When I spoke to Colin Angle of iRobot earlier this summer, he said that iRobot OS – the latest software operating system for his robot vacuums and mops – will give his home robots a deeper understanding of your home. and your habits. It takes on a whole new meaning with today’s news that Amazon has bought iRobot for $1.7 billion.
From a smart home perspective, it seems clear that Amazon wants iRobot for the maps it generates to give it that deep understanding of our homes. The vacuum company has detailed knowledge of our floor plans and more importantly how they change. It knows where your kitchen is, what your kids’ bedrooms are, where your couch is (and how new it is), and if you’ve recently turned the guest room into a kid’s room.
This type of data is digital gold for a business whose main purpose is to sell you more stuff. While I’m interested to see how Amazon can leverage iRobot’s technology to enhance its smart home ambitions, many are right to be concerned about the privacy implications. People want home automation to work better, but they don’t want to give up the intimate details of their lives for convenience.
It’s an enigma in the tech world, but with us it’s much more personal. Amazon’s history of sharing data with law enforcement through its Ring subsidiary, combined with its “always on (for the wake word)” Echo smart speakers and now its deep knowledge of your floor plan, give it a pretty complete picture of your daily life.
Each of iRobot’s connected Roomba vacuums and mops walks around homes several times a week, mapping and remapping spaces. On its latest model, the j7, iRobot has added an AI-powered front-facing camera that Angle says has detected more than 43 million objects in homes. Other models have a low resolution camera that points to the ceiling for navigation.
All of this makes it likely that this purchase is not about robotics; if that’s what Amazon wanted, it would have bought iRobot years ago. Instead, he’s probably taken over the business (for a bargain – iRobot just reported a 30% drop in revenue amid growing competition) to get an in-depth look at our homes. Why? Because knowing your floor plan provides context. And in the smart home where Amazon plays a major role, context is king.
“We truly believe in ambient intelligence – an environment where your devices are woven together by AI so they can deliver far more than any device could on its own,” I said. said Marja Koopmans, director of Alexa smart home, in an interview last month. Ambient intelligence requires multiple data points to operate. With detailed maps of our homes and the ability to communicate directly with more smart home devices once Matter arrives, Amazon’s vision of ambient intelligence in the smart home suddenly becomes much more accessible.
Astro – Amazon’s “adorable” house bot – was probably an attempt to obtain this data. The robot has good mapping capabilities, powered by sensors and cameras that let it know everything from the location of the fridge to the room you’re currently in. Obviously, Amazon already had the capability to do what iRobot does. But for a thousand bucks and with limited capabilities (it couldn’t vacuum your house) and no general release date, Astro won’t be getting that info for Amazon anytime soon.
Ring’s Always Home Camera has similar mapping capabilities, allowing the flying camera to safely navigate your home. This product has a broader scope than Astro, as it only costs $250 and has a very clear focus on security. But it is still not available for purchase.
So what iRobot brings to Amazon is context at scale. As Angle told me in May, “The barrier to the next level of AI in robotics isn’t better AI. That’s the context,” says Angle. “We’ve been able to understand the statement ‘go to the kitchen and get me a beer’ for a decade. But if I don’t know where the kitchen is, and I don’t know where the refrigerator is, and I don’t know what a beer tastes like, it doesn’t matter that I understand your words. iRobot OS provides some of that context and, because it’s cloud-based, can easily share information with other devices. (Currently, users can turn off Roomba’s Smart Maps feature, which stores map data and shares it between iRobot devices.)
With context, the smart home becomes smarter; devices can work better and work together without the owner having to program or prompt them. Angle used the example of a connected air purifier (iRobot, so now Amazon, has Aeris air purifiers). The air purifier could automatically know which room it was in by using the iRobot OS cloud. “It would be [know] ‘I’m in the kitchen. It’s normal to make more noise. And there are many sources of pollutants here. Compared to her role in a bedroom, it would be different,” says Angle.
Amazon now has four smart home brands (in addition to its Alexa platform, anchored by its Echo smart speakers and smart displays): home security company Ring, budget camera company Blink, and Wi-Fi pioneers. -Eero Mesh Fi. Add iRobot and Amazon has many of the elements needed to create an almost sentient smart home that can anticipate what you want it to do and do it without you asking. This is something Amazon has already started doing with its Hunches feature.
But consumer confidence is a major obstacle. Amazon will have to do a lot more to prove itself worthy of this kind of unfettered access to your home. Today, for many people, more convenience is simply not worth it.
Photography by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy/The Verge