ATLANTA — They give them nicknames, worry when they signal for help and sometimes even treat them like a trusted pet.
A new study shows how deeply some Roomba owners become attached to the robotic vacuum and suggests there's a measure of public readiness to accept robots in the house — even flawed ones.
"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 reliable."
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 Corp.
"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.
Others reported 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 easier.
"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.
"The female of the house says, 'You take care of it — it's your toy,'" said Young Sung.
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