iRobot and the Smart Home

Date : 9-13-2017

iRobot and the Smart Home

Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology. Find out what that mapping technology could mean for the future of the smart home.

The Roomba, that cute little robotic vacuum by iRobot, has been cleaning our floors since 2002. That makes it one of the elder statesmen of the modern smart home.

But did you know the company originally made bomb disposal robots? iRobot, founded in 1990, only sold off its military unit in 2016.

All robotic vacuum cleaners (robovacs) use short-range IR sensors to detect obstacles. That helps them avoid bumping into anything. Yet iRobot’s models from 2015 and onwards now feature cameras, super powered sensors, and new software.

This Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology means that the Roomba doesn’t just avoid obstacles. It now generates a map of the whole room. Measuring the spatial dimensions, it also includes the layout of furniture and other items that may block its path.

The SLAM tech is so sophisticated that the robovac can pause cleaning, go back to recharge in its dock, and then pick up where it left off. All of that with no input from you.

That’s a smart device.

But let’s find out what that mapping technology could mean for the future of the smart home.

Why Would You Want a Map of Your Living Room?

Your Roomba needs such a map to avoid collisions with table legs, cabinets, or bookcases. It can also use the map to identify high-traffic areas that may need further cleaning. But that layout isn’t just a floor plan.

It’s data.

That’s useful data if your company offers smart devices for the home. Many smart home devices almost operate in isolation from one another. Manufacturers understand how their product works, but they don’t always understand the physical domestic space.

If there’s one thing the Roomba understands, it’s space.

That map of your living room can be useful to other devices. Your lighting can work out where you sit when you watch television and adjust the lighting levels to suit. Or your smart speakers can play at different levels based on how near they are to seating. Even air conditioning could adjust to suit how people use the space.

The data can also help manufacturers learn how near their devices are to a WiFi router. It’s true that emerging technology like Bluetooth Low Energy can allow signals to hop from one device to the next. But that won’t help the WiFi smart device users. They need all their devices to have WiFi access.

In a bid to reach more devices, iRobot added compatibility with Amazon’s Alexa in March 2017. It also works with the SURE Universal Remote app so that you can control your Roomba from your smartphone.

What About Privacy?

As with many issues around the smart home, sharing maps of private homes raises plenty of privacy concerns. iRobot stresses they will need customer consent to share maps with other smart home manufacturers.

Some worry that iRobot may share data with companies like Amazon or Google. They could use the maps to determine what customers keep in their homes and recommend products based on that information.

Forbes noted the worry that the maps would identify the location of high-ticket items like televisions or sound systems. The maps may even pinpoint where residents are at particular times of the day. No one wants potential thieves to have information like that on hand.

But your Roomba already collects the data, around cleaning performance, although it currently only shares it with you. It’s likely there will be an option to turn off cloud-sharing functionality.

Roomba and the Future

Investors like the sound of robotics in their future. Japanese tech giant SoftBank bought just under 5% of iRobot. Competitors launched similar robovacs, but the Roomba remains the innovative choice, especially with its mapping capabilities.

With connected devices so central to the future, having a device that helps them work together can only improve the smart home. Research by UK bank Barclays found home buyers would spend thousands more for a home with smart functionality. 45% of homeowners even save money thanks to their smart devices.

Perhaps your Roomba’s house map doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Over to you – would you let iRobot share data about your home?

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