Tag Archives: iRobot

Smarbo – You’re Shitting Me!?

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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.

Smarbo

Toshiba's Smarbo fancies itself a Roomba-killer. Doubtful.

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.)

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I Dream of Geeky

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Roomba

My best friend. I heart it. I heart it hard.

If I have a mantra – outside of, of course, “go big or go home” – it’s “better life through science.”

I am a firm and hearty believer that technology, function and design are benevolent forces, key to advancing our quality of life. I believe that advances in science will allow us to live longer lives in cleaner environments with more leisure, and I believe that these are all good things.

Now, I am not at all blind to the fact that we live in a consumer culture, where things are purchased, used for a brief period of time and disposed of, and that this has created an incredible burden on our planet. We’re sapping resources, transforming them into a state that will take millennia to biodegrade, and then burying them in the ground to leach into our groundwater and cause irreparable damage to our environment. But I am also convinced that science, too, will show us the way through this morass.

Also, while I admire and respect the consumer culture that brings us the technologies that change our lives, I do not participate in it. Most of my gadgets have been my wife’s hand-me-downs, which I’ve been given as she took on the latest and greatest new tech, giving these devices a few more years of use before permitting them to lose their charge forever in the bottom of a drawer.

Other devices, though purchased new, simply linger forever. My old Dell desktop saw almost 10 years of constant daily usage before finally being retired to the basement, and only then because my wife was starting grad school and needed the desk cleared off for her studies. I was raised not only to not discard something that still has use – by my grandparents, who were consummate hoarders – but neither to replace something that is still functioning. Though my ancient Dell could no longer play the latest games or run the latest software, it still surfed the Internet, printed documents and allowed me to write, which was really all I used it for anyway.

Still, though, there are those things that are game changers – that completely alter my habits and how I live my life. Some of these I resist because I realize the negative consequences that they might bring to bear. My BlackBerry was one of these. My wife encouraged me to get it so she could use the BlackBerry Messenger to text me (and she does – constantly), but I became extremely fond of the access it afforded me to news, social media, the ability to take and share pictures, etc. It was becoming dependent on the device that I feared, and indeed I did. When I accidently brought my BlackBerry into the Gulf of Mexico in the pocket of my swim trunks on a visit to Saint George Island, I was despondent the rest of the vacation.

And then there are the things that change my life more than I anticipated. My iRobot Roomba is one of these.

We bought it, in a way, for my daughter, who had not yet been born. We have hardwood (well, laminate – hey, they were cheaper, look the same and better life through science and all that) floors throughout our house, and three cats. Our floors were perpetually filthy, with grains of cat litter sticking to your feet and tufts of cat hair rolling across the floor like tumbleweeds. When our daughter arrived, we reasoned, the floor would be her entire world. Something like a vacuum-cleaning robot sounded like a steep but reasonable investment.

Now, I introduce guests to the Roomba before they meet my family. I get hard looks from my wife when I describe the robot as “the best thing that ever happened to me.” I call it “Buddy Roomba,” and I do not allow anyone to talk ill of him in my presence.

Other labor-saving devices have been worth their weight in circuits, too. My Whirlpool Gold Silent Partner III can sanitize baby bottles, soak and scour dishes and strips food off even the filthiest of plates. The Shark Vac-N-Steam works flawlessly on my hardwood floors with only electricity and water.

And some devices don’t even need electricity. With flood lights about 20-feet off the ground on our porch, a little $10 light bulb grabber on a long pole has saved me from the periodic nerve-wracking task of climbing up onto the railing of the porch to change bulbs.

Anything that helps me get done with what I have to do faster (Shark Vac-N-Steam) or enables me to do it more frequently to improve my quality of life (Roomba) is worth the investment.

Still, I visit Wired.com’s Gadget Lab blog, and I drool. I watch the videos online for the other iRobot devices, and I drool. They have a vacuum robot to clean your pool! I want one, and I don’t even have a pool! I’d dig a hole in my backyard and pave it and fill it with water, just to use one of these damned robots! They’re great! And little gets me as giddy as the need to purchase some new technology, as I at last have an excuse to read all the reviews and product details. I actively avoid Radio Shack and Best Buy because I know they’ll just depress the hell out of me.

Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski were dolts. Technology, properly applied and genuinely appreciated, is a wonderful thing.