iRobot Launches Beta Program to Test Smarter Home Features for Roombas

If you have a 900 series Roomba, you might be able to test out some fancy new tricks

A photo of the Roomba 980 on a carpeted floor.
Photo: iRobot
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Robots like the 900 series Roomba, which have the ability to make detailed maps of your home while they do chores, are poised to become much more useful than they've ever been. These maps are in the process of enabling all kinds of new features, most of which we can only guess at, but iRobot will be giving us a peek at what they're working on with a late Christmas present: a new beta program for Roombas.

In a next step to make the smart home smarter, iRobot today announced a new Beta feature that allows customers to view a Wi-Fi Coverage Map created by Roomba. The Wi-Fi Coverage Map feature is the first to be available as part of iRobot Beta, a program that enables a limited number of iRobot customers to trial unreleased product features for the company’s consumer robots. iRobot Beta is accessed through the iRobot HOME App and will be available in mid-January (US only).

WiFi Map

Wi-Fi Coverage Mapping is a Beta feature that enables Roomba 900 Series vacuums to detect WiFi signal strength throughout a user’s home to highlight areas that may have poor connectivity. Users can then work to determine ways to fix Wi-Fi issues, resulting in an improved customer experience when using connected devices within the home. Users simply start a Roomba cleaning job, and the robot will collect Wi-Fi signal information as it cleans. Upon completion, users will receive a notification to view the Wi-Fi Coverage Map that was generated. The user will be able to toggle between the familiar Clean Map™ Report, which shows where Roomba cleaned, and the Wi-Fi Coverage Map.

The bad news is that you can only join the beta program if you have a 900 series Roomba, and the really bad news is that even if you have a 900 series Roomba, you have to apply to the program, and at least initially, "the program will have limited availability and not all users who request access will be accepted." 

I'll be honest, I don't really care all that much about a Wi-Fi coverage map of my house. It's not a particularly impressive thing for a robot to be able to do, since it's already moving around your entire floor while connected to Wi-Fi all the time. It may not be as meaningful as you might hope, either, since it's tracking the Wi-Fi signal at floor level and under furniture, which are not the places most people tend to use their Wi-Fi devices.

I do, however, really care about iRobot's beta program. I think it's a fantastic idea. Or at least, it has the potential to be a fantastic idea, depending on what they end up doing with it. We asked, of course, and Gary Hall, senior director of digital product management at iRobot, was only able to give us this statement: "I can’t get into details on additional services in the works, but they would be similar in nature: services that help users keep their home as smart as it is clean."

Since Gary won't tell us what we have to look forward to, we're happy to do some speculating about what might show up in iRobot's beta program, or more generally, what we expect to see from iRobot in the near future.

Persistent Actionable Maps— Many of the features we expect to see from iRobot start here, with the robot remembering the layout of your home between cleaning sessions. We expect to see this quite soon, since iRobot already has all the pieces in place, and Neato will be deploying it with the new D7

Room Segmentation— iRobot is definitely working on turning bare floor plans of your home into recognizable rooms, but they'll need user feedback to figure out how well it's working, and what kind of segmentation people prefer.

Room Identification— Once rooms are segmented, one option would be for you to label them all by hand, but we're guessing that it's actually very easy for iRobot to correlate obstacles and furniture patterns with common room types, and automatic room identification would be a useful thing to beta test.

Clean Dirty Areas— Roomba can detect areas with more dirt than normal, and has been able to do this for a long time. It would be useful if you could just have the robot clean the places that get dirty frequently, rather than under the couch every single time.

Tricky Spot Mapping— As long as I keep my floors mostly tidy, I've had pretty good luck with my Roombas not needing supervision. For many people, however, there are certain places where their Roombas tend to get stuck. The robots can tell when this happens, there just isn't a lot they can do about it, but being able to show you where this happens might be helpful.

My House Does Not Have Bottomless Pits— My Roomba still cannot tell the difference between black carpet and falling into a void. This is dumb. I should be able to delineate safe areas on a map where my Roomba can ignore its cliff sensors, so that I can take the tinfoil and tape off of its cliff sensors and actually use them again. Sheesh.

Smart Device Localization— This is one we've heard Colin Angle, a cofounder of iRobot, mention before: the idea that your Roomba will be an information organizer for the smart home. A simple example of something we might see in the beta program is using Roomba as a lighting identifier, by giving it access to your wireless lighting controls, and then letting it wander around while randomly turning lights on and off. You might not need this for yourself, but for someone without a lot of familiarity with tech, it could allow them to just screw in a smart light bulb and let the Roomba take over, rather than having to program anything.

Telepresence and Security— A little more fanciful, perhaps, but the 900 series Roombas are mobile cameras, and I can think of a lot of ways of using a mobile camera in my home besides vacuum localization, especially when I'm not around. But, there are lots of potential privacy issues here that iRobot may not want to mess with.

Temperature and Humidity Mapping— This is also fanciful, mostly because I don't know if the 900 series Roombas have thermometers or humidity sensors on them. I wouldn't be surprised if they did (because the sensors are supercheap), but I can't think of a specific reason why they necessarily would. Anyway, it would be great if your Roomba could make temperature and humidity maps (just like the Wi-Fi map) to help you calibrate a centralized thermostat, allowing you to set the temperature of specific rooms.

Just to be clear, we don’t know any more than you do about what’s next for the Roomba beta program. All of the above is just a guess, and we’d be more than happy to be surprised.

[ iRobot ]

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