Roomba Diary: A Boy and His Robot

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I always imagined my first robot would be something more along the lines of an Iron Giant scenario. But ya know, you go to war with the robot minion you have, that being, in my case, the Roomba.

I’ve been a Roomba user pretty much from day one. I’d been seeing tech demos of robots for years, and the one constant theme from one demo to the next was that the damn robots couldn’t do damn anything. They could only operate in the most specialized environments, they constantly had to be prompted and nudged and rescued and debugged, and even then they tended to crap out mid-demo. I agreed to meet with iRobot because of their distinguished pedigree, but my expectations weren’t high. And lo and behold: they had an actual robot that ran around by itself, didn’t break every 10 seconds, and accomplished a useful task. Impressive. I’ve gone over the guts of a Roomba with these people, and it’s unbelievable the engineering that went into this thing.

Since then I’ve used my Roomba steadily, about once every couple weeks, and as a guy who lives by himself and loathes housework, it’s been a trusty sidekick. It’s never broken down, and it actually does get your room very clean, though I have to do a little supplemental broomwork in the corners. I upgraded only once, to the second-gen model. You do have to prepare your room fairly carefully: tuck rug-tassels under rugs, hide power cords and shoelaces — Roomba loves to choke on shoelaces — and block off rooms where Roomba shouldn’t go. (I don’t bother with the infrared Virtual Walls that come with Roomba — a chair does the trick.) Roomba has an incredible ability to slip back behind my busted-ass futon, where it finds a hellish crevice that it can’t extricate itself from (though it does become a very clean crevice). Oh, and the battery is pretty much shot, it can only run about 20 mins on one charge at this point (the fact that this doesn’t particularly bother me should give you a rough sense of the size of my apartment).

This post is apropos of the fact that I just got my hands on a new Roomba: the excitingly named 500 series. Apparently this gleaming robotic titan possesses the cosmic secret of “anti-tangle technology,” which I’m pretty stoked about. Sounds like they also did some incremental design improvements, like upgrading its spinny side-brush, and refining its navigation algorithm (which I seem to remember is based on some old-tyme minesweeping algorithms — this is your peace dividend at work, people!)

I feel sorta bad about 86ing my old Roomba, but he had a good run, and he’ll be happy in Roomba paradise, where there are no shoelaces or power cords. Anybody else got one?