market robots, these devices more resemble flying saucers than androids. Like Rosey, however, they are intended to revolutionize the mundane world of housecleaning.
Roomba, introduced in 2002, is a vacuuming robot that has sold over two million units worldwide. Scooba, introduced in late 2005, is the first floor-washing robot available for home use. Both brands have sprung from iRobot, the same company that supplies bomb-sniffing robots to the US military.
iRobot itself has an interesting background. The company's co-founders, Rodney Brooks, Colin Angle, and Helen Greiner, worked at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab where, in the late 1980s, the a batch of pretty cool robots were being developed. The three decided to commercialize the technology and launched iRobot in 1990.
In its first decade, iRobot concentrated on non-consumer applications, such as a robot developed for extraterrestrial exploration, and the PackBot, whose military usage has skyrocketed in this latest era of terrorism. The PackBot's primary role is to detect roadside bombs and booby traps in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. In late January 2007, iRobot won a US Navy contract—worth over US$ 16 million—for more than 100 PackBots.
In September 2002, iRobot took a bold step and entered the consumer market with Roomba, a brand that is widely regarded as the first practical and affordable home robot. (Sorry, Rosey.)
Bringing a brand like Roomba to market was no small challenge. Supposedly the brand name was derived from Roomba's circular motion, playing on the word "rumba," a dance style. The product design itself is eye-catching, and the device can be mesmerizing to watch. It is disc-shaped, about 13 inches in diameter, weighs about five pounds, and moves around in circles, something like a whirling dervish. It detects objects by gently bumping into them and then cleans around them. Needless to say, it is smaller and lighter than and looks nothing like a conventional vacuum cleaner.
That was part of the problem. How could you convince a consumer who never even heard of robotics that the odd little Roomba was the best thing since—well, if not sliced bread, then a bread-slicing "robot"? The company decided it wasn't just any consumer who would be intrigued by Roomba. The initial marketing strategy called for targeting the product to early technology adopters, so the company chose upscale distributors such as The Sharper Image and Brookstone.
Later, Roomba was featured in a 28-minute infomercial on television—a technique not without risk, given the product's $199.99 price tag. Typically, infomercials achieve their most success at price points below $30. But the Roomba infomercial reportedly generated sales of 4,000 units in two days and set historical sales records at Home Shopping Network. That led to a full retail rollout, along with a plan to penetrate international markets. Roomba made numerous "best product" lists, receiving accolades from BusinessWeek and Time, among others. In two years, Roomba sales surpassed one million units.
With that kind of success, a line extension was inevitable, so nowadays, you can purchase a Roomba in a variety of models, including a "Scheduler" that automatically cleans based on a schedule you set. No longer restricted to technology wonks, Roomba is now widely available, even on Amazon and eBay.
Roomba's competitors in the automated vacuum cleaner category are few and far between. The most serious direct competitor is Koolvac, developed by an iRobot distributor and sold at a similar price point. But due to a lawsuit won by iRobot, Koolvac is no longer sold in the US. The only other truly robotic vacuum cleaner currently available to consumers is the high-end Electrolux Trilobite, which, at up to $1,700 or more, retails for as much as ten times Roomba's lowest priced model. (Here's why.)
iRobot followed up Roomba with Scooba (think "scrub" combined with "room"), a floor-washing robot that was introduced in time for the 2005 holiday season. Scooba duplicated Roomba's success, at least in terms of recognition: In 2005, it was named one of Time's "Most Amazing Inventions," and it won the International Consumer Electronic Showcase "Best of Innovations Design and Engineering" award in the Home Appliance category.
Scooba follows the same product-design strategy—it is circular in shape, similar to Roomba—but its functionality is decidedly different. Scooba's mission is to wash floors, and it does so with a special solution developed in partnership with Clorox. (Not a bad idea, by the way, to partner with a leading brand in the cleaning market.) Scooba's current price point could be an issue, however. It retails for about $300, a high price to pay when comparing Scooba with a mop and bucket. Nonetheless, the incredible convenience of a robotic floor-washer could win over a well-heeled consumer.
Around the time of Scooba's introduction, iRobot launched a major integrated marketing campaign called "I Love Robots." It featured both Roomba and Scooba, along with real customers talking about how much they love the products. The campaign included print, cable television, and outdoor advertising, as well as direct marketing.
In September 2006, iRobot introduced a specialized cleaning robot called Dirt Dog for cleaning garages, basements, and workbench areas. The device maintains the same round design as Roomba and Scooba, but Dirt Dog is designed for heavy duty, more like a robotic Shop-Vac than a traditional vacuum cleaner.
What robotic gadget iRobot will bring to the consumer market next is anybody's guess. It may not have anything to do with cleaning, but chances are it will be at least as unique as Roomba and Scooba. And who knows? It may even run around in circles.