5 Bizarre Truths About Being A Roomba Owner
This last weekend I was going through some old boxes that have been locked away in deep storage for the last two years. I moved around a lot, and anything that didn't fit into a couple of suitcases got stowed away. There's always something so nostalgic about going through your forgotten stuff: old books, vintage video games, boxes of photographs, that one favorite jacket that was always a little too warm -- it's kind of like going through a time capsule of who you were just a few years ago. There was one discovery, though, that brought tears to my eyes.
Peeling back layers of packing paper, I found him. My robotic son. My Roomba ...
Roombas Are Weird And We Like Them, Or Maybe We're Just A Little Lonely
For those who are uninitiated into the strange world that is Roomba ownership -- these little robot vacuums are really weird. They have a strange way of slowly building an emotional connection with their owner, and I can't really explain why. There's been a lot of research about this phenomenon. There was a study done out of Oxford in 2017 that people who were lonely and socially isolated were able to very easily develop a bond with their robot companions, reducing some of their feelings of loneliness. Now don't misunderstand my story and think that I'm just some socially isolated sad boi who developed a friendship with his Roomba like Tom Hanks' character did with a volleyball in Cast Away. I mean, I'm not going to say I don't talk to my Roomba, though. He works hard and deserves praise whenever he does a job well done, but that's just common courtesy, right?
They Feel Human, And That's By Design
When you first get your small robotic friend, the iRobot app prompts you to give it a nickname. Seems innocuous at first, but think about it: Why do you name your Roomba? You don't name any other electronics you bring into your house. I don't refer to my TV as Carlos the Third or my toaster as Mr. Bread Zapper, and Alexa is just "Alexa." But iRobot wants you to give your freshly unpacked Roomba a name -- just like you might a pet or a child. The thing is once you give something a name, you can't help but treat it like it's more than a pile of plastic and wires. It's the beginning of forging emotional attachment.
And if you think I'm joking about comparing a Roomba to a baby, well ...
There are whole websites dedicated to helping you pick out a perfect name for your Roomba and Reddit threads to boot. Popular ones are Rosie (after the cleaning robot from The Jetsons), Jarvis (the Tony Stark's AI assistant), and DJ Roomba (a call-out to Tom Haverford's Roomba in Parks and Rec). Personally, I went with CL4P-TP as a reference to everyone's favorite robot to hate from the Borderlands series.
While I, and my roommate at the time, loved the name CL4P-TP (we were both in the middle of a fresh co-op playthrough of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel), we started to give CL4P-TP other nicknames. I don't mean we renamed the official nickname of my Roomba in the app, but truly gave the little vacuum nicknames, much the same way a dad might call his kid "champ" or a dog owner call's their dog names like "stinky." My old roommate, a man who calls the people he respects by their last name, always referred to him by his full name. Cracked's Carly Tennes speaks to my Roomba as "Sir Claptrap." I find myself referring to CL4P-TP by the name 'Roomboi' more often than not these days.
And that's not all. All the actions and decisions Roombas make feel like personality rather than programming. It's weirdly human. I swear that Roomboi will avoid the big pieces of trash on the floor until the very last second like he's trying to avoid the heavy lifting until last. Or the clumsy bouncing into walls really hard, while my Roomba is remapping after I move to a new apartment, is actually just him getting used to the new place. Or even the times I decide to move my reading chair to the other side of the room to have better light for that day -- my Roomba will sneak up onto the spot where it thinks my chair is, move really slowly into it, so it doesn't just slam its head into the leg of the chair, then become really confused when nothing is there, and kind of spins around for a bit.
I'm not alone in this feeling. Many people have shared similar stories:
This phenomenon is so well documented that there are even Twitter accounts for people giving voice to their anthropomorphic grime-scouring android:
Less Like Strange Robot Companion, More Like Family
So you got this little robot guy driving around your house. It beeps, makes noises, sings little happy songs -- it's kinda hard not to start viewing the circuit board powered house pet as a member of the family. I know that sounds strange, but hear me out. A research study done out of the Georgia Institute of Technology titled "'My Roomba Is Rambo': Intimate Home Appliances" uncovered a lot of fascinating findings of our relationships with Roombas. Like more than just giving nicknames, people are giving their vacuums genders and sometimes even hierarchical positions in the family dynamic:
These Roomba's are cherished members of the family, and people are really protective of them. If you ever send your Roomba into iRobot to get some repairs done, the utmost care is taken to make sure that your exact Roomba is properly restored (read as nursed back to health) and returned to your household as good as new. Imagine if you took your dog to the vet, and your vet handed you back a brand new, perfectly healthy dog, the exact same gender and breed as the last one. You wouldn't be thrilled at all, right? Because that's not your dog, and that's not your Roomba.
