Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Halloween is just around the corner, maybe you've got your outfit picked out, your kid's outfit, your pet's outfit, your Roomba's outfit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You heard me, your Roomba's costume. There are people who dress up their robotic vacuums, and I got to tell you, it's not just on Halloween. A recent study from Georgia Tech showed that people become deeply attached to the little suckers, naming them, referring to them as he and she. We'll talk to one of the head researchers of that study in just a moment.

But back to the people who dress up their vacuums. It seemed like a case of supply and demand, and some kids in Acton, Mass. who started a costume company called, My Room Bud. So I spoke with the Smith brothers, 16-year-old Tyler and 13-year-old Niles, just before they went to school and they gave me the skinny on the Roomba costume business.

STEWART: Okay, Tyler. Tell me the kind of costumes you make for the Roombas.

Mr. TYLER SMITH (Co-Founder, My Room Bud): Well, we're trying to turn the iRobot Roombas into pets. Our originals were cows and leopards and tigers and zebras. Since we've added a French maid that actually sells a lot, too.

STEWART: Now that it's Halloween, Niles, have you decided to branch out a little bit more - costumes like the French maid?

Mr. NILES SMITH ((Co-Founder, My Room Bud): Well, we're thinking about making a dog and a cat and we're thinking about creating a Halloween special, which might be a pumpkin.

STEWART: Excellent idea. I think that's an excellent idea. So Tyler, how do you guys get started?

Mr. T. SMITH: Well, about two years ago, we found out that my mom wanted a pair of cowboy boots for Christmas. And to make some extra pocket money for Christmas shopping, we started the Roomba business. And after Christmas, it had taken off so much that we decide to keep it going and - so now, we have the My Roomba business.

STEWART: Tyler, why do you think grown adults who just spent a couple of a hundred dollars on that robot vacuum want to dress it up in a costume?

Mr. T. SMITH: One of my personal opinions is it's the same thing they got my brother Griffin(ph) liking the Roomba. When he first saw it, he saw it going around the floor and it looked like an animal and the costumes really turn it into an animal even more. So that's, I think, what attracts grown-ups as much as my brother.

STEWART: Niles, how is business? How many orders are you guys getting?

Mr. N. SMITH: For business, we're very close to selling about 800 Room Buds. Our goal is to sell 1,000 by the end of the year. In November and December, we get about five to 10 a day, but on the average day, we only get one or two.

STEWART: Well, good luck to you guys. I'm going to suggest an elf Roomba for Christmas.

Mr. T. SMITH: Oh. That sounds interesting. We're thinking a reindeer actually.

STEWART: That was good, too. So I guess you go out there and get a lot of red green felt and some little antlers and stuff.

Mr. T. SMITH: Definitely.

STEWART: Hey, Niles and Tyler, thanks for being with us.

Mr. T. SMITH: All right. Thank you.

Mr. N. SMITH: All Right. Thank you.

STEWART: They were already a step ahead of me. I love that. The reindeer Room Buds.

Okay, now is the science of the story about vacuum attachment. Researchers at Georgia Tech scoured the Internet and found control groups of Roomba-attached individuals who have gotten emotionally involved with the little robots. A member of the research team joins us.

Ja Young Sung is a graduate student of Georgia Tech who studies Emotional Design. Hey, good morning.

Ms. JA YOUNG SUNG (Member, Room Bud Research Team; Graduate Student, Georgia Tech): Good morning.

STEWART: So what were some of the reasons that people gave you for their attachment to these little robot vacuums?

Ms. SUNG: Okay. So, if you look at the data deep down, everything, anything that - the one reason that comes before everything else is a practical benefit of it. So people feel, the Roomba doesn't work that you don't want to do, and for some people the Roomba even does a better job than themselves, so in a word, a Roomba makes it cleaning so much easier, increase of cleaning frequency and consequently increases cleaning and the cleanliness of the home so people can maintain a clear house without much less effort. Of course, that brings into people feel appreciate - people appreciate for it the work they do and they'd want to return the service that Roomba does for them. And you know that…

STEWART: So they're grateful to the vacuums for keeping the house clean so therefore, they have an attachment because they've become grateful to them.

Ms. SUNG: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know. And there's one more thing to it. And the Roomba is a robot that moves autonomously, and people tend to react anthropomorphically to the unit. So they thank, they praise Roomba and that you're - they even reprimand the Roomba if it doesn't behave himself. So you know, that also combined with a benefit a Roomba brings…

STEWART: So we sink this gold a Roomba? They've been known to scold them?

Ms. SUNG: Yeah.

STEWART: Oh, my goodness. You study emotional design, and I know that's a big part of it. So if you can kind of explain to us what emotional design is and tell us how that design of the Roombas help people to become so involved.

Ms. SUNG: Okay. So, emotional design is a design that makes people - that bonds people with technology in a personally meaningful way so it will make you care about the technology and want to talk about it to other people. So emotion design can be anything as simple as I have an iPhone and that's so sleek, and I'm a cool person, and that's what's a part of emotion, to the point that I really care about it, I don't want it to break, that's also emotional Design.

So the way Roomba is designed, it was never anticipated from the beginning, it's not meant to be bond with people because it's a vacuum cleaner, you know. But it moves, and it actually - another interesting thing is that Roomba bumps into the walls and it moves randomly. So the rant at most men nearly triggers people that it's like a human being, and it triggers us so much of anthropomorphic power that they really relate Roomba with something that's living, that's alive.

STEWART: Something, I think, it's interesting is the company that makes Roomba iRobot. They also make robots for the military. They're having a task - some of these robots that would pick up bombs and go into dangerous situations. Now, those are decidedly not cute robots.

Ms. SUNG: Right.

STEWART: Now, you make a point that original Roombas broke down a lot. A lot of people didn't think that was particularly cute. Yet the fact of the product is cute is one of the reasons that people become so loving towards them.

Ms. SUNG: I have to kind of disagree with that because even for the military robots the soldiers get so much emotionally attached to it.

STEWART: Do they really?

Ms. SUNG: They name their bombing robots and, so, an iRobot person told me that when I visited there, they said, the soldiers actually called the customer center and say, like, can you please fix my - I forgot the name - but the name of the robot, which was a female name? And of course, that was not in the status that can be fixed so, this soldier was very sad.

STEWART: So I guess I. War robots are cute, too, or meaningful as well.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Or it's really lonely over there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So in your research, did you find anybody having the opposite reaction to Roombas? People who really had an unrealistic dislike for them?

Ms. SUNG: Of course. The same reason. So it will get emotionally attached to it they will forgive the Roomba if a Roomba break down. But on the other hand, if they don't like Roomba, they will not ever forgive it. They - one of my participants didn't even know where his Roomba was. He used it, he let it clean and it got stuck under the furniture from years ago, and he forgot about it. He totally forgot it, and one day, he realized, oh, my Roombas gone but I don't care. I don't like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUNG: And another participant, her dog was so afraid of it, like to the point that it really drove the dog crazy so she stopped using it?

STEWART: It's a fascinating study, something I never thought somebody would get that involved with, but you made it very interesting for us.

Ja Young Sung is a grad student at Georgia Tech who studies emotional design. She's part of that research team that compiled a study on Roomba culture.

Hey, thanks for joining us.

Ms. SUNG: Oh, thank you.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.