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Will Home Robots Ever Clean Up?

Helen Greiner of iRobot talks about how the company’s Roomba vacuum cleaner succeeded – and why they don’t have competitors.

Roomba – a self-navigating vacuum cleaner with wheels for feet, infrared sensors for eyes, and a flair for picking up dog hair – is the most successful consumer-market robot in history. Its maker, iRobot of Burlington, MA, has sold more than 1.5 million* of the Frisbee-shaped gadgets since their debut in September 2002. What’s more, many owners swear by their Roombas – they’ve bought units for other family members, written gushing product reviews on shopping sites, formed fan clubs, complete with message boards, and even decorated their Roombas as pets.

Given this level of success and enthusiasm, one might have expected Roomba copycats to be flooding the market. Almost four years later, however, the only product that’s attempted to follow in Roomba’s tracks is the same company’s Scooba, an automated “robomop” that carries its own cleaning fluid and scrubs, washes, and dries hard floors such as hardwood, tile, and linoleum. Since iRobot is launching the Scooba in this quarter, it’s too soon to tell whether it will make a splash.

In truth, the idea of robots in every home seems further away today than it did four years ago. The reasons are not entirely clear. It could come from a lack of interest among consumers, a lack of imagination among product developers, or a lack of tasks that could be done well by robots.

Helen Greiner, one of three co-founders and current chairman of iRobot, believes the market for home and office robots is about to grow. She started iRobot in 1990 with fellow computer-science student Colin Angle and Rod Brooks, a professor in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and she holds two degrees from MIT, a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in computer science.

Technology Review: iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner proved that there is a market for home robots. Yet Roomba has been on the market for almost four years, and neither iRobot nor any competitor has come out with consumer robots for other types of jobs. Why not?

Helen Greiner: We have. We just launched our floor-washing application, the Scooba. It’s a completely different robot. Vacuuming and floor washing are very dissimilar chores around the house.

TR: Of course, my mistake. What I’m asking is: What makes the Roomba special – and why hasn’t anybody else been able to replicate the success you’ve had with it?

HG: The real difference between the Roomba and robots that came before is that it’s a very practical system at a price that meets consumers’ needs. It’s at about the same price point as a vacuum cleaner. And you don’t have to push it around. It goes under furniture and beds. Its value exceeds the price customers pay for it, and I don’t think the robots that cost $1,500 or $2,000 did that.

TR: To keep the price of the Roomba reasonable, you must have had to omit some features. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

HG: It was tough. As you know, we come out of MIT and are a bunch of technologists. When we put out the first Roomba, it was $199, and basically you turned it on and it did the [vacuuming] job for you. That’s what consumers needed. We knew we could make things like remote controls and a charging station and the scheduling feature, which are really great stuff, but it would have increased the price.

Then, as people got used to the idea that they could have these things in their homes at a reasonable price, they started coming to us with ideas – like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if it could recharge itself?” or “Wouldn’t it be great if I could get it to turn on every day at the same time?” So we brought out those additional features. [Today, the Roomba comes in four models, from the high-end Roomba Discovery for $300 to the Roomba Red for $150. – Eds.]

* Correction: Due to a transcription error, the original version of this story said that iRobot had sold 5 million Roombas. The actual number is 1.5 million.

TR: Along with being affordable, the Roomba is also easy to use. It has a very simple user interface – basically, an On-Off button, a Clean button, and a Spot Clean button. How much thought went into that?

HG: We had in mind that we needed to keep it very simple. But we actually discovered that our first Roomba wasn’t simple enough. It had a small, medium, and large setting for rooms of different sizes. But most people don’t know the square footage of their rooms. Now you can put it on “Clean” and the Roomba figures out how big the room is. It just keeps going until it’s almost out of battery power. That’s a much easier user interface. In fact, having the Roomba be easy to use is one of the big distinguishing factors from any other robot or computer system. You push the button and it does the job.

TR: With those two limiting factors – price and ease of use – how much different is the Scooba from the Roomba?

HG: The way the Scooba navigates around a room is very similar, which is great for us; but the actual mechanism, because it deals with fluidics, is completely different. We even had to get down to studying the chemistry of soap. We worked with Clorox to develop a high-traction soap, because putting soap on the floor makes robots slip. You want a robot-friendly cleaning fluid. Then there’s dealing with fluids. This robot picks up the debris, lays down the cleaning fluid, scrubs it in, and sucks it up at the back, always keeping the clean and dirty water separate.

TR: As you hone in on the essential functions of home robots and make prices consumer-friendly, the next step seems to be finding tasks for new robots. What other kinds of jobs could future iRobot robots perform?

HG: You can think of commercial cleaning. Every floor in every office, retail chain, and school gets the floors cleaned at night. Also, we have an aging demographic and those people want to remain living more independently in their own homes. So you can think about things like washing windows, cleaning the bathroom, cleaning the toilet, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, and raking leaves.

Basically, I’d say look at the areas where people don’t like to do a job – and the job doesn’t get done as much as the homemaker or the person in charge would like it to get done. That’s the place where there’s a real consumer need.

TR: Why aren’t there more companies bringing out home robots?

HG: I think that bringing all the parts together in one place is a nontrivial matter. Robots are a true integration of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, production engineering, and a real focus on the cost structure and the real needs people have in their homes, or in the military. There might be other companies with a real expertise in robot software. We’ve assembled a team here that incorporates all of those disciplines, and the team works very much in a customer-focused way.

Home page image courtesy of iRobot.

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