Explainer: Why people are making room for Roomba … in their hearts

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A robot vacuum is somewhere between a pet and a household appliance / Photo credit: Flickr user Erik Newth licensed under CC BY 2.0

Gareth Olver’s robot vacuum has its work cut out. 

Olver lives in regional Victoria with his family, and the unpaved roads and surrounding countryside mean plenty of dirt gets tracked inside the family home. 

“We live on a bit of acreage. So, if I’m out doing stuff – out with the dogs, or chopping wood, or even playing with the kids – you just can’t help but bring stuff in on your shoes,” he says.

All that dust prompted him to bring home ‘Plex’, a robotic vacuum-mop which “skits around the floor, picks up the dust and also mops”.

Plex cleans the floors – picking up around 75% of the dust – while Olver is at work, or sometimes kicking back and enjoying some time on the PlayStation.

An estimated 14% of American homes have a robot vacuum cleaner. A survey of households with children suggests the take up in Australia is around 8%.

They may be one of the oldest and most widely adopted household robots, but there’s just something about robot vacuums that really sucks people in.

Ready to Roomba?

Like Hoover – a brand name interchangeably used as a noun and a verb for cleaning floors – Roomba, released in 2002 is now synonymous with the robot kind. iRobot, the company which manufactures Roomba, has sold more than 40 million home robots, cornering 88% of the robot vacuum market.

Robot vacuums have a hockey-puck-like shape, measuring about a ruler length across, and around 10cm high. Most are fitted with standard rechargeable batteries with capacity for 1–2 hours of work, returning to a home base for recharging.

Robot vacuums move and clean by themselves, communicating via a series of sounds – mostly combinations of beeps and bloops – to mark cleaning cycles, success or failure and repairs required. 

Or, sometimes even call for assistance when it gets stuck, like the time Plex got tangled in the cords from the venetian blinds, Olver says. 

Sensors, motors and algorithms, guide the vacuum, helping to detect dust, avoid obstacles and saving it from toppling downstairs. 

In early Roomba models, the robot’s movement relied on following walls and detecting obstacles, then bumping off randomly to pursue a different direction. Later versions added infrared sensors to better detect obstacles and dust, and then cameras and imaging technology enabling it to create a detailed map of your home. 

Even though these robots are small and seemingly unremarkable, several pieces of research suggest the way people respond to Roomba is somewhat different to most regular household appliances.

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Credit: imaginina / Getty Images

“He just seems more like a Ricky to me”

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US wanted to understand how households interacted with robots at home. 

In their 2009 paper, ‘Robots in the Wild: Understanding Long-term Use’, they introduced a Roomba to 30 households (48 participants) which had never owned a robotic appliance and studied their responses.

The households were visited by the researchers before the robot’s arrival, to introduce the robot, then 2 weeks later (“while the relationship was still fresh”), 2 months and 6 months later.

After introducing the Roomba, the researchers asked households to email if anything memorable happened. 

A day after delivery, Participant 9 emailed in. “In case you are interested, we (I) have changed the name of the Roomba from Andreas to Ricky (as in Ricardo or Martin). He just seems more like a Ricky to me… I just thought you should know.”

At the two-week check-up, the researchers found people were happy to talk unprompted about positive attributes of their Roomba, but were reserved when it came to negatives. 

So they adapted their strategies, asking participants to draw stick figure cartoons of them talking about the Roomba.

In one participant’s drawing one stick figure complains to another “That stupid little thing cannot eat big debris. I have to clean the room first…” The other responds: “but you never clean your room without Roomba.”

Researchers also asked the participants to fill out a survey, including things they were doing with their vacuum. At two weeks, most households ticked ‘watch it for fun’.

At the 2-month mark people were thinking less about it, but according to the paper this was because it had become an accepted member of the family. From here on the human-robot relationship stabilised.

Even after the study, some participants kept emailing, wanting the researchers to know that even new members of the family had grown attached to the Roomba.

Participant 27, sent photos and a note: (our baby) started crawling this month and his favourite thing to do is to crawl straight to the Roomba and sit on it! He will also try to follow it around if it is moving and cleaning.

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Credit: ArtistGNDphotography / Getty Images

Somewhere between a pet and a household appliance 

Other studies confirm the inclination to name or form an emotional bond with one’s robot vacuum is surprisingly common.

