Turns out Roomba robo vacs have been sucking up more than dirt.
Roomba is everyone’s favorite little robo vacuum cleaner that shuffles around the house all on its own. What you might not know is that Roomba maker iRobot Corp has been mapping out rooms and collecting spatial mapping data since 2015. Now, the company is looking to sell that data to the highest bidder betting on the smart home: Amazon, Apple, or Google.
iRobot just made Roomba compatible with Amazon Echo in March, and that’s only the first step in the company’s strategy, explained Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, in an interview with Reuters. He emphasized that while smart home technology like lighting, thermostats and voice assistants are flooding the market, they still lack any kind of spatial awareness or data.
“There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.”
— Colin Angle, iRobot
“There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared,” says Angle.
Investors are on board. The iRobot stock hit $102 in June, up from only $35 a year ago, giving it a market value of nearly $2.5 billion on 2016 revenue of $660 million.
Angle says the company may look to share this data sometime in the “next couple of years.”
What could this mean for the smart home? With spatial data, whole-house audio systems could match home acoustics, HVAC systems could route airflow by room and smart lighting could adjust according to how close lighting fixtures are to the windows.
Besides taking advantage of the data for their respective smart speaker/personal assistants, Amazon, Google and Apple could use the data to recommend purchases for homeowners.
Spatial Mapping with SLAM
Roomba robo vacs, which range in price from $375 to $899, has about 88 percent of U.S. robo vacuum cleaner marketshare. It has a few up-and-coming competitors, but they’re focused on better cleaning, not spatial mapping.
Most “robovacs,” as they’re called, use short-range infrared or laser sensors to detect and avoid obstacles. But in 2015 iRobot added a camera, new sensors, and software to its 900-series Roomba that added the ability to map out a home — and keep track of its own location.
This is called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology, and it enables Roomba and competitors to avoid knocking down lamps, bruising couches and damaging end tables.
Roomba can also pause vacuuming, go to its dock to charge and then head back to the same spot to finish. Smart little buggers.
Consumers (and Competitors) Have Some Privacy Concerns
“You can control or stop the collection of usage data from your registered iRobot device, by disconnecting your Wi-Fi or Bluetooth from the app.”
Customers who opt out can still take advantage of some advanced features, such as controlling the robots via voice through Amazon’s Alexa. according to iRobot.
But some competitors still hopped on the bus of privacy concerns amidst the news that Angle could look to sell Roomba’s data. The truth is the data could be a significant window into the lives of Roomba customers. Is the house big or small? Is there a large room with no furniture; are the homeowners preparing to move? Is a lot of the furniture centered around the TV; how important is watching TV to this household? Are there house plants? Are there pets? The more you think about it, the more it seems that Roomba can detect just via spatial mapping.
“In the future … this information will enable the smart home and the devices within it to work better. If you wanted your home to understand which connected lights were in which rooms so your voice command device would work better, your Roomba would be able to provide that.”
— Colin Angle, iRobot
In a statement to PCMag, Angle said iRobot is “committed to the absolute privacy of our customer-related data, including data collected by our connected products. No data is sold to third parties. No data will be shared with third parties without the informed consent of our customers.”
Right now, he emphasized, Roomba is focused on spatial mapping in order to “enable the Roomba to efficiently and effectively clean your home.”
“In the future, with your permission, this information will enable the smart home and the devices within it to work better. For example, if you wanted your home to understand which connected lights were in which rooms so your voice command device would work better, your Roomba would be able to provide that. But to be clear, this is only if you opt in. It is still unclear what — if any — actual ‘partnerships’ would be needed to make that happen.”
“[We may share your personal information with] other parties in connection with any company transaction, such as a merger, sale of all or a portion of company assets or shares, reorganization, financing, change of control or acquisition of all or a portion of our business by another company or third party or in the event of bankruptcy or related or similar proceeding.”
So it’s possible, and Roomba doesn’t need to ask before it makes a deal (however, that doesn’t mean it won’t).
In the end, the popularity of smart assistants like Amazon Echo, Google Home and the soon-to-come Apple HomePod shows convenience trumps privacy every time, writes Gizmodo’s Rhett Jones. “Just remember that the Roomba knows what room your child is in, it’s the one where it bumps into all the toys on the floor.”
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