Roomba With a View: iRobot Launches Webcam-Carrying Robot and $99 Gutter Cleaner

Recent headlines about Burlington, MA-based iRobot have all focused on the robot maker’s legal tangle with Robotic FX, which beat it out for a $279.9 million defense contract but is now in court defending against iRobot’s accusations of patent infringement and industrial espionage. Hearings in that case have been continued until Monday, when we’ll bring you the latest scoop.

But business rolls onward, and today at the Digital Life consumer technology exhibit in New York iRobot rolled out two new robots for the consumer market. One is a diminutive device for cleaning out dirt- and leaf-filled gutters called Looj. The other, ConnectR, resembles iRobot’s existing Roomba vacuum cleaners but is actually a novel “virtual visiting” robot—basically, a webcam on wheels that can be controlled via the Internet, allowing two-way voice and video conversations with people in a remote location.

iRobot ConnectR Robot Communes with FidoIn a statement, iRobot CEO Colin Angle said the new robots should dispel the notion that home robots are a dream for the distant future. “Today iRobot is delivering to customers practical home robots that are affordable, effective and easy-to-use,” Angle said. “The future is now – and everyone can and should have a robot in their home today.”

But not everyone can have a ConnectR—not yet, anyway. In effect, the company is recruiting families for a public beta trial through what it’s calling the ConnectR Pilot Program. The program’s Web page explains: “A few lucky participants will be given the opportunity in late 2007 to own a ConnectR for the special price of $199. In exchange for this offer, owners are asked to provide us with feedback including filling out surveys and participating in interviews about the experience of using the product in their home.” In 2008, when the ConnectR becomes more widely available, the starting price is expected to increase to “just under $500.” Meaning, presumably, $499.

For the ConnectR, iRobot has apparently modified the Roomba chassis to carry a tilt-and-zoom video camera, speaker, microphone, and headlight. It connects to a home Wi-Fi network and can be operated remotely by users who call in over the Internet, using their keyboard and mouse or a joystick to drive the device from room to room, using the live video feed as a guide. The device is targeted at people who would like to interact with family members, friends, or pets but can’t be physically present. “Participate in family moments even though you’re working late,” reads the company’s marketing pitch for the ConnectR. “On a business trip? Read your kids a story and see their faces light up. Tell Fido he’s a ‘good boy’ even while you’re on vacation.”

iRobot Looj Gutter Cleaning RobotLooj, meanwhile, has a much more prosaic purpose: Taking over the dirty and dangerous task of cleaning gutters. Only 2.5 inches wide, the device fits inside a gutter and propels itself along on tank-like treads. A spinning, three-stage auger flings out dirt and decomposing leaves. “The Looj cleans an entire stretch of gutter from one location, reducing the number of times a ladder must be repositioned and climbed during gutter cleaning,” the company said.

For homeowners who want clean gutters before the winter of 2007-2008 strikes, the $99 device is available immediately at the companys’ website. It will be distributed by “select retailers” starting sometime in the fourth quarter, the company said.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Roomba With a View: iRobot Launches Webcam-Carrying Robot and $99 Gutter Cleaner”

  1. ConnectR can be used to play a game of Dodge the Robot before bed, with Gramma at the controls in another city, laughing at the kids antics and cheering them on!