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.
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.
Great article, John.
From the article: "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."
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