There's a oval-shaped purple button on the Roomba website1 labeled "Tour Roomba!" And if you click on this button, a Flash animation appears showing a computer-generated living room with a yellow carpet covered with little black gobs of digital dirt.  A circular gray and black device sits near the center of the room like a dozing trilobite.  It's about the size and shape as a medium pizza, and perhaps 15 centimeters tall.  After a few seconds, the device begins to creep around the room, sucking up the digital dirt whenever it runs over the top of it, but not appearing to "look" for it in any obvious way.  It starts out in a loose counterclockwise spiral, then bumps into a table leg and veers off on some random looking tangent, hits a wall, another tangent. After a minute it gets kind of frustrating because there's a lot less dirt left laying around to suck up, and a lot more dumb near misses.  

And about that time is when you get hooked.  The device appears really dumb, but damned if it doesn't get every last shred of digidirt and then go back and work the corners looking for more.  A legend at the bottom informs us that the complete animation runs 15 minutes, but in less than three minutes all the visible dirt is gone.  As the device bounces and spirals, the legend gives us a hint of what it is thinking: "spiral," "cris-cross," "wall-following."  It's addictive to watch.

Headlines appear across the screen,

  • I'm working out at the gym
  • I'm playing with my kids
  • I'm having lunch with a friend
  • I'm planting flowers in my garden.

And My Floor Is Getting Clean!

Introducing Roomba
Intelligent Floorvac
A revolution in home cleaning
Just $199.95

iRobot3 released what may be the first really practical domestic robot vacuum cleaner in time for Christmas gift sales.  And those sales appear to have been brisk.  At $199 U.S. the Roomba vacuum targets the increasing niche of working professionals who have more money than time. That demographic includes an increasing number of people with dirty floors. 

After watching the animation half a dozen times (hey, I'm easily entertained, what can I say!), I went to explore the Roomba website further and was soon rewarded with a quicktime movie showing a real, live Roomba in action2 while the voiceover informs us: "Housekeeping may soon be a thing of the past....Roomba, product of the future at a breakthrough price."  Best of all is a moment of high drama when dear little Roomba heads straight for a fatal stumble off a high set of stairs, "Oh No!" Happily that clever robot stops at the last second, appears to think over his options then slowly retreats My kids and I had to play that bit another half a dozen times before we finally stopped laughing.

Then I continued my search, already a little fond of Roomba for entertainment value alone, but looking for the fatal flaw.  The more I read, the more impressed I was.  Roomba looks pretty well thought out and reasonably well made.  The artificial intelligence routines that control Roomba's actions aren't touted as perfect, but merely good enough.  Hey, that's fair, and when it comes to vacuuming my floor, good enough is plenty useful.  In my household, I'm the designated vacuum-bitch, and I'm only good enough myself! 

Roomba has a set of (NiMH) rechargeable batteries, that probably go dead eventually, and cost a fortune to replace, but you handle that by purchasing the extra "extended warranty," plan so they have to keep sending you new ones.  You have to empty the dust bin after every use, but it looks as though they've made that pretty easy.  It has some fancy edge cleaning brushes that scrape along the walls and other edges, which is better than my real vacuum does. Roomba goes from rug to hardwood floor to tile and back again without missing a beat, and the ad copy claims that it picks up pet hair, which has got to be the worst.

So far, no glaring flaw emerged and I'm wondering if I've got a spare two hundred clams in my piggy bank.  Then, in small and inconspicuous print I find exactly what I'm looking for, the Roomba User Forum!  I want to hear what real people who have slapped down their hard cash think of "The Intelligent FloorVac." 

And you know what, they really like it!

Roomba Rocks!!!
"My wife and i bought the roomba over christmas (our little present)
and everyday we use it - we're more impressed. This little device is
soooooo cool! we have kids on the way, so this little helper is
going to be great, i look forward to the kids chasing it around the
house!  iRobot folks, this is an EXCELLENT PRODUCT! now just make a 150$ lawn mower robot that is weatherproof, and i'll be first in line :)"

Pretty happy with the little critter
"...Right now we are still having friends over for fun evenings
of "drinks and watching the vacuum." What can I say - it's a long
dark winter up here in Alaska and we get starved for entertainment.
The cats HATE it, but quickly learned that they are safe when they
are up on the chairs. They don't fear it, by the way - they just
dislike it intensely. The dog is intrigued by it and sometimes
mildly offended when it bumps him. No attempts to herd it yet. The
humans are charmed by it. You can't help but anthropomorphize the
little thing."

Ahh!! Daddy help,Roombas got my dolly!!
"My daughter's Barbie doll became entangled in one of Roomba's
wheel units while it was cleaning the living room rug. Does
anyone know of a way to remove the wheels to check for
materials that may get wound around them?
My wife is thrilled with the robots performance;but I must agree
with the previous e-mail about expectations for a short life span
for this engratiatingly helpfull droid."

And this jewel:

First Roomba Hack
"I'd like to announce the first (to the best of my knowledge) modification made to a Roomba...In the spirit of David Letterman, grab youself one of those $79 Xcam2 wireless video camera kits from, strap it on your Roomba and create... ROOMBA-CAM! Watch your floors getting cleaned from a Roombas-eye view! :D  Will have video from my Roomba-Cam in action, digitized and uploaded soon! :)"

Now is that cool or what?

1Roomba website:

2Roomba in action: mms://

3More bitchin widgets at the iRobot website:

4Scooba, Robotic Floor Washer: eak_preview.cfm

Update May 2005

Well, it's taken a couple of years and a few generations of Roomba for iRobot to get it completely right, but they have finally succeeded. The spiffy new Roomba "Discovery" sports a ruby red color, hand-help remote control, easy to clean brushes and software that allows it to return automatically to its battery charging station at the end of a cleaning cycle.

After being teased into watching a live demo at the local Brookstone store, I am the proud owner of two Roombas who routinely work our house over. The novelty factor is over for everyone except the family cat who still climbs up on the couch and stares balefully whenever the Roomba twins show up. The rest of us step over the little robots without a second thought.

They work pretty damned well at keeping the place respectable, and have reduced the need for a really deep hand vacuuming to about twice a year rather than once a month. They don't clean deeply, but they certainly scoop up all the surface dirt; a pretty good value when you consider that it only takes a minute to drop them in the room and push the start button. They're pretty noisy to be in the same room with, and they have a curious and ultimately annoying way of dogging your ankles like a playful puppy.

Announcing Scooba4

I guess I should have seen this coming; having perfected the robo-vacuum, iRobot has taken the obvious next step and created Scooba, a robotic wet floor mop. Using the same basic technology as Roomba, Scooba "vacuums, washes and dries" in a single pass according to the company press-release. Scooba won't be on the market until late 2005, and the first version will probably have some bugs, but there's no reason to believe that iRobot won't get this one right too.

If Scooba works as well as Roomba, it may actually be time to throw away the bucket and mop!

Thanks to Mum for the heads up on Scooba!