Robot Vacuum Cleaners and the adoption of innovation

Disclosure Statement: George is an OWG who divides his time more or less evenly amongst the early adopters and the laggards. He saw an Apple Newton, owned a number of Palm Pilots and now outsources his memory to Google/Android. His aftershave routine involves Old Spice.

Any number of controversial topics are swirling around the science and innovation system at the moment and, feeling uniquely unqualified to comment on any of them, I thought I would take the opportunity to look at robotic vacuum cleaners.

I am now on my third.

It isn't that I particularly dislike doing the vacuum cleaning. In fact, as trimming the edges was to gardening, it is the piece of housework that makes the biggest difference in the least time. When my mother was after me to do something around the house as a child vacuuming was always my choice. There is something satisfying about all the noise and the sweat making a difference that is only comparable to cleaning a bath (my current favourite piece of housework).

The reason I got my first robotic vacuum cleaner is because they are so cool. Any fan of the Jestons (how could I not be?) would want a household robot and so far the robot vacuum cleaner is the best on offer.

The general run of technologies follow a predictable adoption cycle: the innovators cobble something together that sort of works, the early adopters think, 'How Cool!' and buy a few to suffer the pain and expense of working out the pitfalls so the majorities, early and late, can reap the benefits while the laggards make a virtue if suffering with the old technology.

But robot vacuum cleaners haven't really got past the early adopters (even though it looks like there are more than 10 million of us). This quite often happens; so much so the gap between early adopters and the early majority is sometimes called the ‘chasm’. The book, Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore is getting on but still worth a read (I’m hoping whoever put the book there dealt with any copyright issues), especially if you are convinced that your technology is so good the public can’t help but buy it.

The reason robot vacuum cleaners haven’t jumped the chasm is straightforward: they aren't so sucky - and when you are a vacuum cleaner that's a problem. It’s not going to be an easy problem to solve either because they need to be small to get around which doesn't leave enough room or power for the sort of 1200 watt motor and quad-core rotor system that a standard vacuum has. To get around this limitation a lot of the actual cleaning is done by a set of rotating brushes which mean deep piles, tassels and dangly bits in general are the enemy because they keep getting tangled up in things. Not to mention the size of the dirt bin means you have to have to empty it after every use – although this does mean you don’t lose the stray valuable items that get picked up.

So essentially, if you aren't a Jetsons fan, give it away now. Even if you are and you don't do your own vacuuming, or aren't the person who cares most about the state of your floors, walk away.

On the other hand, if the only people in your household who don’t have careers are the teenagers and the cats and you have a large expanse of tiled floor with a lot of furniture on it: buy one.

The first one we had was a Roomba 400 series. I got it in late 2004 and it came with two ‘virtual’ walls (you really only need one) and a remote so you could drive it around yourself (which is stupid). What sent me out to buy it (other than the need for a Christmas present) was a article describing how the iRobot people had originally tried to in build all sorts of sensors, recognition and map algorithms for the Roomba to navigate the room. It all got very complicated and needed a huge amount of processing power which didn’t fit and they couldn’t power. Then someone figured it just needed a smallish set of preprogrammed behaviours when it hit an obstacle and the ability to know roughly how long it should keep going. I took this as a tidy parable of the propensity for engineers to, well, over engineer things to the point they stop working and went out to buy one from the slightly mystified but helpful elderly gent at LV Martin and Sons.

This first Roomba turned out to be very engaging[1]. She trundled around, very much like she was actively looking for dirt and had a great propensity for getting herself stuck under, on, or tangled in things, whereupon she would sit peeping mournfully until rescued. If you gave her too much to do at once she would run out of puff and also sit lonely and peeping until you found her. We soon learnt to cut down the area with a virtual wall (a little dalek shaped box that put out an infra red beam she wouldn’t cross) and put cords and rugs with tassels on the other side. If she made it until she had finished she sang a special triumphant dadalat da dadaaa! and sat and waited to get put back on her charger. She was good at picking up small bits of lego and bits of board games and also fairly gentle with dropped wargaming figures. Some of the cheaper plastic toys and the things that came out of Kinder Surprises would get munched but marbles just got chased under the furniture.

