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Hackers Love to Vacuum

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Chris Hughes has a vision of the future that involves -- finally! -- bringing together hacked game systems, wireless Internet access and clean floors.

Here's how it would work. From anywhere on the globe, Hughes could open up his wirelessly connected Nintendo DS player, tap on the portable game system's touchscreen with a stylus, and select an area of his home's floor plan.

Meanwhile, back at home, his tricked-out Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner would hum to life and zoom off to clean that area of his apartment. "That would be flippin' sweet!" he said.

Why? Good question, but here's a better one: Why not?

This scenario is typical fantasy stuff for tech enthusiasts whose first thought, upon acquiring the latest tech gadget, is to get it do tricks its creators didn't intend or foresee.

For years, users of the Palm handheld organizer have downloaded software programs to use the device as a TV remote control. Fans of Google's map service have mixed their databases with the program to plot out everything from gas prices to UFO sightings. And when Nintendo shipped its new Wii game console without multimedia playback features, some programmers came up with a quick work-around fix that allows users to stream music from their PowerBooks via their Wiis.

"I love mash-up culture," Hughes said. "I love taking two things that are pretty good and putting them together and making something that is awesome."

Hughes, a programmer based in Los Angeles, won a few minutes of Internet fame last year for a YouTube video in which he demonstrated a neat little hack that let him steer his Roomba with a Nintendo Wii controller. When not crafting his next Nintendo-Roomba collaboration, he does software work for his video-game start-up company.

Straight out of the box, the Roomba is a nifty, disc-shaped automatic vacuum cleaner and a wonderful device for scaring pets. But the Roomba has also been a popular hacker's toy for years. People have attached webcams to their Roombas, programmed them to chirp songs -- you name it. So popular is the vacuum cleaner among robotics tinkerers that its parent company has just released a new, vacuum-less version called the Create, designed just for them.

Phillip Torrone, editor of the hacker-friendly Make magazine, has hosted a few gladiator-style Roomba fights, in which West Coast fans try to shove each other's robots off a table. In one showdown, he won about $100. He even beat the author of a book about hacking the Roomba -- Tod E. Kurt, who is known in some circles as "the godfather of Roomba hacking."

Another time, Torrone tried playing a real-world version of the vintage arcade game Frogger with one of his hacked, remote-controlled Roombas. Frogger involves a frog navigating traffic to cross the street; the Roomba made 11 round trips through downtown traffic in Austin before it was run over by a white SUV. Game over -- but at least the street was clean.

Torrone does not recommend this sort of behavior to other Roomba owners. "Drinking was involved," he said. "I'm not saying it was a good idea."

Create was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year and starts at $130. Since there's no vacuum cleaner built into the Create, tinkerers will have more space to load the product up with whatever their hearts desire.

The company had an in-house contest among its roboticists to give the system a test drive. One scientist designed a robot that can fetch a drink out of the fridge. Another attached a plastic ball containing a hamster to the top of the device; the Roomba was programmed to move in the direction the hamster moved.

Goofiness aside, Roomba's creator, iRobot, was a spinoff of really-very-serious research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology regarding commercial applications for robotics. The Roomba's pricier cousins, called PackBots, are employed by military personnel overseas to scan for landmines and defuse bombs. Sales are also pretty serious: Last year, the company's line of home robots -- there's also a floor-mopping version and a heavy-duty version designed to clean workshop floors -- sold 725,000 units.

One of iRobot's executives was in town a few years back, before it was clear whether the company's home appliance would turn out to be something cool or the sort of cheesy product sold on late-night infomercials. "I never thought I'd end up as a vacuum cleaner salesman," he joked.

IRobot's chairman and co-founder, Helen Greiner, said recently she has hopes for even newer products that go beyond hamster balls and labor-saving trips to the fridge. "We want to make use of the energy that's out there in the robotic field and figure out ways to bring it back into our company," she said.

In other words, iRobot is going to keep an eye on what clever programmers do with Create -- partly in the hopes that somebody might come up with a new use for the device that enhances Roomba or could even turn into a new product line for the company. "Anything could happen," she said.

I borrowed a Create from iRobot and lent it to the robotics team at McKinley Technology High School in the District about a week ago. The students there were already preoccupied with a big robotics competition the school is hosting today, but the team's coach, Kenneth Lesley, mostly likes the Create.

The system might be a little too complex for the average high school robotics class, but "it's a very interesting little unit, it's got a lot of capabilities," he said. "I can see all sorts of possibilities with it."

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