Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gadget Review - iRobot Roomba

Being a lazy (traveling tech) guy, I never look forward to cleaning my apartment. The part I hate the most (other than doing the windows, laundry, restroom etc.) is vacuuming the carpet. [I hate carpets in general, but could not find a single apartment complex that offers a unit without them, save for the high end ones (those can charge a $1000/month premium for "wooden floors")].
So I rejoiced when I heard that there are people far lazier than me who invented a vacuuming robot.

The Roomba from iRobot is a small robot that will travel the length and breadth of your apartment, happily vacuuming its way around furniture and other debris thrown on your floor. It's smart enough to navigate obstacles, and it'll cover all open floor, in a circuitous way. Looking at it go, I'm often reminded of the A* algorithm, used by game makers to allow AI characters to navigate a maze.


Roomba travels to the living room

The Roomba operates on its own: click the big "Clean" button, and it's good for 2.5 hours. When it finishes covering the apartment, or if it runs out of battery while running, it will go back to its nest to recharge.


Roomba returns home to recharge

You can either activate the Roomba manually, or program a schedule. If you're too lazy to bend and click the button, it even has a remote (I didn't even bother unpacking it - there's a limit to my laziness wink).

The Roomba is smart enough to navigate around obstacles and avoid stairs (so if you want it to clean a multi-level house, you have to carry it to the next level, or get one Roomba per floor wink). To prevent it from entering certain areas, you can set "virtual barriers" - a small device emitting infrared beams that create a "no-go" zone for the robot. I have 3 of those and I never needed them so far.

One story I do have to share: one day, I ordered my Roomba to clean the house before leaving for work. When I came back, it wasn't at its nest. I looked around the house, and then started crawling under every bed and table - and couldn't find it. I stared thinking "why would anyone break in, steal the Roomba and leave the rest of my stuff alone?". I then went to the last room in the house, the bathroom. The door was closed (and one trick the Roomba can't perform is reach for the handle to let itself in smile). Just as I was about to leave, I saw the Roomba under the bathroom carpet, which was thrown in the corner. Apparently, I forgot to close the bathroom door. The Roomba wandered in, and hit the door from the inside, closing it. It then spent its battery banging around the bathroom, trying to get out and back to its nest. Finally, it crawled under the carpet and "died" cry. Luckily, all it needed was a recharge. And now, I close the bathroom door prior to leaving the house smile.

The internet is full of proud Roomba users, who anthropomorph their beloved robot, give it names and even dress it up. There is also a community of hackers that add functionality (such as WiFi control and a web cam), allowing for really remote control of the Roomba and turning it into a virtual guard dog.

Pricewise, the Roomba is definitely a commodity. Don't be fooled by the MSRP, no one pays $500 for it. Amazon has all kinds of sales on it. One day, they sold it for $400, the day after they had one of their flash deals and I got the 580 model for $319 + a set of extra brushes and virtual barriers (that costs a $100 on it's own). From time to time, it even features on Woot.com (although they usually sell the older, less reliable models).

But for lazy people like me, the Roomba is a boon. It does what it promises, vacuuming and cleaning the entire house. It has its own personality - having it around is like having a small puppy, sans the noise and mess. And finally, it makes me feel a bit closer to Asimov's futuristic view of humanity and robots. I give it two thumbs up - it's definitely one of my most beloved gadgets.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Been using the old Woot-purchased model for two years. Replaced battery once -- the cheaper/stronger DIY-pry-apart-the-battery-case version. We have a cat and there's really no other way to vacuum key kitty confines, i.e. under beds & in corners. It also allows our cleaning lady to focus on the real messes created by a personal chef mom, work-at-home dad, sickly aging cat, and 9yo boy.

Being an old AI guy myself, I'm impressed by the heuristics for getting itself out of tight spots (tho' floor registers are still a problem), but not so impressed that it cannot maximize coverage in minimal time/energy. It's far to random after its "opening sequence" of spirals and edges, but eventually gets the job done.

My feature requests:
- Separate receptacles for dust/dirt/hair, Lego pieces and coins
- Cleaning the brush & rollers etc is a bit tedious. It should just cough-up a hairball when done.
- Text alerts when it's done or stuck
- Climb stairs & use multiple bases
- Activate when house is quiet during day (i.e. no-one at home)
- Generate a floorplan during usage to optimize coverage/time during subsequent uses.
- Email me about problem areas (i.e I'm getting stuck [here] or there's cat shit I can't suck-up [here] with icons on the floorplan.

As for keeping it out of the bathroom...use the invisible blocker devices...or a pair of shoes end-to-end at the threshold.