As anybody will tell you, I like a good gadget as much as the next guy. In fact, if it has anything to do with audio or video, fuggeddabouddit, I don’t care what it costs, it’s getting adopted, and it’s getting adopted early. Sure, two years after I drop $2780.00 on the flagship first offering, you’ll be able to get one in Canadian Tire for 50 bucks. I don’t care. Look, it’s a public service, take away the early adopters like me and the mass-produced consumer model never follows. You’re welcome.
So I’ve bought some boxes with flashing lights in my time, yes I have. They used to have my picture taped to the cash register at Bay-Bloor Audio in Toronto: If this man enters, no squabbling – commissioned sales staff shall draw lots for the right to serve him. Actually, I had a favourite sales guy there, named Jeff; Jeff loved me, because I never haggled, and I never hesitated. I never even asked for advice or recommendations. I did my research beforehand. I knew what I wanted. I knew what it cost. MSRP would be fine, thanks. The only question was whether he had it. I marched in one time, pointed at the latest New Thing and said, simply, “I gotta buy this”. “I gotta sell it to you” said Jeff with a slight shrug, not missing a beat.
Still, rarely, some novel gizmo seems a little, I dunno, improbable. With those, even if they sit within my beloved audio/video wheel house, I wait and see. 3D television, for example. It sounded good, but you had to wear these special glasses, bulky and expensive, which I read had LCD apertures over each lens that opened and shut in sequence thousands of times a minute, thus creating the illusion of depth perception. It was like having a pair of venetian blinds, one opening over the left eye, then one opening over the right, with the TV showing each eye a view from a different perspective, the two sides synchronized and operating at a pace rapid enough to exploit the neurological phenomenon known as the persistence of vision. They called them “active shutter” goggles. Huh. The whole set-up gave me pause. You’ve got this thing oscillating on your face at the rate of a hummingbird’s wing flaps? Really? That works?
Well, it turned out that yeah, it works, it’s just that sometimes, OK, a lot of the time, it induces nausea and dizziness, and you shouldn’t watch for too long, and you shouldn’t climb or descend stairs for a while after viewing, etc.
There were other approaches, like passive polarization glasses and so on, but anyway, that was a hard pass.
I was less skeptical about robot vacuum cleaners, but still inclined to wait for the reviews. “Vacuum cleaner” is a misnomer, actually, they’re more like robot floor sweepers, but anyway, the iRobot company has been offering something for your floors, called a “Roomba”, for many years. This outfit has a sterling reputation, earned by building things like mine disposal ‘bots for the military, and various iterations of the Roomba have certainly been around for long enough to work any bugs out. It’s obviously a solid concept. Since I first heard of them they’ve sold in the millions, and their success has spawned all sorts of imitators, so recently, when Kathy suggested one for our new place in Mahone Bay, I figured sure, what the hell. If they were anything even close to crap, I’d have heard by now, right? Just to be sure, I went on-line and found consumer videos on YouTube, by all appearances genuine accounts made by honest buyers, showing you how their models performed, and Roombas were shown to work just fine.
In fact, they weren’t just functional, they were downright charming. Imagine, you’ve got an automaton roughly the size of a birthday cake that crawls around your house, picks up all the dirt, then finds its way back to its docking station to recharge and await its next mission. Faithful, hard-working little guy! Fantastic! Who doesn’t want one of those? Come, then, let us make haste to the Home Depot!
So we got ours home, and set it going. Our place is a bit asymmetrical, I mean, it’s not just a big rectangle, and there’s three rooms plus an en suite, but I figured that wouldn’t give much trouble to something that draws its lineage back to a robot that disarms IEDs, right?
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Look, dear and upstanding iRobot people, I’m not saying your quality product doesn’t work. Nope. Never will I utter such a calumny. Clearly the Roomba works for lots of people. It’s just that the particular Roomba I bought seems to be, er, challenged. You know, a little simple, as Roombas go. Don’t get me wrong, it means well. It tries, it really does. You want to see good faith effort, just come over for a couple of hours some afternoon and sit down on my sofa with me, we can share a bucket of popcorn watching my poor addled Roomba beating its sad little brains out, trying its level best to find its way around.
It tends to ignore the wide open hardwood plain of the living room floor, preferring to find a corner in the kitchen where it can bump back and forth within a patch of ground about four feet square. It’ll drive straight through the bedroom, pull a hard right, and make its way into the en suite, where it drains its batteries down to nothing trying to crawl into the shower enclosure. It’s persistent to a fault; if it encounters an obstacle that’s just plausibly of a height short enough that it could, after numerous attempts, clamber over, it’ll try and try until it exhausts itself and the lights go out. It’s absolutely fascinated with our somewhat arty dining room table, which is a pedestal type, with a flare at the bottom of the pedestal. I think that to the Roomba, it looks like one of those artificial terrains they build for skate-borders. It goes round and round, trying to climb the sides, until – as ever – its batteries die. The picture in the header shows it where we found it today, dead as a nit, having once more worked itself to death circling endlessly and climbing the slopes of the pedestal.
Is it possible it’s having fun there underneath the dining room table?
It’s not supposed to bop ’til it drops, as it were. It’s supposed to work the floors methodically, like a farmer ploughing the north 40, until some internal algorithm tells it “close enough, go on home” before it runs itself out of juice, at which point it’s supposed to know how to get back to its charging station. So far, no such luck. We’ll set it going, leave to do some errands or something, and then play hide and seek with it when we get back. Where will it be this time? The guest washroom? Under the bed? Flipped over on its back like an unlucky tortoise, after another catastrophically failed attempt to climb the dining room table?
Kathy thinks it’s still mapping the joint, and needs time to learn the angles and suss out the dead ends. It’s possible. At this point, though, I’ve grown fond of the thing, like you would a goofy dog that always trips going down the stairs, and I don’t intend to disown it if it can’t figure out the floorplan. It may be a special needs Roomba, but it’s my Roomba, dammit, and as long as he can crawl sideways and pick up dirt in the places he manages to go, he stays in the rotation.
Anything that tries that hard can wander around looking lost and bumping into walls in my place any day.