iRobot wants its Roombas to be the eyes and roving sensors of your smart home

robots that do chores roomba 980  vacuuming robot
iRobot Roomba 980

To get something approaching a responsive home — that’s a smart home that reacts to you instead of you initiating actions — you have a few options. There’s a device called Kirio that, along with sensors and other devices, are built into the house during construction or remodeling. Vivint can do something similar after a home’s been built for a monthly monitoring fee. With the DIY approach, you can use If This Then That to make your smart-home devices work together, but it will take time and patience to set it all up. Even then, your smart thermostat and lightbulbs won’t really know if they’re operating inside a one-bedroom apartment or three-story house.

“If you think about the smart home and the variety of connected devices on the market today, they’re overwhelmingly static devices: tabletop sensors or thermostats that are connected to the wall,” Chris Jones, iRobot’s VP of technology, told Digital Trends. “They don’t have a broad view of home they could really benefit from in order to more effectively do whatever task it is that that individual connected device can do.”

The benefit of a mobile robot like the Roomba, he said, is that it requires a map of your house to function — something that gives your other devices a better idea of how they should be functioning.

Right now, in most cases, if you want to tie your smart bulbs to your motion detectors, it’s on you configure each one. The end result will mean you don’t have to flip the switch when you walk in and out of the room, but it’s lot of effort up front.

“The consumer won’t program their home to do that,” Jones said. “The average consumer is not going to spend the time to program the dozens and dozens of logical rules to allow the motion sensors to orchestrate lights within their home to give them that experience.”

But if your lights and motion sensors could use your robot vacuum’s map and understand how they’re related in terms of proximity, “that setup of that motion-activated lighting scenario can actually be very simple,” he said.

It’s just one example of how a mobile sensing device could improve smart-home products’ efficiency. Roving temperature sensors could give your thermostat a better idea of how every corner of each room is being heated or cooled. Even if you have individual sensors in your bedroom and living room, they’re still only monitoring a single spot. And iRobot isn’t the only company thinking about this: LG wants you to use its Hom-Bot vacuum as a security camera — and hackers want to use it to spy on you.

Roomba 980
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

There are a few technologies the Roomba 980 series takes advantage of to map your house. To keep track of wheel revolutions and how the robot moves, the vacuum has an odometer, gyroscope, and floor-tracking sensor, which Jones compares to an optical mouse that uses a light source and detector to detect movement. There’s also a smartphone-quality camera that perceives objects.

“Don’t imagine that the robot is recognizing your Ikea chair and using that as insight into where it is in the home today,” Jones said. “You can think of it kind of like celestial navigation, almost.” Your chair will register as a patch of pixels that then figure into a “constellation” of other objects’ pixels, and your Roomba understands its position based on their position to each other. Pick up the vac and put it on the other side of the chair, and it will use the new visual cues to determine its new location.

Right now, iRobot’s vacuums process their images onboard the robots. They aren’t sent to the cloud, and they are discarded once the bot is zeroed in on its position.

“It’s very important to note that of course we take our consumers’ privacy very seriously,” Jones said. “We have very explicitly designed the robot and the entire system with that in mind.”

There was some confusion last year when iRobot’s co-founder Colin Angle told Reuters about the vacuums’ maps and how they could be used in future smart homes; the company had to later clarify it never had plans to sell that information.

“It should be clear that we do not sell customer data. That’s not our business, not how we make money,” Jones said. While he thinks there are potential benefits to your Nest or Hue products having the map, it would be up to the user whether or not they want to opt in.

Of course, we’re very used to granting apps permissions, without necessarily realizing the repercussions of, say, Google tracking your every move. On the one hand, there’s the convenience of the automated home. On the other, there’s the icky idea of six, seven, 15 companies knowing you sat on the couch all afternoon, binge-watching The Golden Girls because they’re all sharing your motion-sensor and other data.

Product Review

Gate’s Smart Lock is locked and loaded but ultimately lacks important basics

In a world of video cameras and doorbells comes the Gate Smart Lock, a lock with a video camera embedded. It’s a great idea, but lacks some crucial functionality to make it a top-notch product.

Delete tracking cookies from your system by following these quick steps

Cookies are useful when it comes to saving your login credentials and other data, but they can also be used by advertisers to track your browsing habits across multiple sites. Here's how to clear cookies in the major browsers.

Amazon drops prices on Roomba robot vacuums by up to $150

Amazon is offering discounts on iRobot Roombas and other robot vacuums to help you get a leg-up on those chores. We've rounded up the best deals available now and put them all in one place.

Need a robot vacuum? Amazon is slashing prices on iRobot Roomba alternatives

A robot vacuum is a great smart home device that helps keep your home tidy and avoid some housework. Amazon is discounting the Eufy Robovac 11S and Eufy Robovac 11+. A self-cleaning home is the future and now you can be a part of it. 
Emerging Tech

Scribit graffiti robot climbs your walls to draw (and erase) giant artwork

Scribit, the wall-crawling graffiti robot that can draw any image you can think of onto a vertical surface of your choice, made its debut this week at CES 2019. Check it out in action.
Smart Home

The best multicookers of 2019 for everything from sauteing to slow cooking

Find the best multicookers for your cooking ambitions. Whether you are just getting started in the kitchen or you've been cooking for years and want a device to make it easier, these are the best smart pots for you to choose from.
Emerging Tech

CES 2019 recap: All the trends, products, and gadgets you missed

CES 2019 didn’t just give us a taste of the future, it offered a five-course meal. From 8K and Micro LED televisions to smart toilets, the show delivered with all the amazing gadgetry you could ask for. Here’s a look at all the big…
Smart Home

This Silicon Valley studio rents for $1,500 per month — to 2 cats

A man in San Jose, California, rents a studio apartment for $1,500 per month for a very important reason: So his daughter's two cats have a place to call their own. It may be the swankiest cat pad on the West Coast.
Smart Home

Speed up cooking with one of the best pressure cookers on the market

Not all pressure cookers are created equally. You have to choose between stovetop cookers, multicookers, canners, and even microwave cookers. Our pressure cooking buyer's guide includes our picks for the best in each category.
Smart Home

Brew it fast, hot, and flavorful with our favorite coffee makers

Whether you're looking for a simple coffee maker to get you through the morning or a high-end brewer that will impress your taste buds and your friends, you'll find some of the best coffee makers around on this list.
Smart Home

This just in: Alexa can now deliver the news like a professional newscaster

The Amazon Alexa team has given Alexa a newscaster voice that improves the way she delivers the news and reads Wikipedia articles, making the smart assistant easier to understand.
Product Review

Ring Video Doorbell 2 is the simplest entry into a smarter doorway

The Ring Video Doorbell 2 may lack the style and sophistication of premium door-dingers, but few can match its simplicity and versatility. The device, available in both wired and wireless configurations, is easy to set up and adds instant…
Smart Home

Ring security camera catches man licking the doorbell for hours

A family in Salinas, California had their Ring camera capture something pretty unexpected: a man licking the doorbell outside of their home for more than three hours. The incident took place around 5:00 a.m.
Smart Home

GHSP makes a (back)splash with its touchscreen concept kitchen

One of the coolest concept kitchens from CES 2019 came from GHSP. It created a backsplash entirely made of touchscreens. That means the control panel for your kitchen is accessible no matter where you are.