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Short-Circuited

The problem with robots today is that they just aren't, well ... robots.

That thought came to me as I reflected on Scooba ($399), the latest housecleaning robot from iRobot (IRBT - Get Report).

I have been testing out the Scooba -- the floor-mopping counterpart to Roomba, iRobot's flagship robot vacuum -- for the last couple of months.

And here's my issue with it: The Scooba involves almost as much work as simply mopping the floors yourself, but it takes longer and doesn't do as good a job.

Before starting Scooba, for instance, you have to pick up all the stray items on the floor that it might have trouble navigating around: rugs, dog beds, electrical plugs, even chairs. Once it gets going, it often struggles with hard-to-clean spots and, at least in my house, frequently runs out of juice before finishing the job.

While the Scooba is decent overall in reacting to the environment, it doesn't keep track of where it's been, which means it keeps running into the same walls and barriers over and over.

Worse yet, in a room like my kitchen -- where the floor plan isn't a perfect rectangle -- Scooba's amnesia led it to scrub some areas repeatedly while leaving other areas completely untouched.

Maybe I have high expectations, but I don't understand why such an advanced device has to be so dumb.

I grew up with R2D2, the "droid" from Star Wars. Not only did old R2 have more personality and pluck than many of his on-screen human counterparts, he could keep a spaceship flying even if it had just one wing and half an engine left to it.

To me, that's a real robot.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting an R2 unit anytime soon. I'd be overjoyed to settle on Rosie the Robot, the Jetson's mechanized housekeeper.

Instead, the best I can get is the Scooba.

Putting the Chips on the Table

I recently shared my frustrations with Scooba and discussed the current state of robotics with Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of iRobot.

Greiner assured me that Scooba works fine for most folks (of course) and that the path from Scooba to Rosie -- if not R2 -- is not all that far.

TheStreet.com: I was underwhelmed by Scooba. How long will it be before I can get an R2D2 or a Rosie the Robot?

Helen Greiner: I believe it will be a continuous evolution. There's a big factor you have to consider: how much people will pay for an R2D2 or Rosie the Robot.

We're progressively getting more and more features into [our] domestic robots. ... We work under government development contract on more robot capabilities for navigation, manipulation, agility, autonomy and [then] bring them over to the consumer side when we can invent a way to do it at a [reasonable] price point.
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