October 31, 2006 4:00 AM PST
My life with Scooba
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A few days ago, I sat transfixed as a demo unit given to me by iRobot navigated the kitchen and breakfast room in our house. It hugged the contours of the north and west walls. When it came to the heating vent on the north wall, the robot performed two 90-degree turns to angle around the heating vent, continued along the front of the vent, and then returned to hugging the wall.
When it came to the next corner, I assumed it would turn 90 degrees and suck up the small pile of Trader Joe's low-fat strawberry muesli lying nearby. But it turned 45 degrees instead, leaving the area under the table entirely, and headed for the already-cleaned area by the stove.
"No, no, no!" I pleaded, my fingers stretched out as if I was trying to stop the cat from chewing plastic shopping bags.
Ultimately, the robot, which runs from about $150 to $350, made four trips in and around the table. It sucked up most of the crumbs there, but missed a triangle-shaped patch underneath. Oddly, it missed the same patch on other days.
"Maybe something spooked it there, like horses that won't go near certain fences," my wife said.
A day later, I watched it valiantly wrestle with my wife's dresser. The robot scooted underneath the furniture, then kept bumping into the legs and the wall once there. Waddling furiously, the Scooba finally pointed itself onto a clear path out. But after it had escaped halfway, it inexplicably turned 180 degrees and went straight back in.
It was like a fight scene in "Popeye," where arms and legs flair about into a cloud of dust and stars. Five minutes later, it finally left the dresser for good. My 5-year-old daughter and I cheered and involuntarily did the sort of fist pump one might see at a Bon Jovi concert. A few moments later, the Scooba emitted a cheery nine-note song and shut down.
The Scooba, and its older carpet-cleaning relative the Roomba, represent some of the first examples of a predicted wave of extroverted computers. Now, humans go to computers, ask them questions and get data. In the future, we will be zapped for time, so machines will have to gather data or accomplish tasks on our behalf, anticipating what we might need. Robots, sensors, cameras and software filters that intelligently plan our lives will be everywhere.
To some, this vision of the future conjures up ominous visions of the movie "Minority Report." The Scooba, though, is clearly more in the comic vein of a Jetsons robot. It seems more tenacious than intelligent, and it's incredibly upbeat. It starts each cleaning job with a four-note trill, then swirls out in an expanding circle. If it hits your foot, or an old copy of Martha Stewart Living, it quickly spins away.
Bumping and grinding
The Scooba doesn't have a GPS system. Instead, it maps a room by feel, following walls or bouncing off of them; the robot's Aware software tracks all the movements and tries to figure out when a cleaning job is done.
A big part of the entertainment is to try to figure out what pattern the device is following. The more you watch, the more you get a sense of the logic behind its movements, but it's still somewhat mysterious. It alternates between spirals and linear motion. (iRobot and competitor Evolution Robotics are expected to improve navigation technology on household robots.)