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Roomba vacuum maker iRobot betting big on the 'smart' home

The Roomba robotic vacuum has been whizzing across floors for years, but its future may lie more in collecting data than dirt.

That data is of the spatial variety: The dimensions of a room as well as distances between sofas, tables, lamps and other home furnishings. To a tech industry eager to push "smart" homes controlled by a variety of Internet-enabled devices, that space is the next frontier.

Smart home lighting, thermostats and security cameras are already on the market, but Colin Angle, chief executive of Roomba maker iRobot Corp, says they are still dumb when it comes to understanding their physical environment. He thinks the mapping technology currently guiding top-end Roomba models could change that and is basing the company's strategy on it.

"There's an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared," said Angle.

That vision has its fans, from investors to the likes of Amazon, Apple and Alphabet, who are all pushing artificially intelligent voice assistants as smart-home interfaces. According to financial research firm IHS Markit, the market for smart-home devices was worth $9.8 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow 60 percent this year.

Angle told Reuters that iRobot, which made Roomba compatible with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant in March, could reach a deal to sell its maps to one or more of the Big Three in the next couple of years.

Amazon declined to comment, and Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

So far investors have cheered Angle's plans, sending iRobot stock soaring to $102 in mid-June from $35 a year ago, giving it a market value of nearly $2.5 billion on 2016 revenue of $660 million.

But there are headwinds for iRobot's approach, ranging from privacy concerns to a rising group of mostly...


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