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Study Finds Human-Robot Attachment
A new study shows how deeply some Roomba owners become attached
to the robotic vacuums, and suggests there's a measure of public
readiness to accept robots in the house — even flawed ones. They
give them nicknames, worry when they signal for help and
sometimes even treat them like a trusted pet.
"They're more willing to work with a robot that does have issues
because they really, really like it," said Beki Grinter, an
associate professor at Georgia Tech's College of Computing. "It
sort of begins to address more concerns: If we can design things
that are somewhat emotionally engaging, it doesn't have to be as
Grinter decided to study the devices after she saw online
pictures of people dressing up their Roombas, the disc-shaped,
self-directed vacuums made by Burlington, Mass-based iRobot
"This sort of notion that someone would dress a vacuum cleaner
seemed strange," she said. "A lot more was going on."
She enlisted Ph.D. student Ja Young Sung, who studies "emotional
design" — the theory that certain types of design can influence
consumers to become emotionally attached.
The Roomba seems to have earned quite a following. More than 2
million of the robots have been sold, although some earlier
versions suffered from motor failure and other problems after
intensive use. The company says its latest model — the fifth
generation — has been "reinvented" for improved performance.
The first phase of the project, which involved monitoring an
online forum devoted to the site, revealed people who named
their Roombas, traveled with them and one owner who introduced
the machine to his parents.
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their efforts to "Roomba-ize" their homes so the robot can roam
the floors more easily. Some bought new rugs, pre-cleaned the
floors to clear the robot's route and purchased new refrigerators
with a higher clearance so the machines can clean under them
"I was blown away," said Young Sung. "Some Roombas break a lot,
they still have functional problems. But people are willing to
make that effort because they love their robot enough."
The next part, which studied 30 committed Roomba users, revealed
21 of them gave their robots names. And another 16 talked about
the robot as a "he," arbitrarily assigning the robot a gender.
The third phase of the study, presented last week at the
Ubiquitous Computing Conference in Austria, focused on more
traditional users. Polling 379 U.S. users, it found that some
would pre-clean their homes before using the machine, and that it
seemed to make males more excited about the chore of vacuuming.