Reminiscing on the Roomba
iRobot, Boston’s (well, Burlington’s) very own robotics company, announced its newest line of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners today. The company’s intrepid saucer-shaped gadgets, which zoom across carpets and hardwood floors bouncing off walls and other obstacles until they’ve sucked up every last crumb and cat hair, have already won fame as history’s most successful consumer robots, selling more than 2 million units since 2002. The forthcoming Roomba “500 series” vacuums reportedly sport improvements such as more efficient suction, a larger dustbin, longer side brushes for catching debris in corners, a sensor system that ensures gentler impacts with objects, a built-in voice tutorial for newbies, and—for those who want to mix a little fashion with their housework—interchangeable faceplates in hues such as “champagne,” “steel blue,” and “burnt orange.” (Aaron Ricadela has a nice review of the Roomba 560 over at Business Week.)
All these cool new features have me reminiscing about my trusty, no-frills Roomba Red vacuum, which I received as a gift in 2004. I’d been following iRobot’s fortunes for a couple of years and had been tempted to buy a Roomba myself, but a good friend who knew about my penchant for gadgets beat me to it. To many, the idea of a robot vacuum cleaner (or a robot anything, in the household context) was still a bit of a Jetsons-era joke. But I got over that attitude quickly when I saw what the Roomba could do.
Okay, it doesn’t have the nuclear-powered-wind-tunnel suction power of the high-tech Dyson vacuums. Its round shape prevents it from cleaning corners effectively (despite the side brushes), and you need to do a bit of pre-cleaning before you deploy it, since it has a tendency to get tangled up in cords (untangling is another thing the 500s are supposed to be better at). But it always got my light-tan carpet—which seemed cleverly designed to showcase dirt and pet hair—into guest-ready condition. In fact, I didn’t get out my old Hoover vacuum for more than a year after the Roomba showed up.
Robot technology still has a long way to go to prove itself outside of industrial settings. I’ve seen Honda’s Asimo robot mount stairs and sprint surprisingly quickly across exhibition-hall stages; Honda’s engineers have made so much progress replicating human-style locomotion that this painful YouTube video of Asimo taking a tumble is the exception rather than the rule.
But in the end, humanoid robots remain carnival curiosities. To my eyes, the Roomba is the first unqualified success of the consumer robot era, the perfect melding of MIT-bred engineering talent with a real market need. Roomba isn’t glamorous or cute. It doesn’t wave at the crowd. It does what it’s designed to do—like rooting out dust bunnies in those abandoned bedroom crannies where most of us are afraid to look—and nothing more. And it does it just as well as traditional vacuums, with the obvious advantage that you can set it and forget it. That’s what robots were always supposed to be about.
In a somewhat bizarre amateur photography project that I undertook in 2005—a self-portrait (at left) in which I posed with all of my electronic gear, including my microchip-implanted Australian Shepherd, Rhody—I gave my Roomba Red a place of honor. (Click here for a larger version; the Flickr version includes active tags identifying the gadgets in the picture.) I wish iRobot the best with the 500 series, and I might even get one if little Red ever wears out. I’m also looking forward to learning more about the two new home robots iRobot is rumored to be developing—which are due September 27 (according to this Reuters story) and should dispel perceptions that iRobot is a “one-trick pony,” in the words of CEO Colin Angle.
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