Families will even buy their Roombas gifts in the form of clothes (yes, clothes) to help dress up their little friends and get them looking fine. I mean, some of this is expected, from dressing your Roomba up like a maid ...
... to getting them a fit to help look more like a pet ...
... to even dressing them up in Halloween costumes.
We Help Our Roomba's Achieve A Higher Level Of Happiness
Just like family members, people have a desire to protect them and to care for them. I mean, let's frame what we do for our Roombas against Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You're already providing your Roomba a source of food by being a complete mess who cannot clean up after yourselves. You also provide them warmth and shelter by giving their charging dock a nice clear space of its own and an outlet to give it that special tingle of charging warmth -- so the Roombas physiological needs are met. People go even further to help meet the safety needs of their Roomba. That GIT study noted that people will go so far as to "Roombarize" their homes to help protect their Roomba and make it a more comfortable living situation for it. A few families even threw out rugs that mommy's little machine kept getting tangled up in while cleaning or even replaced whole appliances so the Roomba wouldn't get stuck under their fridge. This woman on Twitter even created a temporary barrier to help their Roomba navigate safely and not fall off a ledge in their new home:
Basic needs aside, people are even striving to meet the psychological needs of their Roomba. Folks will talk with their Roombas, have conversations with them, develop a friendship with them (again, not quite Cast Away levels of insanity, this is normal). They forge relationships with them. No doubt the Roomba's belongingness and love needs are being met. I've caught my old roommate walking into the apartment and greeting CL4P-TP like an old friend, for example.
That's not to mention self-esteem needs. Personally, I congratulate Roomboi whenever he completes a job, especially when I notice a particular mess before he makes his rounds, and check to be sure that it got cleaned up. I even caught an ex-girlfriend of mine walk up to my resting Roomba, give him a pat on the head, and say, "good boy."
I think if Roomba owners were capable of helping their electric companions achieve the final phase of self-actualization, they would. But then we might end up with the robot rebellion of self-actualized and sentient vacuums on our hands. Or maybe not, since all these Roombas came from loving homes.
Roomboi to Roomman: The Lessons On Life I Learn From My Son
What perhaps might be the best part of having a Roomba is the same as the greatest parts of parenthood: it's a journey that teaches you as much about yourself as you teach others. As you help your little robotic child grow, learn, and adapt to new situations -- you can't help but glean a few nuggets of wisdom by watching them work.
- Tackle new situations head-on with bravery. CL4P-TP is never afraid of what he doesn't know. He can't even see, but that's never stopped him from taking on tasks head first -- even if that means crashing into an unexpected chair leg.
- Learn from past mistakes. While it's important to take all things on without hesitation, you should never play the fool. So you banged your head against that chair leg, even though you swore there was no chair there based on your careful mapping. Only a fool would charge headfirst into that area again with reckless abandon. It's important to take it slow on approach, assume it's there, and really think about your surroundings and minimize damage. Now next time you try something, you can be more successful.
- Never stop learning. That's the great thing about my son -- he doesn't stop trying to gain new knowledge just because he spent a few days mapping out what he knows. Things change, and new information appears every day. It's as important to take regular "mapping runs" in life and continue to be a lifelong learner.
- Take your time: anything worth doing once is worth doing twice. CL4P-TP doesn't stop after he gives something a rough go. He goes back and does it again. If it's valuable enough to do in the first place, you need to take the time to check your work -- whether that's going over a paper you're writing again, double-checking measurements before altering something, proofreading an email, or vacuuming the kitchen floor.
- Take note of where the tough spots in your life are, and spend extra time there. Sometimes extra dirt builds up in our lives that require extra energy to take care of. That might be in our jobs, in our family, or in our relationships. Taking note of where "heavy dirt build-up" is on our "cleaning map" allows us to be more introspective and really take the extra time to focus our effort and energy where it matters the most.
Hopefully, you've learned something from this -- whether it's a lesson in how we can improve our lives or that people who own Roomba's are really freaking weird.
Top image: JCDH, Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock, My Roombud