Friday, December 31, 2010

Your Plastic Maid Who's Fun To Be With

No, this isn't about an inflatable sex toy. It's about a robot. I'm paraphrasing Douglas Adams who wrote, in his seminal work, "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy",

"The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as "Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With."

For Christmas, I got my wife (according to the late Mr. Adams) a "plastic pal who's fun to be with". Gee, now it sounds as though I got her a sex toy, doesn't it? Seriously, though, I got her a robotic floor cleaner, also known as a "Roomba". I suspect that this thing must actually have been created by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, because it sometimes really does seem endowed with their infamous GPP (Genuine People Personality) feature. Since Roomba's purpose is slanted more toward cleaning than friendship (it's hard to foster a meaningful relationship with a talking Frisbee®), it's more of a plastic "maid" than a plastic "pal", but it is still fun to be with (at least it is for lonely, friendless geeks like me).

Roomba has become popular enough that, by now, most people need no explanation as to what it is but, in case you do, Roomba is, as I said, a robotic floor cleaner. It's a plastic disc on wheels, approximately 12 inches in diameter and 3 inches high. It cleans all types of floors including hardwood, laminate, vinyl and also carpeted, even adjusting itself for pile height. It can be programmed to clean at specified times, up to seven times per week. When it does its stuff, so to speak, it cruises the floor, looking for dirt and navigating around obstacles, before returning to its base to recharge.

Roomba derives its name from the words "Room", which it navigates and cleans (at least the floor part) and "ba", which is a sound that sheep make. Hey, it makes sense - at least, to the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation1.

Before continuing, I should point out that Roomba, like most technological contraptions, comes in various models. Ours is a model 550, which is one of the newer 3rd Generation (3G) models. Features and behavior of other models may vary.

Roomba's cleaning tools include a vacuum, a rotating brush, a rotating squeegee wheel (you know, with the rubber fins as opposed to brushes) and a sideways-rotating brush for cleaning along walls or base molding. The vacuum isn't very powerful, somewhat comparable to that of a hand-held DustBuster ®, but it's augmented by the brushes, which act to loosen dirt from the floor and carpets and also to sweep it under Roomba, into the vacuum's suction range.

Watching Roomba navigate the floor is almost worth the price of admission in itself. It starts with a criss-cross pattern designed both for covering the maximum possible area in its search of dirt and also discovering walls and obstacles. When it hits an obstacle, or "sees" it with its infra-red (IR) sensor, it backs away, pivots, and heads off in a different direction. When it finds a wall, which I assume it recognizes as a straight-line obstacle that seems to go on in the same direction for a ways, it turns itself so that its side-rotating brush is facing the wall, and then runs along it in order to clean the floor perimeter. It "sees" when the floor suddenly disappears in front of it, and therefore will not go tumbling down the first set of stairs that it encounters. Most amusingly, its dirt sensor, aside from simply looking for dirt, also detects especially heavy concentrations of dirt. When such a concentration is detected, a little blue Filthometer2 light comes on, and Roomba spirals over the spot in two or three tight circles in order to give it a specially thorough scouring.

Roomba does take considerably longer to clean a floor than one would take doing it manually with a vacuum cleaner or mop, owing to its having to navigate the room and find all the dirt but, since it's relieving my wife and myself of that chore, it can take all the time it needs, especially if programmed to clean the floors during the day, when everyone is away at work and/or school. The only one whom it might annoy is the cat, and we don't much care what she thinks. Besides, as the video below demonstrates, the cat might not mind it as much as one might think either.

The above video also demonstrates one of the many ways in which you can "yank Roomba's chain" so to speak. I can just picture its robotic brain thinking "There's some cat hair on the floor. Got it! Better go back to check. Hey, I missed some! Got it that time. One more pass... D'OH! More cat hair? What gives???"

Roomba's instruction manual (yes, I actually do read those) recommends that it be confined to a single room, but it will do multiple rooms on the same floor if given free range. Of course, on its maiden voyage, I decided to really put it to the test and gave it free access to most of our main floor, including a carpeted living room, a vinyl kitchen floor and hardwood hallways and dining room. I kept it out of the bedrooms, or it would still be working. If it got into my daughter's room, it would probably disappear, never to be seen again.

