by Katy Barron
02 . 1 6 . 05
Oooh, Roomba! It came, it cleaned, it ate my throw rug I’M USUALLY AGAINST extraneous household appliances, but my love of convenience sometimes takes over. This was the case when Santa brought me iRobot’s Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner: I was intrigued by the timesaving possibilities but, deep within my subcortex, my “Superfluous Junk!” alarm was blinking red and spinning violently. For the uninitiated, the Roomba is similar to those remote-control vacuums that clean the bottoms of backyard pools. You push a button and it begins a slow spiraling sweep across the floor, sucking up dirt along the way. In most models, when it’s done vacuuming it docks itself back on its charger. iRobot has sold more than 1 million of the robotic vacuums, far exceeding the company’s expectations and proving once again just how lazy we can be. Having a Roomba is kind of like having your own personal Mars Rover. But unlike pools and Mars, our homes contain Roomba obstacles such as chairs and rugs and dogs.
It made for pure holiday fun. I charged the Roomba up on Christmas Day and sent it on its first test run before dinner. Although the whole point of the robot is to free you up to attend to other things, my family was mesmerized by the little miracle of modern technology. “Look! It’s stuck in the corner!,” we yelled gleefully. “Ha! How will it get out of this one?” (It always managed to wriggle its way out of tight spots.) The Roomba made us spot dirt on the floor we never would have seen otherwise. We watched intently to see whether it would spot the specks, too.
We shouted “Yes!” and high-fived when an errant crumb was discovered. And, while counterproductive, a few times we even helped it out by sprinkling crumbs in its path. After dinner, Roomba picked up everything from the floor except the mashed potato droppings — too sticky. This initial experiment took place at my sister-in-law’s spotless house. The real test would be back at my house where dirt, dust and dog hair are a part of daily life. Was the Roomba up for the challenge? I set it up in the kitchen. It immediately went under the stove and got trapped there by the garbage can. But after a few minutes, it found its way out. “This thing is clever!,” I exclaimed out loud to my dog, who was cowering in the corner. Roomba began picking up tracked-in leaves and dog hair on the linoleum floor with ease and even sucked up a rubber band. But it kept getting stuck under the stove. It was like watching someone bang his head against a wall. Maybe it wasn’t so clever after all.
Despite my best efforts to keep it restricted to the kitchen, Roomba busted through a closed swinging door and roved on into the living room. It was all downhill from there. The living room rug is bordered with fringe. The Roomba was clearly stuck, wheezing and gasping and spinning its wheels. Then it just died. I flipped it over to discover it was like a sea turtle trapped in netting. I had to use a kitchen knife to cut it loose from the gnarled fringe. The Roomba has since recovered, but I now spend five minutes prepping the room and barricading the doors before I set it loose. So is it worth it? Under certain circumstances, yes. As my brother pointed out, it’s great if you are unloading groceries and spill a bag of flour on the floor. Or in relatively obstacle-free rooms with fringe-less carpet (prison cells?). And it appeals to niche segments of the population: It’s extremely useful to people who have physical limitations that make upright vacuums difficult to push. People who read Invention and Technology magazine religiously, people who are obsessive about cleaning and those who enjoy tormenting their household pet might also like it. Besides, it’s like a little friend to keep you company while you wash dishes. ◗
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