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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 2

Product Evaluation

Dancing the Roomba: Artificial Intelligence That Sweeps the Floor

A mainstream manufacturer that makes an earnest effort to ensure that its products are accessible to people with disabilities always gets my attention. iRobot Corporation has not only made that effort, but has produced a product with genuine mass appeal as well. The Roomba Robotic Floorvac offers a stress-free, hands-off solution to cleaning floors: You set the Roomba in the middle of a room, turn it on, and then take a nap or read a book, or (as I did) sit on the couch and laugh out loud at the antics of the little critter as it works. Reminiscent of a little flying saucer, the Roomba is about 3 inches tall and 12 inches in diameter--and, like the robots of science fiction, truly seems to have a personality!

Photo of the Roomba clearing a clean swath in a muddy carpet.

Caption: The Roomba.

A Tour of the Roomba

The Roomba is a robotic sweeper that cleans floors while unattended, thus allowing you to do something else. From the top, the Roomba has a fairly flat, circular surface. The only items found on the top surface are a lift-up carrying handle (which lies flush with the top when not in use) and three distinctly separate rubber buttons. Around the outer rim of the device are a power button, a battery indicator light, and a jack for connecting the AC adapter. Next to the adapter jack is the Roomba's dirt tray, to be emptied after each use of the machine. The bottom of the Roomba contains an assortment of large and small brushes and the large battery pack that, when inserted, is flush with the bottom surface.

Run, Roomba, Run!

The simple explanation for operating the Roomba is that you set it in the center of a room; press the power button; select one of the three buttons on top for a small, medium, or large room (based on a range of measurements given in the manual)--and get out of the way. The Roomba initially spirals in what seems to be a random pattern, skittering off in one direction until it bumps a wall. At the wall, it may cruise up and down the wall for a while, sweeping as it goes, or begin zigzagging about the room, moving under and around furniture collecting dust and pet hair and dirt as it goes. Sensors prevent the Roomba from tumbling down stairs. The first time the Roomba cleans a particular room, supervision is recommended. After that, you can turn it on and leave.

The first time the Roomba "works a room" can be pretty entertaining. In my family room, for example, the Roomba began in the center of the room on wood flooring. It spiraled in an outward direction for a while, toddled over to the south wall, bumped into it a couple of times, and then moseyed down the wall. After a bit, it zipped out into the center for a while, moved up onto the carpet, swept there for a while, and then went back down onto the wood. At the north boundary of the room, it motored perilously close to the single deep step, but never teetered at that edge.

It is something like watching a toddler or a puppy encountering a room for the first time--both amazing and amusing to see the intelligence at work. After the novelty and entertainment value settle, however, this new "pet" truly can be left alone to do its job.

Roomba Proofing the Room

The robot's intelligence is artificial intelligence, after all, which means that we humans are still smarter. As with a young child or pet, taking certain precautions enables a session to go more smoothly. Before you put the Roomba to work, you need to pick up all stray objects on the floor--loose cables, stray socks, last night's magazine--and, for the best results, move small pieces of furniture that may complicate its navigation. Objects that could be easily toppled--a small houseplant, for example--should be moved from the Roomba's path. The manufacturer recommends the appliance for hard surfaces--wood, tile, linoleum, and low carpets--and advises that it not be used for deep pile or shag carpeting. I found that in one room, the Roomba moved without difficulty from wood to a medium-pile carpet and back again, while in another, it could not move from wood to a low carpet with fringe. Although the manufacturer suggests that such problems can be remedied by turning fringe under, the Roomba was not able to make the "leap" from the wood floor to the carpet once the edge was rolled under and thus thickened. A good solution to this situation was to place the virtual wall unit at the edge of the problematic carpet, allowing the Roomba to sweep all the room except the area where it could encounter trouble. The virtual wall unit is a small box that sends an infrared beam that the Roomba translates as a barrier. To operate it, you simply turn it on, select the length of "wall" you wish to create from three options (defined in the manual), and aim the unit's eye in the desired direction.

