The cartoons of my youth gave me the impression that in the future we'd have an army of robot slaves to do our bidding. I got my first taste of that future over the weekend as I played around with the Samsung Navibot.
Robot vacuum cleaners aren't exactly new – the Roomba has been around since 2002, and the Samsung Navibot does have a rather striking resemblance to the iRobot model. Less than 40cm in diameter and only 10cm high, the robot vacuum has a discreet little footprint that easily makes its way under furniture and around your home. I was testing out the $999 version, which comes with two virtual guards (for blocking off areas of your house you don't want to the robot to vacuum) plus some extra brushes. It has a couple of little arms out the front that act like a street sweeper, pushing dirt and debris into its gaping maw as it rolls around your home.
Over the course of the weekend, I made the NaviBot work. I mean really work. My home is half carpet, half tiles, and I have a golden retriever who sheds a lot of hair and has a tendency to bring in dirt, bark and grass with him every time he walks inside. I also have a 10-month-old with a predisposition to drop food on the floor for the dog. Despite running the NaviBot every day, its 0.6-litre storage container needed emptying after each trip around the house.
But it performed. With a timer set for the robot to run every morning, the NaviBot cheerfully took off, using its camera to monitor where to vacuum and where to stop from running into walls. On the occasion it did collide with an object, it happily turned and tried to move around it. Once it had vacuumed one side of an object - like my dining table - it returned to vacuum the other side that it might otherwise have missed.
Originally I thought the abundance of golden dog hair in the carpet would pose a problem for the Navibot, but the Samsung vacuum just kept on going. It probably wasn't as thorough a job as I would get from my Dyson, but for an autonomous robot, it was pretty respectable.
There were a couple of occasions the NaviBot got itself into a situation it couldn't handle. Due to some wet weather, we had an old towel next to the back door for wiping the dog's paws – the NaviBot got a little bit tangled and just stopped until its human master could come to its rescue. There was also an occasion that it somehow surrounded itself with baby toys, and spent five minutes trying to work out an exit strategy before I saved it from itself.
The other problem was that there were some places it couldn't reach on its own. Like my bathroom, which is ever so slightly raised above the rest of the house. And corners - the round shape of the robot means corners are a problem.
What that means is that the NaviBot is never going to be your only vacuum cleaner. Even if you've just got a little dustbuster, you're going to need a second sucker to get to those places the robot can't reach. Which makes it a rather expensive investment.
Having said that, there's something exceptionally satisfying about having a robot keep up a general level of floor cleanliness with next to no effort. Especially if you've got young kids and/or pets who shed a lot of hair. It makes me long for a future where robots are truly able to act as our autonomous slaves... So long as we don't give them the power of free will, that is...