Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/06/23/irobot_angle/

Vacuum king calls for end to robotics hype

Time to move from suck to blow

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Science, 23rd June 2006 22:33 GMT

RoboBiz Colin Angle this week demonstrated the authority that comes with being a robotic vacuum magnate. He told the crowd here at the Robo Business conference that they'd let consumers and businesses down with sub par products. They had supplied more hype than innovation and could use something akin to steroids for their imaginations if they hoped to get the robot industry moving in the right direction.

You might question how much authority Angle really has to berate the robotics industry. Sure, he runs iRobot, which has produced the most successful consumer robot device - the Roomba - and managed to create a public company with a $500m market capitalization. But the vast majority of iRobot's success - at least in the public's eye - comes from selling an intelligent vacuum. It's hardly the stuff we were promised back in the 1950s when the idea of a cooking, cleaning, mowing, folding, driving robot with a flair for sexual favors seemed just around the corner.

However, Angle - or more precisely iRobot - has captured the hearts and minds of the robotics industry and taken on an authoritative role. Hardly a speech passed during the two day Robo Business event without someone mentioning iRobot or wanting to be linked to the company. The sale of 2m Roombas have given iRobot a street cred that those still working on spider prototypes desire with their every fiber. The vacuum maker has given the mass market robotics industry something it desperately needed - a success story. Angle gets to feed off this role as a legitimizer of the robotics pursuit.

During his keynote presentation, the angular Angle noted that the "robot demo industry is doing just fine." Groups focusing on making walking robots and the like "have substantially slowed the industry."

"We are not waiting on the technology. We are waiting on good business models and ideas."

That's a tough message for a crowd of dreamers who spend most of their time hammering away at one-off products that cost of millions of dollars to produce. At the same time, the attendees seemed to like Angle's speech. They were like children needing to feel reprimanded after doing something naughty.

"The industry does not need hype," Angle told The Register in an interview. "It needs good business and good products. I want the industry to be taken seriously. Saying walking robots are a distraction is about saying the industry doesn't need smoke and mirrors to be a fantastic industry."

Of course, the robotics industry is in fact relying on at least smoke for the moment to remain viable. Close to 90 per cent of the companies exhibiting at Robo Business were shooting for military pork with devices that can help blow things up, watch things blow up or carry luggage for soldiers who are busy blowing things up.

The Roomba may fade soon as iRobot's flashiest money maker if the company can keep pushing its PackBot devices to the Army. So far, iRobot has shipped 500 of these systems which can motor around Iraq and Afghanistan carrying different payloads for things like disarming bombs, snooping caves or finding snipers. There's more than $300m in military funding to be had for the company that can deliver the best robots for disarming Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

"We've received $42m against that figure thus far," Angle said.

Despite being surrounded by lucrative military contracts, iRobot has not proved that tempting to investors. Shares of iRobot managed to creep near the $40 mark following its IPO late last year but have slid down to $24.74. That leaves the vacuum maker with a market cap of $580m. Angle hopes that iRobot or even another company can zoom to greater heights.

"I get annoyed not by competition but by entrepreneurs with no imagination," he told us. "I don't want to be the only robot company of substance out there.

"There isn't a billion dollar robot company yet, but there will be."

iRobot has remained fairly secretive about what it will dish out for consumers next. Angle, however, did say that the company will focus on more devices than can do chores around the house. Mowing the lawn, washing the dog, cleaning the toilet - those kinds of things.

In addition, iRobot plans to whip up more robots for the military, keeping our war machine as automated as possible.

Looking longer-term, Angle does have a tendency to fall into the same traps as his peers.

During his speech, he rolled out an old video where a robot comes into a kid's bedroom to help a doctor perform a remote rash diagnosis. A mother lifts her child's top, while the doctor peers in from afar and recommends some lotion. It's touching stuff - at least to Angle.

"In a strange way, robots are rehumainzing that whole aspect of our life where doctors used to make house calls," he said. "A kid might actually grow up thinking that was a doctor."

We're not sure that a robot can rehumanize anything, and we doubt that maids see the rehumanizing aspect of a Roomba. Still, we get where Angle is going.

For those with elderly parents, Angle suggests the possibility of a senior bot - a type of creature that can go check on mum or dad when they haven't answered the phone in a couple of days. The bot could cruise around your parents' house and find them, as you had hoped, on a two-day hunt for the sugar instead of slumped over the table, putting your mind at ease. Perhaps you could also do remote checks of your parents' stool samples as part of a disturbing Freudian revenge plot.

How much would such a robot be worth? Angle reckons that the device would be attractive to a lot of people at $1,000 or less.

Away from the military gear, iRobot seems in a tough spot. Angle paints the idea of creating another successful house helper an easy task. We, however, have our doubts.

The Roomba hit a sweet-spot stretching from yuppie sideshow attraction to yuppie practical device.

The damn thing actually works pretty well. My mother-in-law and her dogs can confirm this. Well off lass that she is, Judy has complemented her maids that come every couple of days with a Roomba that can clean up after the black labs all week. You won't read about this happening too often in Mongolia, but in suburban St. Louis it actually seems normal.

Angle thinks that pushing the Roomba beyond the yuppie fringe is just a matter of "getting the word out." That's an over-simplification in our opinion. And we think selling a $200 robotic toilet cleaner or vapoorizer will be even tougher.

Angle and his team seem like the rare group that can live in a land of make believe while keeping their eye on practicality. It's this combination of skills that will be required for iRobot to dish out another banner success.

For the moment, the robotics industry needs iRobot to have a couple more "Roomba moments." These companies need a champion and someone who can speak with authority on how to keep them focused.

"If I can speed things up, it's good for iRobot and good for the other entrepreneurs," Angle said. ®