Saturday, September 11, 2010

Neato Robotics VP rips Roomba, kicks off robot vacuum war

Get ready for some serious geek vs. geek combat. A top Neato Robotics executive talked smack about the iRobot Roomba robot vacuum in a must-see but little-noticed lecture in April (link to video). Neato Vice President of Business Development Patrick De Neale, speaking at the renowned Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), focused on floor coverage, cleaning performance and convenience, and said the Roomba falls short vs. Neato's breakthrough product, the $399 XV-11 laser-guided vac, on all three.
The lecture included one cheap shot by using an ancient 2004 quote from the Wall Street Journal: "The only thing the latest robot vacuums can't do is clean." (iRobot Corporation (Nasdaq: IRBT) has drastically improved the Roomba since then.)
But the rest of the lecture was eye-opening for its surgical evisceration of the Roomba as an older, dumber technology that is, at its core, a glorified sweeper. The blind Roomba simply reacts to its environment based on bumping in to things and employing randomized algorithms. It has to make educated guesses about the size of the rooms, how long to clean, etc.
Neato is gunning for Roomba
Neato's XV-11, instead, better mimics the "mammalian brain" by using SLAM - Simultaneous Localization and Mapping - to plot its way around a room. The key for the whole project was Neato's development of a cheap laser guidance system, De Neale said. At the time Neato began development several years ago, the reference laser they used cost $2,000. They either had to cut the cost of the laser by a stunning two orders of magnitude, or scuttle the project. They pulled it off, building an IR laser rangefinder with a CMOS sensor that enabled triangulation for sensing objects, people, etc. The process wasn't easy. "It took a lot more development than we thought it would take," De Neale said.
But with the laser in hand, Neato had to develop software for high-level planning and location awareness for the robot, while keeping the processor load at a minimum to hold down costs. The XV-11 calculates a series of partial maps so that it doesn't stress the processor, rather than keeping your whole house in its head at the same time. Also, because the laser system is 2D, the XV-11 also has bump, cliff and other sensors to pick up what the laser can't see. And its mapping algorithm adjusts when people, pets or other objects move around.
In a vac-off with Roomba, the XV-11 vacuums an 8 by 12 foot room in about 10 minutes. A Roomba 560 takes 41 minutes.
That's important for several reasons. He emphasized that the more efficient cleaning wasn't just more convenient for users. It also enabled Neato to include a much more powerful vacuum. In the Neato, 80 percent of the battery life is devoted to powering the cleaning system and just 20 percent to moving the vacuum around. Since a Roomba has to take much longer to vacuum a room, "so much more of your power has to go toward driving it around."
He summed up the difference: "We're a robotic vacuum and not necessarily a vacuuming robot."
While he acknowledged that the Roomba has improved over time, he said that it "tends to be a sweeper primarily" with a small vacuum assisting for fine particles.
The Neato relies much more on its vacuum than its roller bar, and they don't include a brush bar. "The roll of the brush is different with a real vacuum," he said. That makes it much easier to clean than the Roomba, which requires owners to clean hair out of its brushes regularly. That cleaning takes away from the usefulness of the robot. "You want to make sure that your new technology isn't introducing more tasks that they didn't have to do before," De Neale said.
(He didn't note that the more powerful vac also allows decent cleaning in a single pass, and while the Roomba might pass over a particular area four times in a cycle, it might need to to clean it properly.)
Neato also addressed one potential weakness of Neato's technology - their lack of iRobot's patented Virtual Walls. Neato sells unsightly magnetic strips instead that block the vacuum from areas you don't want it to go, but he said Neato is working to tweak its robot so that the robot automatically knows where to go and not go without users being required to take action. "We really don't see this as a long term solution," he said.
Already, the Neato has been designed to recognize doorways, and finish cleaning one room before going to the next. (iRobot for a time had this capability when using "Lighthouse" Virtual Walls, but the company has since abandoned that technology).
Another key selling point for the XV-11: When it runs low on power, because it knows where it is and remembers where it's home base is, it simply goes back to the base to charge and can resume cleaning where it left off. (Ingenious).
The battery life doesn't last as long as a Roomba - about an hour and 20 minutes on hard floors vs. two hours. Neato lasts about 55 minutes on carpet. That sounds perfectly fine to me, given the mapping and the self-charging charging capabilities.
De Neale ended the talk with a focus on the grandmother of Neato employee No. 1, who lives in Moscow and loves her Neato. The Powerpoint slide talked about her as their most important customer. The drift was that if this ditsy lady -- who doesn't even know how to turn on a radio (really?) can operate the vacuum, they must be doing something right...
So far, iRobot executives seem to have avoided discussing the looming Neato threat. Care to riposte, CEO Colin Angle? Seems like this has the potential for Eric Schmidt vs. Steve Jobs-level animosity...


beambot said...

Hey Thorn,

I don't suppose you have a link to the "Virtual Walls" patent you reference?

thorn_stevens said...

Let me look it up. It's been a while...I've seen various virtual walls on robots in other countries, but not the U.S.

thorn_stevens said...

This iRobot patent incorporates virtual wall technology:

Looks like the original VW patent application dates to 2002. iRobot also has patented the Scooba chassis and a bunch of other things over the years, particularly on the military side of the business.