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As your Roomba cleans your floors, it's gathering maps of your house

As your Roomba cleans your floors, it's gathering maps of your house
A Roomba vacuum, bottom, alongside a Braava Jet floor cleaner at IRobot's headquarters last year. (Charles Krupa / Associated Press)

The company behind the Roomba vacuum, IRobot Corp., has grand plans for its robot cleaners.

Two Roomba models — the 960 and 980 — map the interiors of homes to more efficiently hoover up dust and dirt. Those intimate maps, the company hopes, could soon be sold as personalized, data-rich products to giant tech companies, seizing a bigger role in the burgeoning market for "smart" devices in the Web-connected household.

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"There's an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared," IRobot Chief Executive Colin Angle said in a statement Tuesday.

More than just automatically sweeping up dirt (and inspiring cat-shuttling compilations on YouTube), Angle's vision for the Roomba places the domestic bot in service of improving the smart home.

Angle said the spatial information generated by Roombas would enable connected devices to function better. "For example, in order for the lights to turn on when you walk into a room, the home must know what lights are in which rooms," he said. In IRobot's vision, the Roomba will become a kind of machine mediator, improving other key features of the future connected home, including "music, TV, heat, blinds, stove, coffee machine, fan, gaming console, smart picture frames or robot pet," Angle said.

Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc., are also invested in a version of this strategy, with each tech giant offering (or soon to release) a voice-activated, Internet-connected home assistant. Customers at home can already activate their Roombas through Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. Although Angle said that no specific plan exists for IRobot to sell its mapping data to these companies, he told Reuters on Monday that IRobot "could reach a deal to sell its maps to one or more of the Big Three in the next couple of years."

The prospect of selling information derived from the intricacies of people's homes, and from their literal dirt, raises potential privacy concerns. Angle said the company — which is based in Bedford, Mass., and has offices in Pasadena — acknowledges that.

"IRobot takes privacy and security of its customers very seriously," he said. "We will always ask your permission to even store map data. Right now, IRobot is building maps to enable the Roomba to efficiently and effectively clean your home. In the future, with your permission, this information will enable the smart home and the devices within it to work better."

Shaban writes for the Washington Post.

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UPDATES:

10:20 a.m.: This article was updated to identify which Roomba models map homes' interiors.

This article was originally published at 9:50 a.m.

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