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Home > Opinions > Lance Ulanoff > World, Meet Roomba
September 17, 2002
World, Meet Roomba
By Lance Ulanoff
Michael J. Miller
Bill Machrone
John C. Dvorak
Bill Howard
Lance Ulanoff
Total posts: 27
Click here to take a visual tour.
Click here to see Roomba in action.
I have seen the future and it sucks. It also sweeps and removes dust and pieces of dirt. Its
name is Roomba. Tomorrow, at roughly 7:00 A.M. eastern time, iRobot, makers of the illfated My Real Baby (which was manufactured in partnership with Hasbro) will announce
and release what may be the world's first useful and affordable robot. And what, you may
ask, does this $199.95 wonder do? It cleans floors, of course.
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I'm not kidding, and for those
of you who are thinking about
taking this development
lightly, don't. While we were
all going gaga over Dean
Kamen's It (Ginger, Segway
Scooter, whatever), iRobot
CEO Colin Angle and his
company were quietly
developing a product that
may really change the world.
Desktops
Digital Cameras
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Think about it. If this
cordless, sub-$200 floorcleaning robot really works
as advertised, Roomba could
be the first consumer robot
that actually does something
(please, Sony, I love the
view all Guides >>
AIBO, but it really doesn't do anything) and is widely adopted by consumers around the
world.
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But wait, what does it really do? How does it work? And hey, does it even work? (We'll get
to that last question later.) And how did iRobot go from My Real Baby to this? Actually, My
Real Baby (a real disaster for Toys "R" Us two years ago) was a bit of a sidestep for a
company filled with MIT brainiacs (the chairman and chief technology officer, Rod Brooks,
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is director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) that build robots for the military, the
oil industry, and for Internet -based long-distance communication presences.
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According to iRobot's Angle, the company first partnered with JohnsonDiversey (formerly
Johnson Wax Professional) in 1998, with the goal of producing a robot floor cleaner.
Commercial floor cleaning is roughly a $50 billion business. Angle says that any floor cleaning system involves three things: sweep, scrub, and polish. No machine on the
market did all three at once, but since iRobot developers didn't want to build three
separate robots, they set about creating one that could do all three. The end result was
the NexGen Multi-Function Floor Care machine. The success of that project led them to
Roomba.
And what is Roomba? Well, it's a vacuum that doesn't actually do a lot of vacuuming per
se. Roomba looks like a very over -size CD player and weighs just 7 pounds. It moves
around on two black, rubber wheels and one caster and uses brushes and squeegee -like
rubber sweepers to coax the debris into it. For much smaller particles and dust, it uses a
very small vacuum. According to iRobot, Roomba, which also has two small brushes that
flick debris in front of the vacuum, is effective on hardwood floors and rugs, as well as
short-pile carpets and kitchen tile floors.
Along with the obvious cleaning requirement, Angle says Roomba knows how to navigate
around obstacles and operate without injuring you, your children, or your pet —or
damaging your furniture and walls. It detects objects using infrared sensors, a bumper,
and heuristics (with the help of an 8 -bit CPU and 256 Bytes of RAM). And it automatically
shuts off when it's picked up or if you put your fingers in any of the moving parts. There is
also a handle on top to prevent users from accidentally shoving their digits under the
business side of Roomba. Its nickel hydride batteries will keep running for an hour and a
half, and Angle says Roomba can vacuum a room in roughly five times the amount of time
it would take you to do the job yourself.
iRobot has never built a consumer product that wasn't a toy, and Angle has very specific
and some might say high aspirations for its first home appliance. "We want this to be first
mobile robot that gets into people's homes," he says.
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Unfortunately, I received the unit too late to take it home. (I was really looking forward to
seeing how it handled my kids and their habit of littering our den with Apple Jacks and
popcorn.) But I did get to see the Roomba in action at the PC Magazine offices (see the
videos). I have to admit, I was impressed. When we tested the Roomba, Angle visited our
offices and did the traveling salesman bit: He spread a bag full of Cheerios on our
conference room rug and crushed a bunch of them with his shoe. He explained that
Roomba begins vacuuming a room in large, concentric circles. If it hits too many objects, it
then goes to the nearest wall, hugs the perimeter of the room and then starts
crisscrossing, looking for large open spaces to start circling again. It can also be set to do
spot vacuuming.
Roomba did all this on our floor and adeptly picked up both the
whole Cheerios and the crushed Cheerio crumbs. It even
navigated around a series of office chair legs. During the test, I
noticed that Angle handled the Roomba almost roughly (the
way, I guess, anyone would handle an everyday home
appliance). And like typical appliances, Roomba comes with a
90-day parts-and-labor warranty and needs no training or
programming to do its work. Even the manual is pleasingly thin.
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When I finally got some time alone with the Roomba, I decided
to test it on some more difficult cleaning tasks. I emptied a
couple of packets of sugar into our office carpet and the
Roomba did a pretty good job of cleaning it up. I then tried
some Coffee-mate creamer and it did pretty well again. I
noticed, however, that while the Roomba understands when it's
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cridley: You already
have a very nice robot if
you have a PC - a virtual
robot who can do may
things for you even
when you are not
around.
view full post
DPWally: The reviewer
tested its ability to clean
around furniture, but
can it handle debris?
view full post
9/25/2002
Special Report from PC Magazine: World, Meet Roomba
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Page 3 of 6
finished a room or space, it doesn't know when a floor is truly
clean. In other words, it doesn't do repeated passes over an
area to clean up every last bit.
I do have a couple of other concerns about Roomba, however. First, I don't consider
taking five times as long to vacuum a room a selling point. Second, when Angle picked up
the Roomba to show me what it had vacuumed and scooped up, he pulled out the robot's
incredibly small dust and dirt catcher bin. In my house, I could see that bin filling up before
Roomba had finished one room.
But even if Roomba doesn't change the world (as Angle hopes), it is something of a
turning point for robots and for iRobot. "For robots, I can't tell you how huge this is.
[Roomba] is the most important robot we've ever done, because importance in my mind is
touching the lives of a lot of people. Inspiring robots that don't make it into everyday life
are neat, but are you changing the world?"
Roomba is currently available through Brookstone, Hammacher Schlemmer, and The
Sharper Image, and iRobot expects to offer it in other specialty and department stores in
October.
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