I’ve written before about my best friend, Roomba, and how it’s changed my life for the better. It’s a dear, dear friend and confidant. I’m not too proud to say that I’ve been willing to make love to it on occasion. I haven’t yet, of course, because I can’t quite figure out the, you know, mechanics of it, but I heart that robot big time.
Tonight, I came across an announcement for Toshiba’s answer to my wonderful iRobot product – the Smarbo.
Let me explain an element of my personal philosophy before I proceed further. When I was a young man in the market for my first car, I drove to a barn in northeast Alabama where a man gave me the option of purchasing one of two cars from him: a Ford Mustang, or a Plymouth Barracuda.
Both were muscle cars, but the Barracuda was far less ubiquitous than the classic Mustang parked next to it. Everyone had a Mustang, I reasoned. It was the quintessential muscle car. As such, to even compete with it, other muscle cars must be designed with some sort of edge just to make them competitive. Otherwise, why bother? So, if the Mustang was the standard, the Barracuda must have something – some element, something tangible – that made it “better” than the Mustang in some way. So, I bought the Mustang.
I have a similar philosophy now with smartphones. If the iPhone is the standard – and granted, it is as popular as it is for a reason, because it’s a damn good phone – then the other smartphones on the market must have something that gives them an edge, or else, why would major manufacturers even try to invest the resources in competing with the iPhone?
When it comes to floor cleaning robots, I have the standard – an iRobot Roomba. Almost every evening, when I take my daughter upstairs for her bath, I set it to rove about downstairs, gathering up the tufts of tumbling cat hair and ample kitty litter that is scattered across our hardwood floors while I’m at work. It is a powerful tool in my arsenal of cleaning equipment that makes life with three cats (my wife’s three cats, to be sure) tolerable.
How it works is, basically, a relatively small amount of suction, a rotating brush and – I don’t know, this rotating squeegee-type thing – collects debris from the floor. It’s powered by a large rechargeable battery, and electric motors allow it to rove autonomously around the house. A bumper in the front tells it when it’s run into something, and little electronic “eyes” on the sides help give it an idea as to whether or not the floor is exceptionally dirty in a certain spot, or if it’s coming up on the edge of the stairs. More than that, there’s not much to it. It can be scheduled to run at a given time, but since it can’t know that it’s about to run through a pile of cat shit that somehow appeared despite the presence of a clean litter box as is at times the case, setting it to run when I’m not home to lend a little supervision has proven unwise. (It also has proven that cat shit is damned hard to clean out of a Roomba.)
Like the Ford Mustang, it gets the job done. But, also like the Mustang, I’m willing to wager there are other products on the market that have a competitive edge.
One I’ve read about, from a company I’ve never heard of, constructs a type of laser grid across the floor to get a sense of where obstacles lie, and rather than fanning out in a conch-shell pattern as Roomba does, it paces back and forth through the room in such a way that more efficiently covers the ground and reduces the tendency to go back and forth over the same spot again and again, as Roomba is wont to do.
I’ve also read about a new patent filed by iRobot for its Roomba robots that calls for the installation of two sensors in the ceiling of a home. The sensors look like small smoke detectors and work rather like satellites, allowing Roomba to triangulate its location and know where it is in time and space. It sounds pretty awesome.
But then, today, I came across a description of a new challenger to Roomba’s dominance – the Smarbo, by a company I have heard of – Toshiba.
This thing has two on-board CPUs that read and make decisions on data gathered from 38 on-board sensors and one on-board camera. It know where it is, where it’s been, where it’s going, and what it’s going to do when it gets there. This thing is smarter than all three of the cats it’ll be up against. Hell, it’s got more processing power than my old Dell laptop.
Oh, but wait. There’s a problem. Tech blog Hothardware.com waits until the end of the story to lay this little glitch on us – sure, it’ll only be available in Japan to begin with (which is asinine, given the tiny accommodations in which most Japanese live, though tech-obsessed they may be), but the real doozy is that this thing is going to cost $1,175.
Yeah – more than a grand. I can’t have anything roving around my house picking up trash that costs more than that Barracuda I bought out of that guy’s barn (except maybe my wife, but she doesn’t clean, so that’s moot).
To compete with Roomba, Toshiba needs to produce a superior product, which the Smarbo may well be. But it also has to be, I don’t know, affordable. Not even Dyson gets away with trying to convince you to spend more than $1,000 on a vacuum cleaner, and they have $350 desk fans!
Look, I’m an iRobot acolyte. I believe in my Roomba, but if something better were on the market, I’d be willing to move up. But better doesn’t just mean smarter or more efficient. For more than twice the price of what I paid for my Roomba, Toshiba’s entry into the robot fray had better damned well be able to scrub my shower, wash my clothes and wake me up in the morning with a charming English accent.
$1,175? Toshiba doesn’t think much of me, do they? (Though their vacuum may well be much smarter than I am.)