Why iRobot’s Colin Angle thinks the smart home starts with a robot vacuum

Robots — and the smart home in general — are a hot topic, and it’s one where an enormous amount of investment is happening right now. There are many companies like Nest and Ring that are trying to target segments of the home in the hopes of making everything smarter.

But it’s easy to forget that the home is still a physical space, and in order for everything to work together, it has to understand what that looks like. And iRobot, the makers of a robot vacuum cleaner, have been trying to crack that problem for more than 20 years. Until robots can figure that out, and talk to each other, it’s going to be an uphill battle to build a truly smart home, iRobot CEO Colin Angle said at TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing 2016.

“In the virtual world, it’s very easy to understand everything about the environment because it’s inside the computer,” Angle said. “If you have a simulated room you’re inside the computer. You know precisely where things are. In the robot industry, we almost dislike simulations because they are doomed to succeed. The challenge of robotics and AI for robotics isn’t so much the AI — that’s actually easy. It’s understanding what’s going on. There’s been AI systems for the last 20 years that could understand the sentence, ‘please go to the kitchen and get me a drink.’ But if you don’t know where the kitchen is, that doesn’t help you.”

Since divesting its military division, iRobot has focused on figuring out what the physical home looks like, using a robot vacuum cleaner to figure that out how those rooms are structured. In order to build a home that’s going to have a series of devices that work in harmony — especially for the aging population, where that’s going to be increasingly important, Angle said — it’s going to have a series of devices that understand both the digital and physical aspects of the home. Because they’ve focused simply on a vacuum cleaner, and narrowed its focus, Angle argues that they have a better sense of what the home looks like internally.

The promise of having robots and devices running your home runs back decades, whether that’s old sci-fi movies or cartoons like The Jetsons. iRobot itself is more than 20 years old, started by a moment of inspiration from those things. In a past life, iRobot wasn’t just the maker of a robot vacuum cleaner. “We were going to build micro-rovers to explore other planets, funded by selling the movie rights to hollywood,” Angle said.

iRobot, which went public in 2005, has fashioned itself into a company worth more than $1 billion. By startup standards, that might seem like a unicorn on the softer side, with huge hardware companies like Xiaomi and others trying to build massive hardware businesses. Then again, iRobot sells a $700 vacuum cleaner, and its stock has continued to march up over time.

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Of course, there are a lot of devices that are trying to connect the home — and trying to get different devices to talk to each other. The Amazon Echo, and now Google Home, are trying to build an interface for a home in addition to some smaller companies. That’s all fine and good, but when your home is going to be loaded up with dozens or maybe hundreds of devices, they eventually have to figure out how to work on their own and have a fuller understanding of the actual profile of your home.

And there are plenty of companies trying to build the raw basic robots that are also tackling the problem of how to deal with the physical world. The most obvious one would be Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot that’ll slip around on ice while still trying to stay standing. That technology — understanding the physical world around it — is going to be at the core of building a system of effective robots that’ll bring us the promise of the early sci-fi movies. For iRobot, that’s about starting off with a narrow product, like a robot vacuum, and going from there.

“The home of the future is a robot,” Angle said. “And the vacuum cleaners and the other devices are hands and eyes and appendages of the home robot. Ultimately, this smart home of the future isn’t controlled by you cell phone. If you have 200 devices, you’re not going to turn them on by pulling out your cell phone. We need a home that programs itself, and you just live in your home, and the home does the right thing based on understanding what’s going on.”