Accessibility Features

Accessibility features are built in--for example, the power switch beeps when the Roomba is turned on, and when you select a room size, the machine plays a short musical sequence before it goes to work. The robot is fairly noisy while it is operating, although not as loud as most upright vacuum cleaners, rendering conversation in the same room manageable. (For a person who is blind, the machine's noise is actually something of an advantage, since it makes it easy to follow the Roomba's movements by sound.) If the Roomba gets hung up on, say, a sock that was left in the corner or the fringe of a rug, it makes some sputtering noises and shuts itself off. When it has completed a room, it plays a musical sequence as it shuts itself off and then emits intermittent beeps for about five minutes. Again, for a blind person, these beeps are useful in locating where the Roomba has stopped when it has finished the job.

Although the Roomba itself is equipped with ample audio cues to make it accessible to a user who is blind or has low vision, the virtual wall unit is not. The unit makes no sound when it is powered on or off, so it is difficult for someone without light perception to detect whether it is on or off.

The original Roomba is silver, the Roomba Pro is slate blue, and the Roomba Pro Elite is merlot red. With each model, the buttons for room size--S, M, and L--light up and are easily seen by a person with low vision.

 Photo of a dog lying in front of a couch while Roomba sweeps the rug, covered with paw prints, nearby.

Caption: Roomba may be just the thing for those messy paw prints.

The unit does require regular maintenance, which will be manageable for most people who are blind or have low vision, but only after some practice. After every 10 uses (5 in households with pets or long hair), the unit needs to be cleaned. Removing the dirt tray or "particle bin" after every use is simple; just press down and slide it out, shake the dirt into the trash, and slide it back in. Cleaning out the filter chamber is almost as easy--just a matter of snapping open a door and clearing out the debris within. Removing the brushes for cleaning, however, is somewhat daunting. A deeply recessed small screw must be loosened with a small Phillips-head screwdriver, and a few pieces removed, cleaned, and reinserted. It is not simple, but it can definitely be done without sight. If it is done routinely as directed, this maintenance process will become simpler with practice.

Learning how to maintain the unit, however (or operate it for that matter) is all detailed in a print-only user's guide. The company plans to release all documentation on an audio CD, but the CD was not available at this writing.

What It Does and What It Doesn't

Roomba cleans floors of all types (except deep pile and shag carpeting). Its short stature enables it to go under beds and other furniture and into corners, where traditional vacuums typically have difficulty. Its wall-hugging capability does an excellent job of sweeping along baseboards and into corners. Empty the Roomba's removable dirt tray after each use, and it is readily apparent that the machine has done some work. It does not deep clean, however, as an upright heavy-duty vacuum can, so should not necessarily be seen as a complete substitute for the traditional vacuum cleaner. In a home with pets, children, or a lot of traffic, cleaning periodically with a more powerful vacuum, with daily Roomba cleanings in between, may net the best results. On the other hand, an environment with little traffic may well be maintained by the Roomba alone.

The Bottom Line

The Roomba is completely operable by a person who is blind or has low vision with a little adaptation. The built-in audio cues provide all necessary information, with the exception of the remaining battery life. Typically, however, the battery lasts for two to three medium-sized rooms. Cleaning one room takes from about 20 to 45 minutes. The virtual wall unit has no audible cue to indicate whether it is on or off, which could result in unnecessarily running down batteries or, worse, not blocking the Roomba from a designated area as desired. The maintenance required will take some time to learn but can be performed by a person without sight. Taking all the pros and cons into consideration, the Roomba is an accessible, user-friendly device that performs the task it promises and is great entertainment in the bargain.

Product Information

Product: Roomba Robotic Floorvac

Manufacturer: iRobot Corporation, 63 South Avenue; Burlington, MA 01803; web site: <www.roombavac.com>.

Price: The original Roomba, in silver, with one virtual wall unit: $229. The Roomba Pro, in slate blue, with two virtual wall units and a remote control: $229. The Roomba Pro Elite, in merlot red, with two virtual wall units and a remote control: $249.

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Copyright © 2004 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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