It’s a dirty job, so make the robot do it: Fad or not, robots easily draw curious eyes

In the mid-1980s, the Robutler made its rounds in the JCPenney catalog—the friendly, two-foot-tall robot on wheels was pictured with a tray attached to its “hands,” carrying cans of Diet Pepsi and glasses of ice to amused, upscale, Polo-wearing partygoers.

As reality would have it, people generally don’t mind carrying cans of Diet Pepsi and glasses of ice to their partygoers. What they do mind is vacuuming the floors, cleaning the bathtub and worrying about burglars—areas where the newest, more practical crop of automated products and home maintenance robots have taken shape.

“Technology is there where it wasn’t before. In the last two or three years, it’s really taken off, and we’ve seen an increase in those kinds of products,” said George Griffin, vp of the multi-client group at consumer research firm Synovate Americas. “The most high profile is in the vacuum with robotics.”

In particular, iRobot’s Roomba has garnered the most attention, followed by its various, lesser-known competitors such as Electrolux’s Trilobite and cheaper knock-offs from China.

While iRobot still makes the majority of its sales on industrial and military robots, the cute, quirky Roombas are what the company is known for—including a new, heavily upgraded batch demonstrated at this year’s DigitalLife show held at New York’s Javits Center on Sept. 27.

The trend is perhaps a natural offshoot of other convenience products popular in recent years, specifically disposable wipes and electrostatic brooms. Additionally, the buzz surrounding robotic vacuums further draws consumers to the cleaning products sections of retailers—Linens ’n Things and Bed Bath & Beyond have set up Roomba staging areas in their stores where consumers can watch the products at work, backed up with the retailers’ full lines of cleaning products.

That buzz is a good thing, because robotic vacuums still account for only about 1.6 percent of per-unit sales in the vacuum cleaner marketplace (uprights account for about 74.9 percent, canister vacs for 12.4 percent and stick vacs for 11.1 percent), according to research from Synovate. That’s down from a 2006 figure of 2.2 percent, and up from the 2005 figure of 1 percent. Synovate expects the robotic vacuum market is closing in on a solid 2 percent share of those unit sales.

Not surprisingly, the robotic vacuums have been much more popular in large cities than in suburban and rural areas. But interestingly, the trendy aspect of the product has not lost the middle-aged market, as the average age of a robotic vacuum buyer in 2006 was around 49, slightly older than for buyers of other vacuum types.

Griffin said whether the robotic vacuums turn out to be fads or not has yet to be determined.

To address some problems consumers have reported on the vacuums—the units can get stuck on cords and errant carpets—iRobot has launched a completely retooled line of vacuums to address these and other issues. “We expect this to significantly increase our penetration of this market,” said CEO Colin Angle at the company’s second-quarter earnings call “as we aim to change the way consumers think about floor cleaning.”

Now, iRobot is further entering the robotic home goods market with a gutter-cleaning product called the Looj, priced at under $100, and the ConnectR, a “virtual visiting robot” that allows users—through video and audio communications—to see, hear and interact with people in the home while the user is away.

Other than the flashy robots, other fully automated products have made a quieter entry into the housewares marketplace.

SC Johnson launched the Scrubbing Bubbles Automatic Shower Cleaner last year, which promises that consumers can leave the item to automatically clean their showers, “just like having a maid.”

“I don’t think the awareness is there yet,” Griffin said. “It takes awhile to build that awareness, but it looks promising.”

The fully automated trend doesn’t end with cleaning products. Full automation has been brewing in several different home categories for a long time—from kitchen appliances like coffee makers and microwaves, to home security items.

“With the constraint of space and the convenience of meal preparation is key,” Griffin said. “The sophistication of prepared food nowadays is going to drive that trend more and more.”

Some of the most relevant advances in full automation in recent years have been in the home security category.

“The whole concept of home security—light monitoring, cameras activated by movement and baby monitoring—these offer functions that are automated and taken out of your hands directly,” Griffin said.

For retailers, home security systems have traditionally been large ticket items requiring installed services.

“Home security, I think, is becoming more and more of an issue,” said Lowe’s CEO Robert Niblock at the Bank of America Consumer Conference held earlier this year. There is “a whole new opportunity there on the wiring side of [home security]… You’re really talking about a real specialized niche there, in going in and setting up an elaborate home security system.”

In contrast to those big-ticket items, smaller, automated security products are entering the market to offer a more viable solution for a different crop of consumers.

One executive with a manufacturer of DIY home security products said rather than being solely about convenience, trends in security are about giving customers a greater breadth of control over their homes.

“I think what you’re seeing is consumers want more information,” said Keith Lashley, director of emerging technologies for Jasco. “We’re really at the information age, where customers want more information and from all of their devices. We really cover the consumer gamut and the special need gamut.”

In the “special need” category, the company has a soon-to-be-released line of GE-branded home security cameras that include a solar-powered outdoor camera to monitor spaces such as sheds, detached garages or pools, without the need for wiring. Another product takes away any question of who is at the door—a small video camera in the peephole area activates and monitors visitors, wanted or unwanted, and allows the user to view activity on a small monitor on the other side of the door.

“They can check if the deliveryman came, what time the kids actually came home,” Lashley explained.

Whether American consumers are prepared to enter the hands-off, robot-friendly age remains to be seen. It’s clear, however, that people are curious about the new technology and the potential for a hands-free cleaning experience, and it’s clear that we’ve come a long way since the Robutler. In the end, drawing more curious eyes to any part of a retail store can’t be a bad thing.