Update (Jan 7, 2010): Added hands-on video from CES.
Out of nowhere last week, a very quiet Silicon Valley startup called Neato Robotics announced the official release of the XV-11, a robotic vacuum cleaner. Priced at $399 and officially for sale in February, the XV-11 is clearly positioned to bite off a chunk of the iRobot Roomba's marketshare.
I'm kind of kicking myself right now for not having paid more attention to these guys before. While researching Willow Garage a year or two ago, I came across Neato because of some overlap in the original technical contributors. However, their website, though it said they were working on home robots, gave no indication that they were on a serious commercial path any time in the near future. Now with a press release, fleshed out leadership team, and brand new website, Neato has come out with guns blazing. Color me pleasantly surprised.
Their leadership team includes a CEO who previously led mobile navigation development at Agilent, among other technologists and engineers with backgrounds that do include robotics. Some of the original team I had come across -- though it's unclear how many still remain -- had come out of the Stanford AI lab, which also spawned Willow Garage.
The oddly shaped XV-11 supposedly does better with corners than "traditional round robots", by which I wonder if they mean the Roomba
The biggest difference between the XV-11 and the Roomba is that the XV-11 actually maps the room it's cleaning using SLAM. Roomba, which uses something of a random walk algorithm for coverage, is very different (and this is often the biggest cause of confusion in users who wonder why Roomba keeps going over one spot but ignores others). To achieve accurate SLAM, XV-11 has an onboard laser rangefinder to build a map of its surroundings. This, by the way, is a big deal for hobbyists who will be looking for cheap navigation solutions.
How will it end up comparing? That remains to be seen; there are lots of questions about battery life, quality of the vacuum and sweeping system, and usability that have to be tried out. Hopefully we'll be able to give it a shot when it becomes available early next year. In the meantime, I'm excited to see how the first American-designed competitor to the Roomba pans out.