– Jason Voiovich, Vice President, Marketing, Logic PD
80% of owners name their Roomba.
Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot (the maker of said autonomous vacuum cleaners) dropped this unexpected bomb during an interview with Celeste Biever from New Scientist. The subhead of the article asks the obvious question (why do consumers name inanimate objects) without really answering it to any satisfaction. And aside from a few far-slung examples, the article doesn’t help us appreciate just what the implications might be if this were to happen much, much more often.
I’d like to take a crack at answering those questions. Why do consumers name their Roombas? How is that unique from other technology? And more importantly, what could this mean for all of us in the creative and legal business?
To address the first question, naming a Roomba is a uniquely different psychological experience than naming any other intimate object: The Roomba is autonomous in a way other devices simply are not. In other words, it acts with – what appears to be – its own consciousness. That perceived independence is strikingly and materially different than other personalized technology.
That is different than the minority of people who name their cars. Cars do very little on their own (parking assist and other features notwithstanding). As such, they do not complete any functions without direct human intervention. As car technology advances, and more cars begin to drive themselves, this could begin to change. However, today, most cars are simply drivable computers.
That is also different than devices (primarily toys) with an explicit personalization purpose. Pet rocks, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Tomodachi watches all fall into the category of highly-personalized objects, but fail to perform any significant tasks without direct instruction. Cute. But still dumb.
Siri, Google Now, and Cortana (Microsoft’s personal assistant) start to knock at the door here, but they still – primary – passively wait for instructions from their human overlords. Until these get to the level of the fictional JARVIS from Marvel Comics fame, I doubt they will have the same emotional attachment.
It’s more useful to think about a Roomba like you might think about a dog or a cat.
A Roomba may not become a part of our lives the same way a dog or a cat might, but they do share a common set of interactions (independent action and usefulness, specifically) that drive the unique psychological attachment. The name is simply evidence of the deeper relationship.
All that leads us to the more important question: Who cares?
Roomba might be a fun product, but it accounts for a tiny fraction of the overall vacuum market. Why should it matter to the creative or legal profession that the identity for this product is *co-created* between the company and its customer? Is it really that important to understand, definitively, who owns a trademark when the customer creates part of the identity? Wouldn’t it be true that any trademark issues that may arise from this interaction would be limited and quirky enough not to raise too much trouble?
It really doesn’t matter all that much today. But what about tomorrow?
From where I sit at Logic PD, we see companies integrating artificial intelligence into all sorts of consumer and industrial products. This next generation of products don’t simply show you information, and don’t only tell you what it means, but in many cases also perform the action on their own.
For a huge swath of products on the market today, near-future iterations will operate much more independently. And when they do, our emotional relationship with them will change fundamentally.
It seems to me that we might want to think through the branding and legal framework to not only allow this creative exercise, but also encourage it.