Playing with a Roomba

While I was cat sitting I spent time playing with a Roomba. Most people set the roomba, and let it clean. I don’t. I watch it and I observe how it works, how it goes from place to place and how it navigates, and gets trapped, and procrastinates in one corner or part of an apartment/studio. Roombas are glamourised but I think they are flawed.

Their flaw is that they start from their dock, back and go beep beep beep beep, then they rotate and they start cleaning. So far so good. The issue comes when they hit an object. They start from the top right of a room and they go diagonally to the other side of the room and they hit an object and they turn right.

How they turn right changes. Sometimes they turn right and start circling clockwise, and then counterclockwise. Other times they hit an object and go they go across to the other side of the room. Their programming sees them pass by the same corner dozens of times whilst ignoring other parts of the room.

Form and function from Objectified by Gary Hustwit

I tried using shoes and other objects to control how big an area they focus on. I tried a bathroom, a small kitchen and a living room. In each case they go over and over the same spot.

I think Roomba should have been programmed to do a search pattern instead. When you’re mowing the lawn as a pattern you start from one side of the garden and you go back and forth, turning 180 degrees when you get to the other side and do a line right next to where you’ve been. In so doing you cut the grass in a short amount of time.

If Roomba simplified the programming they would be more efficient. They would not need to learn the room, they would not need to be “smart”. They could clean a room of any size within minutes rather than tens of minutes.

The video above shows that smart vacuum cleaners take an artistic and inefficient approach to cleaning. They waste a lot of energy going over parts of the room they have already cleaned whilst missing some spots.

The brush at the front also has a habit of flinging dust and larger forms of dirt away from themselves and into a part that was just cleaned. As a result, they may spread some dirt. There should be a way of preventing this.

Due to their programming flaw, Roombas are more fun to play and experiment with than use as a replacement to manually vacuuming a room. A simple tweak in their software would make them more efficient. At the moment they behave like toddlers with a vacuum cleaner rather than teenagers with a lawnmower.

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