Friday, February 22, 2008

I Vacuum.

I got a pair of cleaning robots for Christmas: The iRobot Roomba 580 and the Scooba 380. They're the high-end variants of each model and after the last two months of pretty solid use, I must say, I'm pretty disappointed. I wasn't expecting the moon or anything, but the adventures I've had really don't justify the price.

The Roomba, for example, coming in at over $500, seems to have the dexterity and software complexity of robots I build back in high school with a TI-83. I'm not exaggerating. The vacuum turns on with this triumphant NES theme song, hums to life, and rockets away in search of a place to get stuck. It starts humping everything in sight, bashing into things, and wedging itself into nooks corners like some crazed hamster. It's suction power is such that any dirt that lies more than a femtometer beneath the surface of the carpet is well outside of the vacuume range. Hard floors work well, and large bits on the carpet surface are easily captured, but pet hair? HA!

You might as well try to clean up pet hair with hope. Now, assuming you have a room with almost nothing in it, and the dirt is fresh, the Roomba will get it. But if your house is the slightest bit lived-in, the vacuum will be utterly confounded by anything and everything you have. Bookbags, pets, shoes, magazines, carpets, chairs, bags, children, clothing, newspapers, wires, cords, and just about anything else you can think of will royally fuck with this robot's world.

Because of this, you cannot use the Roomba's most useful feather, namely, setting the timer to have it automatically clean at some set time. Because, if you should ever try this, you will be greeted every morning by your Roomba stuck in the ceiling fan. You would need to keep your house impeccably clean, just to make sure that the Roomba was able to clean it. And even then, it may decide that it just doesn't like your drapes and try to eat them. Or it will decide that it needs to be cleaned. Or it will just beep a lot and refuse to do anything because it has a cat stuck in its brush.

The Roomba 580, $500, does the same job as the basic Roomba 400, namely, a bad one. I expected very little from the basic Roomba which came free with the Scooba, and I got it. It does a decent job at cleaning up little messes. But for $500, I expected a lot more. I expected an LCD display to tell me things. I expected a vacuum which is able to suck more than just air. I expected a robot with enough sensors to adequately navigate an environment. I feel pretty confident that I could do a better job with a Lego Mindstorms kit, car battery, Hoover canister vac, and some RC car parts.

As it stands, I still vacuum once a day with the clunky Dyson. The Roomba, in all its technical glory, vacuums the tile floor in the kitchen. Which is then followed by the bigger disappointment, the Scooba. Also ringing in at $500, the Scooba does a fantastic job of getting everything very wet and then running out of battery. I won't deny that the water it sucks up is dirty, but the floor never looks any cleaner. It takes the dirty floor and makes the dirt shiny. And do you remember, when you were a kid, those battery powered cars (mine was a fire truck) that just drove in a straight line until it hit something, backed up, and went in another direction? They usually had that set of rotating wheels on the bottom. Well, the Scooba is one of those with a wet-vac attached. For $500. For $500 I could buy a Mexican to spray detergent everywhere and then suck it off the floor. It has no sensors, no advanced programming designed to develop a map of its environment, no interface with which to program it. Nothing. It just crashes around and gets stuck under the dish washer.

All of this seems created for people that have fake messes. You know those Swiffer mops and brooms. Yeah, for those messes. They're made for messes that people don't actually make. Like that puddle of grape juice on the otherwise glazen floor. Or those small plastic pellets that people in vacuum commercials always seem to be spilling. And they're always cleaned up by the mother who seems to be a state of bemused resignation that her children, husband, and pets are all retarded slobs. But, through the aid of these amazing products, she keeps the house so clean you could perform open heart surgery on the couch! These are not products for people who have actual messes. Mud tracked into the house? Get down on your knees and scrub. Pet hair? Get out the Hoover. An otherwise coruscating house and you want to pretend that you need stuff cleaned? IRobot has the answer!

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