With sensors and computers becoming increasingly smaller and cheaper, smart objects will appear in more homes and offices and not be hidden or shielded from interacting with people, they said.
"Smart objects will become more and more a part of our daily lives," Penn State communication Professor S. Shyam Sundar said. "We believe the next phase is that objects will start talking and interacting with humans, and our goal is to figure out the best ways for objects to communicate with humans."
Even mundane, every-day objects could get "smart," researchers said.
"We regularly communicate with objects by collecting data from those objects," Penn State doctoral candidate Haiyan Jia said. "But we wanted to test what happens when objects talk directly to us in a social situation."
Researchers videotaped study participants as they reacted to a "smart" tissue box on a desk in the laboratory.
If a lab worker sneezed, the tissue box would say, "Bless You," and follow up with two additional messages: "Here, take a tissue," and "Take care!"
People seemed to strongly respond to the voice of the object, Jia said, while the same voice from a human-looking robot struck many people as creepy.
"This study shows that speech is a social cue," Sundar said. "It may be enough to make the objects more social and not necessarily more human-like in appearance."