A separate Georgia Institute paper surveyed 379 Roomba owners in the US and Canada finding a quarter had named their vacuums. Like a pet, the robots were often given human names such as Sarah, Alex, Joe, and Veronica. Others were wordplays like Roomie, Ruby, Floorence, and Dirt demon. 

Roughly a third of the households attributed their vacuum a gender, and more than 10% talked to their vacuum or bought it an outfit. The majority – 72% – described watching their Roomba for fun.

Roomba acted as a gateway robot; the survey revealed. After buying the vacuum, people were more likely to purchase other robots. 

When Henrik Christensen from the University of California interviewed 30 Roomba owners from the US, UK, Finland and Austria, he found further evidence of emotional attachment.

Participants reported various feelings of happiness towards their robot, describing it somewhere between a pet and a home appliance.

They were grateful for the household help, and in turn were happy to perform any tasks it required – like rescuing the robot when it got trapped underneath chairs, or stuck in the bathroom.

Most households even went so far as to adjust the layout of their house and furniture to better accommodate the robot. One participant threw away her rug because the robot kept getting caught in the shaggy fabric.

People also cleaned up for their robots: it was the least they could do – they said, given how hard it worked.

The majority (70%) named their robots and more than half (60%) attributed the robot with intentions, feelings or unique characteristics. Some thought the randomness of the robot’s movement was an expression of its personality.

People described missing their Roombas when the robot was sent for repairs, and often spoke to their robots, greeting, thanking or reprimanding them.

Three participants even listed their Roombas (including name and age) as family members when asked to provide demographic information about members of their household.

In Australia, Deakin University researcher Dr Luci Pangrazio surveyed the uptake of smart technologies in more than 500 households with children. 

Even though the study reveals the normalisation of smart, connected technologies within the home, Pangrazio says it was particularly notable in her interviews with parents that the Roomba had different sort of status to other technology in the home. The robot vacuum was more than a cleaning device, it was their friend.

“The robot will actually feel really sad”

Even children, who have grown up with the technology are forming beliefs about robot vacuums.

Duke University psychologists asked 127 children aged 4 – 11 years old some pretty unusual questions to better understand how they perceive different technologies including a Roomba, a smart speaker and a Nao humanoid robot – Is the technology ticklish? Can a smart speaker get scared? And does the robot vacuum mind if you put it in the cupboard when you go on holidays?

Teresa Flanagan, lead author of the study published in Developmental Psychology, says they chose Roomba because of the way it moves autonomously. 

“When we are thinking, forming beliefs about what has minds or feelings, we look out for certain features in our world. So, things that move autonomously kind of triggers in our sense that there must be something that has a mind that’s causing it to move in that way,” she says. “But the Roomba can’t speak or doesn’t look like a human. So those are some things that might make us think that it doesn’t have as many mental or feeling or moral capacities.”

The children didn’t think the Roomba was very smart, and they didn’t think it could feel pain (or only a little bit). But they thought people should still be kind to the robot anyway.

One 10-year-old said it wasn’t okay to yell at it because, “the microphone sensors might break if you yell too loudly.”Another 10-year-old said it wasn’t okay because “the robot will actually feel really sad.”

Flanagan says it is important to understand how children are engaging and thinking about technology.

“Even if they are in the same culture as us [adults] – the same city, same town, same family, they are developing in a new culture where technology is at the forefront of their lives. So I think that’s why it’s so important to really tackle children’s beliefs, not see it as a silly mistake, but as a reflection of their beliefs and of their worlds.”

There’s something magical about moving objects

Professor Mari Velonaki is an expert in social robotics and founder and director of the Creative Robotics Lab and the National Facility for Human Robot Interaction Research at University of NSW.

She says, even adults experience something very special when a kinetic object – agents which can move, like a robot vacuum – share a space with us.

“There’s something magical about this, this physical avatar that has movement, […] there will always be this fascination with something that moves in the space.”

The more abstract an agent is, the more likely it is that people will project onto it, perceive it as a character, she says. 

Olver’s robot, Plex, takes its name from the magic robot in Yo Gabba Gabba (a favourite TV show of Olver’s children). 

Because in his house, Plex is “the magic robot that cleans up the stuff on the floor.”

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