Evolution Robotics Inc. began life as a supplier of autonomous robot platforms that proved popular with researchers, but failed in the consumer market for personal robots. Later, the company developed navigation and vision technology that could be integrated entirely into, or used with, robots and other technologies, such as its NorthStar navigation system and computer vision software. At the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in January, Evolution entered a completely new market and business by introducing the Mint robotic floor cleaner.
The Mint joins an already crowded floor-cleaning space, but differs in several key areas. Rather than integrate active vacuum or sweeping capability, the Mint has an attachment for Procter & Gamble’s popular Swiffer and Swiffer Wet cleaning cloths. In addition, it focuses only on hard floors, not on carpeted areas, and it benefits from the Evolution Robotics NorthStar navigation system, an “indoor GPS” reference beacon that permits the robot to clean a room efficiently by localizing itself.
Mint’s most obvious competitor is iRobot, whose Roomba and Scooba robots fulfill both carpet cleaning and floor mopping needs. Neato Robotics, which in 2009 introduced its XV-11 vacuuming robot with laser-based simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) navigation, is another key player. Comparable models of the Roomba range from $299 to $449; the XV-11 is priced at $399; and the Mint retails at $249.
During efforts to integrate its core technologies into other systems, Pasadena, Calif.-based Evolution Robotics learned a great deal about floor care and eventually saw an underserved niche: hard floor cleaning. Existing robotic floor cleaners are largely designed to work on carpeted floors and are less effective on tile, hardwood, or linoleum. While the Scooba mopping robot is specifically designed to function on hard floors, the onboard vacuum is relatively weak and the robot is optimized for wet cleaning. Evolution discovered that many consumers continued to rely on inexpensive products like the Swiffer to augment autonomous floor cleaning systems.
After identifying this underserved space, Evolution Robotics researched customer perception of existing floor cleaning robots. Both Evolution Robotics and Neato Robotics discovered that consumers did not trust the “random” cleaning pattern of other robots such as the Roomba. As a result, both companies added localization and navigation capabilities to their products.
Neato Robotics developed a low-cost laser rangefinder to enable real-time creation of a room map for navigation, whereas the Mint uses Evolution’s low-cost NorthStar indoor navigation system to reference its position within a room. Unlike the “random vacuums,” Mint does not miss areas or rework them multiple times, thereby optimizing battery use. Additionally, because the Mint lacks a vacuum, it operates far more quietly than its competitors-something company representatives say was especially appreciated by their test users.
The Mint lacks the charging station and scheduling capability of similar robots, but Evolution Robotics prides itself on the time spent focused on the industrial design. The Mint’s appearance is meant to be simple and streamlined, and with white plastic curves it evokes popular user-friendly consumer gadgets such as Apple’s computers and mobile devices. The user interacts with only a few buttons, keeping the interface simple, and integration with familiar products like the Swiffer enable the consumer to clearly understand how the robot does its work. Designed with other household appliances in mind, it is meant to be just another device or tool that is taken out of storage, used, and cleanly put away out of sight. For this reason, the designers created a slim profile and ability to be stored upright on its side in a closet or cabinet.
To maximize the Mint’s chances of success, Evolution Robotics has brought on a powerful marketing team and engaged the support of Evolution investor Idealab to drive the marketing effort. Several former executives of Royal Appliance Manufacturing, the parent company of Dirt Devil, have provided their experience with the design and marketing of household appliances.
During development, the Mint design team emphasized “appliance” over “robot.” This approach is in keeping with a recent trend in consumer robotics wherein companies highlight applications over the fact that the product is a robot or employs robotics technology. This phenomenon points to increased acceptance and specialization of robotics technology. Designers and marketers are required to rely less on the novelty of a robot as a selling point and instead must compete on the same cost, capability, and usability issues of nonrobotic products in the same market. In fact, the words “robot” and “robotics” are not used anywhere on the Mint website except to reference the company that produced the product. Mint is not listed on the Evolution Robotics website under “products.”
Evolution Robotics also intentionally focused on creating a robot with a single capability, rather than trying to design for future versatility or expandability. Company representatives note that by doing so they have optimized the Mint’s performance in terms of battery life-up to three continuous hours-and cleaning quality.
Despite the relatively low cost for floor cleaning robots, the Mint may face the danger of being perceived as more expensive or less “green” in the long run because it uses disposable cleaning elements, whereas competing robot vacuums have bins that can be emptied repeatedly. Evolution Robotics does plan to offer a washable microfiber cloth that can be used in place of disposable Swiffer products. But how this will conform with consumer familiarity and comfort with Swiffer products remains to be seen.
|The Bottom Line
Evolution Robotics has departed from its previous business models—a provider of personal robot platforms, and later, a provider of OEM navigation, vision, and autonomy systems—to introduce its robotic floor cleaner, the Mint. The company leveraged its proven core robotics technologies when developing the Mint, and also engaged an experienced marketing and product design team to assist in the product’s entry into the home appliance market. Though other companies have pioneered robotic floor cleaners for the consumer market, the Mint designers learned from the negative perceptions of existing products to create a capable, simple offering targeted to an underserved niche market.