iRobot: Smart homes should have one brainy bot to run the show

iRobot CEO says future homes won't have to be smart, they just need one super-bot that is.

iRobot Roomba 880
Roomba vacs are cool but having a smarter bot to command it would be nicer. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Forget about smart lights and other connected devices when you imagine a truly futuristic home. According to Roomba-maker iRobot, within the smart home of the future will sit an advanced mechanized master ready to carry out your every command. This concierge-bot will also have the tools and physical presence to operate human-sized appliances such as light switches plus organize larger objects cluttering your rooms.

If that notion isn't wild enough for you, now envision this super automaton acting as the middleman between you and the world outside. It could greet and interact with visitors, function as a communication conduit for video calls and telecommuting, not to mention patrol your abode for intruders. Oh yes, and it should also have the chops to manage a team of domestic cleaning robots, so all you have to do is put your feet up and delegate from the couch.

Be the king of your robotic castle

I recently sat down with Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot to discuss just where domestic robots are headed. I expected to get an earful of the standard marketing boilerplate; how automated cleaning machines are here to stay and that Roombas and will continually improve and leave competitors choking on dust.

Instead, Angle leaped ahead to the foreseeable, though not immediate, future and painted a radically different picture of the ideal home. Instead of the current popular notion that every object in your house will boast smart capabilities, Angle thinks one automated machine will orchestrate your household upkeep tasks.

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iRobot CEO Colin Angle thinks concierge bots are the next big thing. iRobot

Angle envisions this bossbot, if you will, to serve as the central hub for communications, command, and control. That covers the basics of orchestrating multiple cleaning robots around the house (kitchen, living room etc.) but also encompasses more advanced tasks. "In the smart home of the future there should be a robot designed to talk to you. With enough display technology, connectivity and voice recognition this human-interface robot or head-of-household robot will serve as a portal to the digital domain. It becomes your interface to your robot-enabled home."

Need to tidy up after dinner? No problem, just tell the bossbot to take care of it. Floors and carpets a mess, or windows have lost their sparkle? Have the household robot add it to its to-do list.

One bot that's bigger, handier

Another retro robotic concept iRobot would like to resurrect comes as a direct benefit of concentrating power and intelligence into a larger household robot. This being a bot that can operate your existing devices and fixtures, including light switches, doorknobs and even kitchen appliances.

As Angle puts it, "Even just having light switches that turn on and off [via home automation] is a major expense. It's a more affordable and more flexible strategy to put more technology on one mobile thing then to disperse technology into a greater number of static things."

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iRobot's Ava 500 telepresence robot iRobot

Building the better robot

While most people might imagine a mechanized version of Carson from "Downton Abbey" as a far future concept, Angle disagrees. He wouldn't give us a specific timeline, but he points to the company's Ava 500 telepresence robot as an important data point. "The Ava 500 is in market today with real mapping and navigation capabilities. Instead of using lasers and significant computers we're doing it using cameras and low cost cell-phone caliber microprocessors at 100 times less cost."

In the meantime, most people would be happy with an automatic vacuum that's smart enough to empty its own dirt into the trash bin. Angle says that's in the cards, too.

"My very clear vision for the ideal Roomba is one you never see and you never touch," said Angle. "Our research priorities are explicitly focused on the Roomba of the future that will deliver on the promise of automatically cleaning your floor."

About the author

Brian Bennett is senior editor for appliances at CNET and reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from microwave ovens, blenders, ranges and coffee makers to personal weather stations. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he dreams of someday owning the sparkling house of the future.

 

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