Roomba admirably, navigated its way around table and chair legs (no, we didn't bother to do it the courtesy of putting the chairs up on the table) as well as other obstacles. A number of times, it temporarily got "trapped" between a myriad of legs, but it always eventually found its way back out again. It did tend to revisit areas where it had already been. I'm not sure whether it was simply double-checking for missed dirt, got disoriented, or simply liked certain areas for whatever reason. Only once did I ever see Roomba get so completely stuck that it needed help. That was when it blundered under our Christmas tree and got hopelessly tangled in the tree skirt. After four or five unsuccessful attempts to extricate itself, it finally emitted a plaintiff "Error! One left." (yes, Roomba talks too) and simply stopped. I'm still somewhat mystified at the meaning of "One left". One what? One more error? Was it warning me that if I let that happen one more time, it would go on robotic strike and stop cleaning our floors? (This is where the GPP feature comes into play!) My wife and I have agreed to leave Roomba off until after the Christmas tree is down, just to be safe.

One of these days, I intend to unleash both Roomba and my voice-command R2-D2 simultaneously, and let them "duke it out" for floor supremacy. Of course, Roomba is at something of a disadvantage, since it lacks Artoo's "electro-arm" for zapping its antagonists.

Roomba has a base to which it returns when its job is finished or when its battery is in need of recharging. The base plugs into a standard electrical outlet, of course, and emits an IR signal to help Roomba to find its way "home". Finding an appropriate place for the base was a little problematic for us. It needs to be in a fairly open, accessible area. If you wedge it into a cubbyhole somewhere, Roomba may have trouble docking with it, even if it does find it. Of course, it needs to be within reach of an available electrical socket. Finally, it needs to be placed against a wall or other heavy object, because it's very light. Without some sort of brace, Roomba tends to just push it away when it tries to dock.

Somehow, we had some trouble finding a spot that satisfied all of the above criteria. I also added an extra criterion of my own. I would have preferred the base to be in some inconspicuous spot, rather than having Roomba sitting out, as if on display. Unfortunately, "inconspicuous" and "easily accessible" seem to be mutually exclusive terms. At one point, I hit upon the "bright" idea of placing it under the couch. I figured that, at the designated time, Roomba could come out from under the couch, clean the floors, and then quietly disappear back underneath the couch, out of sight and out of mind. Aside from the fact that our couch has legs so short that Roomba didn't actually fit underneath it, the other problem with this idea is what happens if Roomba fails to dock properly for whatever reason. Its battery would eventually die and there it would sit, under the couch, gathering dust (but not in the intended manner), forcing someone to crawl under the couch to rescue it. Even if it unerringly found its dock every time, its dust bin, which is fairly small, needs regular emptying and its brushes need regular cleaning as well. Again, one would have to crawl under the couch in order to retrieve it for maintenance and cleaning. No, hiding Roomba under furniture is not recommended.

Should you be considering getting a Roomba for yourself, the final, and most important, question is, of course, "Does it work?" or, rather, "How well does it work?" My conclusion is this: Roomba is a good maintenance cleaner. It's designed to pick up light dirt before it develops into heavy dirt. Can you throw out your vacuum cleaner after getting a Roomba? No. You'll still want to clean your floors manually every so often, but those cleanings will be fewer and father-between, not to mention easier.

Here's a more serious video of Roomba in action:

1 There is no such organization as the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Roomba is produced and marketed by iRobot Corporation. But if they don't sue me for misappropriating the credit for their product to a fictional robotics company, I won't tell Arthur C. Clarke that they stole his book title for their company name.

2 Filthometer is not an official term used by the iRobot company that produces and markets Roomba. I made that up myself, but it does seem appropriate!


Martin said...

I've thought about getting one. Give me an idea of its power. What's the dirtiest thing you've seen it capable of picking up? That video shows it picking up top-soil spilled from a pot, but I'm having a hard time believing that.

Halmanator said...

As I said, and contrary to the marketing video's claim, the vacuum is not all that powerful; probably comparable to a Dust Buster, but it is augmented by the brushes. I've seen it pick up coins, but I think they weren't sucked up so much as swept up. Top soil? Sure, if it's dry and loose. If there's any moisture in it, or if it's been at all ground in, you're going to need something stronger.