First-year master's student Paul Saulnier didn't know that his year-long group project, an emotionally-influenced Roomba, would be so popular when he first presented it at a conference in San Diego a month ago.
"We presented the poster and there were lots of posters there, so it didn't get above-average attention," said Saulnier. "It was after when it got kind of crazy. MIT's information review picked it up and the ball started rolling from there. It just goes to show you how much one outlet can have a huge effect."
Roombas are small wireless vacuums that can clean on their own. Saulnier demonstrated how his Roomba detects the wearer's emotions by donning a Neural Impulse Actuator, a headband device usually used to play video games. The headband detects facial tension, which allows the robot to "know" when the person is stressed.
The readings are fed through Saulnier's custom programming, complete with facial diagrams to show the differing stress levels, which then transmits wirelessly to the Roomba to skitter away from the wearer.
"The robot is going to watch you, not literally, and your emotions and move based on this," explained Saulnier. "I'm not going to commit to saying that this is the first instance of it in the world, but it's the first that we know of."
While this was a first-year project, Saulnier has decided that the buzz generated from the project is enough to start working on other emotional-control projects.
Saulnier, a soft-spoken New Brunswickan through and through, laughed at how much press the little Roomba-that-could has received in the media and on the Internet.
"A month ago, being in my New Brunswick newspaper would have been big to me," said Saulnier. "It's gotten a lot of attention. I totally didn't expect it. I thought the project was going to be dead and that was the end of it. Given the attention, we decided to explore it further."
He stressed that there are numerous future applications for the project.
"The idea here is that this isn't the be-all, end-all [of] implementations," said Saulnier. "We're looking to using better technology, applying it to proper applications and so on. The common denominator is the emotional control; the robot may change, the behaviours may change and the emotions may change -- whatever emotions that are relevant."