Depending on the camera angle, Dyson's latest offering is either a mean looking robo-tank or an adorable little trash can. This is the 360 Eye, the first product borne from 16 years of Dyson’s robotics research.
Or maybe we should say it's the first product from Dyson’s robotics research that will be available to consumers.
In 2001--a year before iRobot released the Roomba--Dyson announced the DC06. It weighed a daunting 20lbs, or 3x the weight of your average robo vac. It housed 80 sensors on board to allow it to map and navigate its environment. It didn’t vacuum all that well. Oh, and it had a pricetag of $3,000. The lower-end Roomba would debut for $200 (and sell 10 million units over the next decade).
Dyson is a smart enough company that the DC06 was never released. Nick Schneider, who works on product innovation at Dyson, puts the rationale simply: “We only release technology when we know it’s ready, and it’s going to perform to our exceptional standards...but we’ve been waiting until we nailed something.”
Of course, that Apple-like rationale is probably only part of the story. In reality, Dyson couldn’t have built the 360 Eye until now. And at its core, you can see hints of Dyson’s greater product design strategy to come--the rise of their robots.
Most notably is the 360 Eye's unique vision system. Developed in conjunction with Imperial College London, the Eye uses a pretty typical photo sensor to see the world in full color. A lens stretches its view to a full 360 degrees, so it sees every direction at once. And then clever software identifies the edge of a couch or corner of a wall to build a map of your space. This view enables what's more or less a fancier Roomba. It will automatically cruise around your home, vacuuming along the way, and the camera will hypothetically provide greater visual information so that it can cover more ground while using less energy. And when it's drained, it will return to its base station automatically to recharge (which it needs to do roughly every 25 minutes of vacuuming).
That said, it wouldn’t be a Dyson product if the design, engineering, and marketing teams didn’t assemble for their trademark, hyperbolic list of improvements over every other vacuum you’ve ever known or imagined. While it is almost five inches tall, making it unable to fit under a couch, it's actually fairly skinny (just nine inches wide vs a Roomba's 13), allowing it to squeeze behind chairs easily. And because its suction and bristles run end-to-end across the body, it doesn't give up much by being smaller.
“It means everywhere the machine goes is going to get cleaned,” Schneider explains. “That’s in contrast to some of the existing robot vacuums, where if you turn them over and look, the proportion of the diameter covered by the brush bar might be relatively small."
There are also the two tank-like catepillar treads that drive the machine. These theoretically allow the vacuum the ability to offroad over breaks between carpet and hardwood floors, but not take on stairs . . . yet. The tank treads come with another benefit: Since they don’t slip as much as wheels, it helps the onboard computer track its position more precisely.
And the coup de grâce is the engine, the same powerful-yet-light “Dyson Digital Motor v2” vacuum core found in Dyson’s line of handheld vacuums--$236 million in "the fastest motor on Earth" engineering that Dyson promises provides more suction power than any other robotic vacuum on the market.
That motor didn’t exist in 2001, but the more efficient design it allows the 5.22lb robo-vac to equip battery packs that don't weigh 20 pounds. And you know what else didn’t exist in 2001? Cheap sensors. A billion smartphones, packed with sensor technologies we now take for granted--like accelerometers--have driven the price and size down on these tiny electronics to tens of cents apiece so that they can be cheaply and easily implemented into devices like the 360 Eye.
But back to that 360-degree camera that gives the Eye its name. This approach to robotic vision, in which a camera not so different from a point-and-shoot films a room and relies on software to make sense of it all, is a bit surprising in the mighty year of 2014. Because today, infrared systems--the depth-sensing cameras that lurk inside Microsoft’s Kinect or Google’s Project Tango to paint a room with invisible dots of light and see it in 3-D--are the most effective way companies are tackling room mapping with blueprint-like precision. And while the 360 Eye has an infrared sensor, it’s my understanding that this sensor is only to prevent bumping into things at close range. The full color camera handles the map, putting an incredible amount of pressure on the robot's visual logic to discern your hardwood flooring from the furniture that rests on it.
Charles Dyson himself has been talking about this visual system in the years leading up to this moment--suggesting that there may be a benefit to a robot that could see more like a human than a simple black and white depth map. When asked why the 360 Eye sees objects at all, Schneider echoes that philosophical sentiment and then some.
“The world is primarily a visual world. We as humans interact with the world in a visual way,” he says. “So if we can build a machine that also interacts with the world in a similar way, you can see how it almost is an advantage in how it can interpret the world.”
"Almost" may be the operative word there.
The Dyson 360 Eye isn’t just a robotic vacuum cleaner, after all. It’s Dyson’s first robot. And just like its vacuuming engine was actually ripped from another product, Schneider hints that the 360 Eye’s vision system will make its way into more robots soon--robots that Dyson hasn’t announced yet--robots designed to see the world much like you and me.
But while a robot that sees like a human sees is a poetic ideal that innately implies some future full of more empathetic robots, I'm skeptical. Without infrared or, at minimum, good old, depth-perceiving stereoscopic vision, it's hard to believe that the 360 Eye will see as clearly as either humans or their most advanced robotic counterparts. And I can't help but wonder if that will hold back Dyson's innovations to come.
The Dyson 360 Eye is slated to go on sale in Japan--where the world’s largest robotic vacuum market resides--in Spring 2015. Its price has yet to be confirmed, but Dyson promises it will be competitive.