for three weeks,” he says, brooding on Cambridge’s silent treatment, “and I’m still waiting on this bitch.”
Originally Published in:
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