After a number of years her battery wore out and even the smallest room made her breathless so Ii got a new battery from LV Martins at great trouble and expense. That was fine for a couple of months and then she died completely. It turns out that the soul of complex appliances lives in the battery and changing them always causes trouble. Anyway, Roomba went into the skip (I hung onto the old battery) and I went out looking for a replacement.

This came in the form of a 500 series in 2009. She was a much more Kiwi Roomba. She was much less bothered by obstacles – the rugs could stay where they were, less inclined to ask for help and didn’t do such a good job. On the plus side she was a bit quieter and the bin was less fiddly to empty (and more fragile). Looking at the Wikipedia article it looks like they updated the navigation software which most likely accounts for the loss of performance.

Anyway, she did the job for a number of years and then I realised there was a lot of trundling around and cheery peeping going on but no actual picking up of stuff. After crawling around after her for quite a while trying to see what was happening underneath  (which fortunately didn’t make it to You-Tube) I found that the brushes were only going for a very short time after she was put down on the floor and the sucking wasn’t enough to do anything useful by itself. Various other bits had fallen off or broken by that stage so I put her up on Trade Me. Now she is down in Christchurch working with someone who does the nightshift on a computer help line on their plans for global domination.[2]

Both Roombas had cost about $500, which is quite a lot for a vacuum cleaner that isn’t very sucky. What with one thing and another last year I wasn’t feeling quite so flush so I dug out the old vacuum cleaner we brought with us when we abandoned suburbia. That we hadn’t used it since we arrived was obvious when it filled the flat with the smell of dog. A new bag and some cleaning solved that but even so I was on the internet looking for a new robot cleaner as soon as I’d finished vacuuming the flat. I just don’t have the time.

The new Roombas looked a bit pricey and the Samsung, even more costly, looked like trouble. My phone already bosses me about enough and two of them would be insufferable. Then I saw that one shop had a special on a Hoover version so I headed out to the big-box retail centre by the airport to have a look.

There was a big sign on the front of the shop advertising the special and inside – amongst the piles of spaceage looking and very cheap standard vacuum cleaners in boxes – they had built a little pen for the robots to play in.

Even so, the man was very surprised when I ask to buy one.They are just motorised carpet sweepers, he told me, and they don’t do a very good job. I’d be much better off with this one here for the same price and the 365 cubic inch V8.

I would be pretty sure that he had a firm view on what a floor should look like after it was vacuumed and equally that he wasn’t going to be the person who vacuumed it. There was a bit of a standoff while I talked about tiled floors and cats and then I asked for a yellow one.[3] He said he wasn’t sure if they had any so I took one off the shelf for him. I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to accept my EFTPOS card but he took the money in the end. I think he guessed I use moisturiser. I had to ask for my receipt with the guarantee.

Trying to avoid reversing over the children in the car park with Robby (in my defence Hoover called him that not me) safely in my boot I wondered why bother?  Presumably he’s employed to sell vacuum cleaners, including those on special. Fair enough to point out that the robots didn’t  have the power of a standard cleaner but maybe also point out that if I came home from work and wasn’t happy I could just set Robby off again with no effort. I didn’t need his personal opinion on what constitutes a proper vacuum cleaner and implication of who is the proper user. Just give me the information on the drawbacks and advantages and let me make up my mind.

Anyway, Robby fits in well. Looking at him I would guess that a lot of the original iRobot patents have expired: he looks a lot like my first Roomba and really hates tassels. He has this endearing habit of looking like he’s stuck and going quiet then suddenly waking up and reversing out of it. The cat likes him because he’s quieter than the Roombas and doesn’t creepily slow down when he gets close to you. He doesn’t do the little victory song.

I’m in the habit of deciding which piece of floor is annoying me most and setting him up to go before I go out in the morning. I have to sweep the rugs and roll them up and check the children haven’t left one of their innumerable charger cords on the floor. But it’s a lot less effort than doing the vacuuming myself. I’m hoping that he’ll be around for a while.



[1] And just in case you haven’t seen it here is a cat in a sharksuit riding on a Roomba https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLt5rBfNucc

[2] I don’t know how they are going to solve the stair issue but if they do I’m hoping for a fairly senior place in the new world order for supplying Roomba to the cause.

[3] the pink one was a bit garish and the blue wasn’t going to fit in with my decor

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