After several months heads-down on several projects (more news about that soon), I decided to go back and see what I had missed by skipping Ubicomp 2007. So far, the most interesting paper, from my perspective is Sung, Guo, Grinter and Christiansen's My Roomba is Rambo (1MB PDF). It is a small empirical study that validates that people's relationships to their Roombas is often anthropomorphic and positive (in fact, it's almost a love letter to the brand, though I don't think the researchers were biased).
I'm not surprised, since Roombas are one of the most prevalent forms of artificial life around and their unpredictable, unexpected behavior triggers is pretty "animal-like" to many people. This unpredictable, animal-like nature is what probably drove at least one Roomba competitor to show how their robot cleaner makes nice overlapping, distinctly mechanical sweeps when cleaning. Despite the fact that people have been naming their technology for thousands of years (ships, for example), there's still a tension between the rational response (of course it's a machine!) and the emotional one (...but it kinda acts like an animal) and it's good to see folks exploring and examining that tension.
Their conclusions are in line with other work that's shown that people respond to computers as if they were people (specifically Nass and Reeves' work), but their careful work enumerated the actual effects of these reactions.
First, we learned about participants’ happiness with Roomba because it helped them be cleaner and tidier. Second, people used anthropomorphic and zoomorphic qualities to engage with Roomba. Third, people demonstrated their Roomba to others, and went great lengths to change the home to accommodate it better.
Their section titles list how people's animist attitudes toward their Roombas manifests itself:
- Feeling Happiness Towards Roomba
- Lifelike Associations and Engagement with Roombas
- Valuing Roomba: Promoting and Protecting It
The details are predictable if you map "Roomba" to "dog": people named theirs, they were willing to spend extra time caring for them, they felt attached to specific ones, they ascribed intention and gender, etc.
They then analyze what this means for technology design. One thing I'm very happy to see is a discussion of the situations in which technology should not disappear. I've ranted about how technology should not be invisible, and it's satisfying to see that they reached the same conclusions: "high visibility of Roomba brought comfort to our
householders, which led to easier adoption of the robot."
Other interesting observations:
- "Instead of counting the hours of housework, people talked to us about the complexities of naming their vacuum cleaner. Further, we would argue that this suggests an adoption process that is not only different from that associated with conventional technologies (even potentially computational ones) but also perhaps more enjoyable and rewarding."
- "An interesting possibility that we raise here is that while accounts of vacuuming suggest that it is an activity that belongs to someone [in the household], the arrival of Roomba creates opportunities for a reallocation of responsibility. More generally, many of our participants articulated a sense of value that the robot created for them in their cleaning routines."
- "Our study showed that while Roomba users hoped that their robot would be reliable, they did not expect it to work flawlessly. Further, they took on extra work to increase Roomba’s odds of working well."
They conclude with some recommendations for design, but I think the greatest contribution of the paper is how it shows how technology design is deeply tied into the emotional and social relationships of the technology's users. Designing technology is not emotionally neutral territory. It's highly loaded. Moreover, I think that's only going to increase as we come to grow more socially comfortable with objects that have unpredictable behaviors.
I also think that Generation X and beyond are particularly comfortable with these ideas. Gen X is the generation that had Cabbage Patch Kids and Teddy Ruxpin. They are familiar at a deep level with high degrees of intimate object anthpomorphization. They may be even more familiar than previous generation because of the simultaneous mass-produced and personalized nature of these toys--possibly for the first time in history that combination existed.
I am very happy to see the implications of these effects explored and sad that I missed the presentation of the paper. Also, they reference Tod's caroling Roomba video, for which I give 'em props. Now on to more Ubicomp papers.