software solutions to hardware problems, and outbreaks of the future

So, my Roomba started misbehaving: it kept turning to the right and backing up, and generally acting like one of its sensors was gummed up. I tried the things their web site suggested to no avail, and took the whole wheel assembly apart, and couldn't find anything amiss. It's out of warranty, but I mailed iRobot anyway to find out if they had a repair program, or if I'd just need to buy a whole new one.

Their response? "The Roomba's behavior is indicating that the internal wheel sensor has malfunctioned. We will send you a device called an osmo that will update the Roomba's software and most likely eliminate the issue."

So they sent me this stylish little dongle that plugs into the serial port and flashes the firmware, and an envelope to mail it back afterward.

And it works fine now. So the new firmware apparently detects broken wheel sensors and compensates for them. Which is awesome.

And, they did this for free, which is also awesome.

But let me rephrase that story:

  • My personal cleaning robot has malfunctioning hardware.
  • The manufacturer sent me a piece of hardware to update the software.
  • That software fixed the hardware.

I just felt a bit like I was living in the future for a minute there. I got a little chill.

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44 Responses:

  1. pvaneynd says:

    Ours failed in warranty so we send it back and got a newer model back that protects the sensors from dust and has the new software.

    No complaints about them from me, but your fix has a higher 'Nasa repairing a robot on Mars' factor :-).

  2. baconmonkey says:

    it's not the future if there are no VR goggles involved.

  3. baconmonkey says:

    also, your roomba needs annother upgrade.

    • jwz says:

      I would totally do that if it could still clean under the couch.

      Perhaps if it had big monkey arms to lift up the couch when it was going by.

  4. cdamian says:

    I get that chill whenever anything hardware or software related works. Maybe my expectations are to low.

  5. autopope says:

    The year: 2000. The venue: the first conveyor-belt sushi house in Edinburgh, Scotland. antipope is eating out.

    I had a moment of acute future shock when I stood up to head for the rest room and was nearly run over by a robot drinks trolley -- which backed up and apologized to me.

    We're less well-adapted to living in an intelligent environment with robots to attend to our needs than, say, an 18th century aristocrat.

    • jwz says:

      I have never had sushi served to me by a robot.

      I have had it float by on a little boat, but no robots.

      This must change.

      • ultranurd says:

        While we wait for the future, you could tide yourself over by getting sushi served by ninjas.

        • belgand says:

          While interesting this feels a bit like an Asian version of Medieval Times for a more upscale crowd.

          Get back to me when ninja are covertly delivering sushi in SF.

          • king_mob says:

            "Huh, there's a little tray of nigiri on my coffee table. And my roommate's throat's been slit."

            • belgand says:

              If he already paid me for rent I don't really see how I haven't benefited from the exchange.

          • ultranurd says:

            I'm sorry. I'm easily distracted from the actual quality of the experience by their flashbombs.

  6. clintp says:

    Of course had NASA done this upgrade to your hardware, the Roomba would have spun off into the void or crashed into Mars.

    Also cool, but doesn't help the floors.

    • ladykalessia says:

      Or been doomed to some other inexplicable failure due to metric/imperial conversion errors.

  7. vxo says:

    I still need to do that on mine. The upgrade also improves the "I'm stuck and desire to wiggle free!" routines, which would be great for my older Discovery. It likes to eat cables. Mmmmm... PVC-clad copper.

  8. tfofurn says:

    From looking at the picture before reading the text, I thought you were going to say iRobot was selling piercings for Roombas.

  9. jackwilliambell says:

    I call this kind of experience neuva-vu: The sudden knowledge that you are somewhere doing something you have never done before, but that you will continue to do until it becomes an everyday experience and you stop noticing.

  10. grahams says:

    Of course, just as your "living in the future for a minute" bit ended, the ATM snapped you back into reality.

    • ydna says:

      More like snapped back to 1981.

      • hattifattener says:

        Turns out that 1981 is the present. We've been stuck in the future ever since the compact disc came out. I mean, come on — laser-based record players? How is that not the future?

    • baconmonkey says:

      I wonder if plugging the osmo into the ATM would fix that?

  11. matrushkaka says:

    A Roomba has been on my Amazon wish list since Thanksgiving - saw one at my Mom's and I was hooked. The tech support you received from iRobot just solidifies this even more. Must have Roomba.

  12. loosechanj says:

    This is exactly how Hubble's "bad mirror" was fixed.

  13. deyo says:

    They didn't fix the hardware, they updated the software to include "broken" in the supported device list.

  14. mc_kingfish says:

    Good going. The machine was obviously requesting fresh instructions from the NSA, and like a patsy you went along with your end of the programming. Now it's spy software has been updated and the dirty Republicans can continue to monitor your disloyal activities.

  15. abates says:

    Of course if it was really clever, it would have wirelessly contacted a server, discovered it needed to update its software, downloaded and installed it without you having to do anything.

    Of course, three weeks later it'd also have hoovered up every CD-R and DVD-R in the house because the RIAA and MPAA had gotten the courts to force iRobot to insert anti-piracy measures into the software.

    • gfish says:

      Relying on customers to set up a wireless connection for their vacuum cleaner isn't clever, it's lazy. It would push up the cost of roombas, unless they already have wifi, and it would be a huge security issue. No doubt we'll be dealing with pwned household robots sooner or later, but why rush things? This little hardware dongle is super elegant.

  16. legolas says:

    Wow, nice! I especially like how they have been able to make a truly 'computery' thing like updating firmware into something that is completely simple and easy, and doesn't involve any visible computers or computer knowledge. A great idea...

  17. paisleychick says:

    I photographed an icon today and thought of you

  18. baconmonkey says:

    external unit that changes the movement behavior of it's host?
    I think I've seen that before.

  19. 205guy says:

    The astounding event that I feel you left out of the summary was:

    2. You described the problem and the manufacturer's tech-support accurately diagnosed the situation.

    As a counter example, my wife once asked Sony how her iMac with a slot-type disk reader could access the content of mini-DVDs created by their camera. Instead of the software to make the USB work as she expected, they sent a plastic disk-extender which promptly scratched the lens and made the drive fail (under warranty, fortunately for us). Now we have a $20 mini-frisbee that doesn't even fly too well.

  20. carbonunit says:

    I had a moment like that, back in 1994.

    My friend would buy used computers at auctions and resell them. One day he showed us a series of small rectangular plastic units plugged into each other in series, and explained that they were money. He had bought a couple of Mac Quadras, with monitors and a bundle of cables, these things were with the cables. After a bit of research he worked out they were dongles for a high-end CADCAM program, and not only that, after a bit of pressure the company agreed that owning the dongle was equivalent to owning the program, and they were sending him disks of the software. So the dongle, or rather the chips inside them, or perhaps even the logic on the chips, was like fungible currency, in that anyone who owned one owned the value of the software, through the "bank" of the sftware company. I know it's a stretch, but it gave us that chill too.

  21. doc_quixote says:

    Congrats. You can now say you have knowingly applied a software patch with the intent of making something suck more.