And now from iRobot, a vacuum cleaner that can see

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iRobot, the maker of the iconic Roomba robot, is launching a new model of its signature vacuum cleaner.

The seventh-generation Roomba 980 goes on sale in the US for $899 Thursday. Among its new features: An on-board camera, the ability to connect to home WiFi networks, and a companion app. Taken together, the 980 is the smartest robot in the Roomba lineup, one that could make itself right at home in a future hyper-connected household.

“iRobot is entering the ‘Internet of Things,’” said Colin Angle, company founder and chief executive. “It’s the biggest thing that we’ve done since we launched Roomba.”

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The company says it has sold 14 million home robots, including pool cleaners, floor scrubbers, and gutter cleaners, since the first Roomba Intelligent FloorVac went on sale in 2002 for $199.95. (Last year 91 percent of the company’s revenue came from the sale of home robots.) But the robotic vacuum cleaner is the most popular of the lot.

The Roomba 980 continues the traditional disc-shaped design. Its guts include the “brushless extractors” that are supposed to suck in dirt and hair without getting them tangled in bristles, and the iAdapt cleaning software, both of which debuted in its predecessor, the Roomba 880. A more powerful lithium ion battery gives the 980 a full two hours of run time.

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The bot doesn’t have panoramic vision like it’s chief competitor, Dyson’s camera-carrying vacuum cleaning robot that launched in September. But it’s the first to make use of optical vision.

The robot can see only in black-and-white, explained Melissa O’Dea, a product manager at Roomba. But a robot that can see shapes is a first step towards one that can see objects, and recognize them. For now, it’s sufficient to help the robot make a virtual map of the room and find its way around. A while in the making, this vision system is a version of the system that debuted in the telepresence robot, Ava.

The app adds a layer of convenience, one that home-owners have come to expect of other appliances, like their thermostat. It includes tutorials to use the instrument, keeps a record of cleaning sessions and distance tracked. At the store and expecting company? The app lets you start the Roomba remotely.

“It doesn’t seem like a huge leap – it seems like the logical next step,”  said MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling, who studies the way people interact with robots.

Home tinkerers have hacked earlier models of Roombas to carry cameras or be remote controlled — so the features are keeping up with demand, she said.

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The fancy upgrades aren’t immediately apparent — hit the button and the robot still rolls to work with something of a first-time explorer vibe, gently bumping into furniture legs, doing circles around center tables, taking laps across empty spaces of floor.

But for the first time you can keep tabs on what the robot’s done. The app reports how many cleaning sessions its tracked and how many “dirt episodes” it’s encountered.

Quantifying your Roomba’s movement isn’t an essential feature, Darling said, but it’s one that is appealing. “It’s so silly, but I think a lot of people get a kick out of that.”

The battery guarantees about two hours of cleaning time, after which the robot finds its way back to the docking station. The mapping software allows it to pick up where it left off.

It’s still a loud little machine for a small studio apartment like mine. Also, the color variations on the old wood flooring confused the robot, which mistook those patches for dirt and kicked into high gear. My vaguely trapezoid floor plan with lots of little furniture legs is better cleaned with a broom, I reckon. If you have a large family home space lined with carpeting, the Roomba could save you a lot of time.

Angle and the founders of iRobot started off thinking about robots for space, but they very quickly became serious about robots for the home. Almost 15 years since the company launched, that goal hasn’t changed.

“It’s very possible in a couple of years after cell phones and set-top boxes, our robots will be numerically the most widely connected product in the world,” Angle said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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