[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]


Roomba Cockfight

By Annalee Newitz

DAMN, who doesn't love a robotic vacuum cleaner cockfight? I know they're illegal in most states, but luckily California isn't one of them. Sure, there are liberals who say it's abuse to whip a Roomba into a frenzy, tape a pair of sharp scissors on its back and set it loose in the ring. But screw those bleeding hearts. Roombas, the saucer-shaped, floor-sweeping robots from iRobot, love to fight. It's in their natures.

Thankfully, the small underground cadre of hard-drinking, Roomba-hacking gamblers at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference (ETech) know that too. That's why they staged the world's first Roomba cockfight, where hundreds of dollars were bet on which housecleaning tool would push the other off a raised battle platform (some money did get vacuumed up—a hazard in these situations).

Starting as a rumor, the rumble ended as a battle royale between three Roombas decked out with shark fins, LEDs, ballpoint pens (dangerous when pointed at an enemy) and scissors. Dozens of geeks gathered around the battle platform, screaming and betting various USB devices on the winner. Hopped up on soft drinks and minipastries, someone even shot a rival at close range with a marshmallow gun made of PVC pipes.

The whole raw, shocking event was instigated by Phil Torrone, who used to be a robot-rights activist before he saw an armed Roomba slice through someone's finger. The cockfight was dangerous, gritty and real. Never have I been closer to true life among the geeks, a world you'd never see without an elite insider like me to guide you into its dark heart.

Fringe nerd groups have been doing Linux "sideshows" late at night in the Fry's Electronics parking lot for some time. For those unfamiliar with this practice, it involves opposing gangs who represent different Linux distributions—the Ubuntu and Gentoo groups are particularly vicious—meeting in a designated place and racing their boxes at top speed, showing off how quickly they can recompile their kernels and write drivers for all their peripherals. San Jose recently outlawed the practice because so many Red Hat boxes were being smashed by angry, drunken mobs.

The Roomba cockfighters may have been inspired by Linux sideshows, but they're a genuinely new phenomenon. Torrone and Jeff Han, whose Roombas clashed in round after round at ETech, couldn't have done it without a crucial historical development. iRobot, manufacturer of the Roomba, recently published specs for the Roomba's command interface (www.irobot.com/sp.cfm?pageid=198) so that geeks could make the little robots into something more than vacuums.

This development was followed by a flood of Roomba modification, and that's when Torrone began popularizing his recipe for remote-controlling via Bluetooth.

That's why Torrone and Han lurked at the edge of the Roomba cockfight with their laptops. Although they may have appeared casual, they were actually tapping death commands to their bruisers via the Bluetooth signals emanating from their laptops.

With each keystroke, they compelled their sweeping machines to greater violence, causing them to spin their tiny brushes at each other tauntingly, then rear up into full combat positions. Have you ever seen one Roomba challenge another? It's thrilling, but not pretty. Head to head, both devices tremble and strain, their electronic minds utterly consumed by the order to KILL KILL KILL. If one slips just a little, the other seizes the advantage and shoves mercilessly until it has hurled its opponent from the platform. Neither will stop until its batteries have been sucked dry.

Who knows how long this intense sport will be allowed to flourish? It's amazing that companies ever open up their software and hardware to the community for modification. I'm just glad I live in a time when red-blooded Americans can still see digital deathsports.

But the crackdown is coming. Several Hollywood corporations have finally admitted that the real reason they built digital-restriction management software (DRM) into PVRs and DVD players was to stop geeks from turning their recording devices into back-alley combat machines. You haven't seen ugly until you've watched what a DVD player without DRM can do to a TiVo. Let's just say there's a dark side to this modding stuff. I guess there's a good reason geeks aren't allowed to make lawful copies of high-definition TV shows without a license. That shit can get deadly.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who has the proof right here: www.flickr.com/photos/ginatrapani/110142831/ and www.flickr.com/photos/laughingsquid/110023927/in/set-72057594078287329/

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the March 15-21, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2006 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.