In the annals of “people doing unexpected things with technologies,” there are now people who hack Roombas, the “not-very-smart but persistent floor cleaner, looking a bit like a hugely pregnant Frisbee.”

In fact, it was kind of designed for this:

iRobot engineer Phil Mass… Chris Casey and Elliot Mack, part of the team that built the vacuum’s electronic and mechanical systems, had in fact hoped that the Roomba would intrigue robotics enthusiasts…. As it happened, designing a reliable consumer appliance out of a few dozen dollars’ worth of metal, silicon and plastic required some decisions that make a hacker’s job easierand others that make it a real pain. For example, says Casey, hacking and penny-pinching instincts converge in the modular connectors that carry power to the wheels and sensor data back to the main board. It was much cheaper for the Chinese company that assembles the bot to build the internal circuitry in separate piecesand it’s a trivial task for a hobbyist to hook into those circuits.

Aibo owners have been hacking their pet dogs, but since the Roomba costs a fraction of what an Aibo goes for, there’s greater potential for a widespread movement. Still, the Aibo does offer greater flexibility, since you can do some interesting things with the hardware: Natalie Jeremijenko, for example, is doing some very interesting stuff programming pack behavior into Aibos, something she calls feral robotics.

This kind of hacking is a paradigmatic example of how savvy users find new uses for products. And, I would argue, this is a phenomenon that’s likely to become more widespread in the future.

On the other hand, the Roomba actually does something useful– namely, clean your floor, and provide some entertainment (or possibly terror) for your pets. The reluctance to cannibalize the device, Phil Mass says, is ” the ultimate compliment… To not want to hack it because it does its job so well.”