Dyson challenges iRobot’s Roomba with its first robot vacuum cleaner, the 360 Eye

Street view-like computer vision is Dyson’s differentiator

Dyson Robot vaccum parked at its power station


Dyson is getting into the robot vacuum game with the 360 Eye, a disc-shaped machine launching in Japan this week and in the rest of the world next fall.

The vacuum is the product of 16 years research, the U.K.-based company says. Founder and chief inventor Sir James Dyson had been tinkering with the design and considered coming to market a few years ago, but he held off until he felt he had more than just a me-too product. The key was coming up with a robo-vac that was better than the competition’s—something he apparently feels the company now has.

With home robotic vacuums expected to be the fastest-growing segment of a $14 billion household vacuum cleaner market by 2018 and competition heating up, he was also probably finding that he couldn’t afford to wait much longer.

Computer vision is the 360 Eye’s key differentiator from other robot vacuums, such as iRobot’s Roomba, according to design engineer Nick Schneider. Similar to Google’s Street View cars, the vacuum has a small plastic dome on top of it that houses its lens system. The “eye” is able to build a visual map of its surroundings, which allows it to get a more accurate read of a room than competitor products that vacuum along random paths.

“Using trigonometry, it can work out how far away each feature [furniture, corners and the like] is and builds out a map of the world around it,” Schneider says. “The principle behind it is the same [as Street View]. We want a maximum view of the world, the maximum amount of time.”

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Dyson’s robot also has a full-width brush bar underneath it, unlike the partial-width suction areas that many competitors have. Combining that with the vision system means the 360 Eye can do a more accurate job, faster, because it doesn’t need to go over areas repeatedly. “Everywhere the machine goes, it’s cleaning,” Schneider says.

The 360 Eye also has built-in wi-fi, so users can connect to it remotely from their smartphones. From there, they can start and stop the machine and see a visual progress map.

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One potential concern about Dyson’s robot is that it’s not yet HEPA compliant, unlike some Roomba models. While Dyson says the 360 Eye can capture particles down to 0.5 microns, it doesn’t yet have that key certification that many pet owners look for in vacuums and air filters. The company says its filtration efficiency has not yet been finalized, which is something that could be hammered out during its initial test launch in Japan.

Schneider says Dyson also sticks to a more stringent definition of compliance.

“There are two ways that you can really determine HEPA. The way we use is full-system HEPA where the complete exhaust from the machine is considered and analyzed. The other way is just by analyzing the filter on the machine. But if there are leaks and the seals aren’t correctly engineered through the whole path of the machine and there are dirty areas leaking out before it passes through the HEPA filter, then that dirty air is just getting expelled back into the home environment.”

The company also isn’t saying yet what its robot vacuum will cost, but it will probably be expensive. Dyson first made its name in changing the vacuum cleaner market, both in terms of technology and price points. While regular cheapo vacuums can be had for close to $100, Dyson products are premium-priced, running from $400 to $800.

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The same goes for the company’s fan/space heater. The Dyson Hot + Cool uses a wing-foil technology to better circulate air and features a neat loop design, which justifies its $500 price tag in a market where competitors can sell for as low as $25. Competitors’ robot vacuums aren’t cheap either, with Roombas typically costing between $550 and $800.

Still, Dyson isn’t positioning the 360 Eye as a luxury good or complementary item to its traditional vacuums. Schneider says it’s meant as a full-on replacement.

“Being able to set it to clean three or four times a week means that the habit of cleaning starts to change quite a lot,” he says. “It’s not necessarily doing a deep clean, but it’s maintaining that clean.”

See the Dyson 360 Eye in action: