Google wants to improve your smart home with iRobot’s room maps

Google and iRobot have announced they’re working together to improve smart home technology using mapping data collected by iRobot’s robot vacuums. The two companies say the aim is to make smart homes “more thoughtful” by leveraging the unique dataset collected by iRobot: maps of customers’ homes.

iRobot’s latest Roomba, the i7+, creates maps using a combination of odometry data (measuring how far the robovac’s wheels move) and low-res camera imagery. The resulting maps can be used to create custom cleaning schedules or to let users ask their Roomba to vacuum specific rooms. An integration with Google Assistant lets customers give verbal commands like, “OK Google, tell Roomba to clean the kitchen.”

Google and iRobot say this data will be useful for other smart home devices. The maps could be used to locate products like Wi-Fi-connected lighting, for example, automatically assigning names and locations to lights in customers’ bedroom, kitchen, and so on. However, Google doesn’t access any of the 3D or spatial information collected by iRobot.

“Much like assigning smart lights or other smart devices to rooms in the home, the Assistant only learns what names people have given to areas of their homes, so that it can then deploy the iRobot i7+ to that area,” said Google in a statement. “We do not receive any information on the layout of the home or where the areas are, respectively.”

iRobot CEO Colin Angle told The Verge that the collaboration lays the foundations for future smart homes. “This idea is that when you say, ‘OK Google, turn the lights on in the kitchen,’ you need to know what lights are in the kitchen. And if I say, ‘OK future iRobot robot with an arm, go get me a beer,’ it needs to know where the kitchen and the refrigerator are.”

Google’s Michelle Turner, director of the company’s smart home ecosystem, says the dream is not just to create a smart home, but a “thoughtful home” that requires less input from users and adapts to their wants and needs. “We think a thoughtful home has context,” says Turner, “and that is something that iRobot has done an exceptional job on.”

Roombas can be controlled using Google Assistant devices like Google’s Home Hub.

Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

The idea of Google using data about users’ home will be justifiably unsettling to some. Although Google doesn’t have as bad of a reputation for data leaks and breaches as Facebook, it’s still had a number of serious lapses. Just this month, for example, the company admitted it had exposed the personal data of around 500,000 Google+ users, leading to the closure of the platform. It also announced it was reviewing access to Gmail by third-party companies after it was revealed that many developers were reading and analyzing users’ personal mail for marketing and data mining.

Turner stressed that any information shared by iRobot would not be used in Google’s lucrative ad-targeting business. “This data doesn’t help current Google products,” says Turner. “This data is not getting fed into some larger morass of Google information.”

iRobot has also said in the past that it only wants to use spatial data collected by its devices to make smart products easier to use. Maps of users’ homes created by the Roomba i7+ are sent to the company’s servers via Wi-Fi, but the low-res images used to make these maps (which mostly capture vague areas of light and shade) stay on the device.

Angle stresses that sharing this information is also voluntary. “If we can help the Google ecosystem to have a better understanding of the home — with full permission of the users, and the full ability to back out — then it might be that owning a Roomba makes your smart home smarter,” he says. “Or even more thoughtful.”

Update November 1st, 3:30AM ET: Story has been updated with additional comment from Google clarifying the nature of the data shared .

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