There is nothing particularly endearing about the appearance of the robot vacuum cleaner: the ones I tested mostly looked like giant ice-hockey pucks. Yet there is something about their behaviour that, in an age when our experience of small creatures is largely restricted to watching them do amusing things on YouTube, tugs at the heartstrings. “Our customers grow very attached to their robots,” the publicist for Neato, one of the manufacturers, told me. “When they send them in for repair, they want to make sure they get the same one back.” Doubtless someone is now dawdling through a park in Peckham or Portland with a robovac on a leash, much as the Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval once promenaded through Paris with a lobster at the end of a silk ribbon.
Robot vacuum cleaners live on a base, to which they return when they need to recharge or their mission is completed, and from which they venture out, criss-crossing the room, hoovering up detritus as they go. In order that I could fairly test them against each other, I arranged my living room into a course that was challenging without being insurmountable. A rug laid over the wooden floors offered a variety of terrains; the channel between the trunk that serves as a coffee table and the sofa was made navigable if narrow; the chairs were pulled back from the table creating a passage to the north-east corner for the intrepid voyager to discover. The floor was then strewn with flour and those glittery confetti smiley faces which, when it comes to clearing up, seem to be genetically modified barnacles. It looked like a children’s birthday party had rampaged through.
First up was the Samsung Navibot (£800/$999 RRP), which did not get off to a good start. It tried to eat my rug; it tried to eat my shoes. It was flummoxed by cables and cowed by chairs. The vigorous little brushes on either side of the undercarriage, supposed to reach into corners, simply rearranged the dust in an alternative array. Such a cleaner is very much after my own heart – but who wants a vacuum that’s on your level? In the end it became fixated with a single corner of the room, chafing around and around in distressing circles, like a captive chimpanzee whose mind has been annihilated by a lifetime of neurological experiments.
The Neato Botvac Connected (£549/$700) was altogether more competent – just as well, since its laser scanner is also used in Google’s driverless cars. Its movements were tentative yet persistent. It had a well-calibrated sense of what was immovable and what could be shunted. It nuzzled the wine rack warily but grappled its way out of the snakepit of wires under the television. I was reminded of those second-world-war photographs of American tanks surfing the Norman bocage, momentarily tottering before advancing inexorably. Shimmying between the chairs, it nudged one out of the way to reach the other side – as glorious a piece of skill as a Cruyff turn or a Hendrix riff. True, it struggled with the rug, didn’t reach the farthest-flung corners and failed to snaffle up all of the confetti but there was something doughty and dogged about him you could not fail to love.
IRobot’s Roomba is the Old Man of the Shagpile, the first robovac still in production. Its latest iteration, which uses sensors the Pentagon developed for finding landmines, is the Roomba980 (£800/$900) – a device that started off bold and exploratory, sallying into the centre of the room as if it owned the place. It was only after prolonged observation that elements of self-doubt emerged. It spent agonised minutes flirting with the edge of the rug without ever daring to mount it. Once this tentativeness had finally been overcome, it sucked with a redoubled passion and paso dobled across the floor with the carpeting adhered to its undercarriage. Great determination was on display but a certain élan was lacking.
By far the most effective robot vacuum cleaner I tried was the Dyson 360 Eye (£799/$999). Eighteen years in development, it was previously only available in Japan (where the genkan, the doormat recessed into the floor on which shoes are traditionally relinquished, caused its engineers considerable bother). As of July 2016, it will be available across the rest of the world. Most robot vacuums are navigation systems with added suction. The 360 Eye is a vacuum first, and so is taller than average to accommodate Dyson’s fearsome cyclones. It can’t scud that easily under sofas – indeed mine managed to switch itself off in the manful effort to squeeze under the TV – but it inhales like Howard Marks in a hotbox. If you want your house spick and span, get a Dyson. If you want a pet, maybe you should think about gerbils.