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News, Technology

Robots at Home: Roomba

Kenton Reynolds

Kenton Reynolds, Writer
@uxconnections

In this series we are taking a look at the state of domestic robots and how close we are to robots being a common feature of the home. Our next focus is on Roomba, possibly the most common example of a domestic robot.

Vacuum cleaners have come a long way since Freddie Mercury was dragging a clumsy hoover trailing a lengthy wire back in the 80s. Gone is the era of the too-familiar struggle of being tethered to the wall of the next room; untangling endless knots and loops around furniture legs; emptying old bags of dust; and fighting the friction of cheap plastic wheels on carpets. The future has found the domestic appliance industry and perhaps this is clearest with robotic vacuums, most famously with Roomba.

iRobot’s first robot vacuum, the Roomba, hit the market in 2002 and saw immediate success; smashing through the million sales marker in 2 years. Since its entrance, a whole host of new models have been added to iRobot’s offerings with more affordable versions with less automation to pet-specific models that avoid pet mess. Whilst they have faced plenty of strong competition from both vacuum experts like Dyson.

The main reason to choose a robot vacuum over the classic option, as the Tech Chap states in a review, comes down to how much you value your time. The robot vacuums are timesavers in that they limit the time you spend hoovering, however they do not eliminate it. You still have to hoover around once a month to get all the places that have been missed and whilst Roomba is carrying out its duties, even the best models still need a helping hand with stairs and when they get stuck. The removal, or limitation, of manual labour is another tick in the pros column especially for those who struggle with household chores. For techies, there is an additional novelty factor; that joy of automation.

With the current state of the robot vacuum market, they seem useful to certain demographics but are certainly not the best choice for everyone – not yet at least. Their high price seems to be an immediate issue, with the cheapest model – Roomba 676 – dropping briefly below $200 for the first time at Walmart this year. Alternatively, Forbes’s ‘Best Value’ option came in. They may be becoming more affordable but most consumers are still priced out – after all a decent vacuum can be picked up for under $80. For those that can afford it, how often you vacuum is important. The devices have found a niche with pet owners who are regularly hoovering hairs with models like the Roomba S9

Newer Roomba’s are becoming more intelligent with Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (VSLAM) being used to create a map of the floorspace whilst doing its rounds which then allows the user to pinpoint individual spaces to clean. It also allows Roomba to plot a more efficient path of straight lines as opposed to going over areas repeatedly and wasting battery life. This optimisation of time combines with improvements to the battery itself to create around an hour of hoovering between   charges which should be more than enough to cover most houses. Other exciting features include varying suction powers for different surfaces, self emptying to save time and scheduling in app.

Whilst robot vacuum cleaners are becoming more accessible over time and more prevalent in homes, they are still a luxury reserved for those that either truly value the tech or can afford it. The products are still blighted with the same repeating problems: stairs, missed patches and other inconveniences. Whilst these seem minor, for a product that is designed for convenience they mean a lot. More improvements and a lower price tag are needed before we see Roomba’s in more households.

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