Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the roomba

Paul’s note: I had dinner last night with Mike, Joy, Elaine and Don. Don told us all about his new Roomba, and he was gracious enough to provide a more complete review. Previously Don has written about HDR photography. Don writes:

Since the time immemorial, people have tried to leverage technology to make their lives simpler. Some inventions intended to help turn out to be counterproductive, but as seen from our quality of life compared to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, many innovations have been improvements. As our modern lives grow increasingly complex, some of the best inventions are the ones that remove some of the less desirable tasks from our ever-growing list of things to-do.

Aside from taking out the garbage, one of my least favorite household chores has been vacuuming the floor. iRobot's Roomba, the popular robotic vacuum cleaner appeared to be a tidy solution for someone like me, and when I saw a factory refurbished Roomba White on sale at Amazon for nearly half the price of a new one, I went ahead and bought one for $159 with free Super Saver shipping.

A few days later, the Roomba arrived and I was able to quickly set it up without looking at the directions. After charging the battery, I pressed the "clean" button and the robot sprung to life with a cheery tune. I have always considered myself too pragmatic to be a pet person. Pets require (and deserve) attention and loving care. While I am not going to argue that buying a Roomba is in any way a substitute for the joy a pet can bring for most people, I have to admit that I felt a certain attachment to the little round robot as it earnestly went about its job for the first time, clunking against the legs of my furniture and emitting a plaintive bleep ("help...me...") when it got stuck on my fireplace molding. One clear benefit of the Roomba White over Fido is instead of shedding hair and tracking mud everywhere, the Roomba did a shockingly good job of sucking up dust, lint and my god am I losing that much hair??

The first time I left the Roomba to run, its dust bin filled to near capacity with debris it picked up off my hardwood living room floor. And this was only a week after our housekeeper Alma had been here and nobody in their right mind would accuse her of not cleaning up the house like a white tornado. Given that the Roomba certainly has a handicap in terms of suction power against Alma's upright Hoover (I'd say its suction is likely not much more powerful than the non-robotic DustBuster, but it is armed with a multitude of brushes for sweeping debris into its bin), I have to think that much of that dust comes from places that just don't get vacuumed all that often.

The Roomba intrepidly explores where most other vacuums rarely go, underneath the bed, into the most remote corners. You can kind of get an idea of how its "artificial intelligence" algorithms instruct it to systematically cover a room by watching it for a few minutes. It wasn't all totally fine and dandy, because, in a strangely pet-like fashion, the Roomba seems strangely attracted to cords or threads and pieces of string which it tries to ingest savagely. If you adopt, ahem, buy yourself one of these machines, make sure to keep these objects safely away. Also be wary if your household alarm system is equipped with internal motion sensors as is my house. The police are probably not above holding your robot for questioning.

The White Roomba is a slightly upgraded model compared to the original Red Roomba, and it knows a couple more tricks than its older sibling. The charger base is equipped with an IR beacon and the White Roomba is supposed to be smart enough to figure out when it is low on batteries and go back to the base and dock itself so that it's fully charged with you are ready for it to clean again. My Roomba so far has only made it back to its base twice, and each time feels like a small milestone and a strange twinge of pride stirs inside of me. Most of the time though it has run out of batteries in an odd corner of the house or under the bed. In all though, the proof of its effectiveness is found in its dust bin after each cleaning campaign. Roomba is a small step towards a more automated future. A future without vacuuming, anyways.

Bonus link: video of what one Roomba really does during the day. It is very entertaining.