Helen Greiner is the cofounder of iRobot.
For roboticist Helen Greiner the future is not found in the pages of a science fiction novel; the future is here and now. As president and cofounder of the iRobot Corporation, she is responsible for helping to advance the accessibility of robots, which are mechanical devices that perform functions automatically or by remote control. Most of iRobot’s inventions have been designed for use in the military or in industry, but with technology costs decreasing, the company’s consumer robot market is starting to take off. Greiner predicts that within a few years almost every home in the United States will have a robot to perform such tasks as housecleaning and babysitting. Her company’s vision, as she told Elizabeth Durant of Technology Review, is to “get robots into everyone’s hands.”
Before Greiner graduated in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering she spent some time in Pasadena, California, interning at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Her job was to help design robots that would do repairs in space. Her interest was sparked enough that she developed designs for a space robot that could grasp objects more easily. The designs became part of her master’s thesis. In 1990, after earning an advanced degree in computer science, Greiner headed back to California to work at California Cybernetics, a company that made robots which helped in the manufacture of cars. Less than a year later she returned to the East Coast to form her own robot company with Brooks and Angle.
The three roboticists had a very simple plan: to build affordable robots that could be used in everyday life. A simple plan, but ambitious since the robotics field was in its early infancy. When Greiner and her colleagues first started out, she likened it to the early days of computers in the 1970s. The few robots that existed were very expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and they were used mostly in manufacturing, especially in the auto industry to complete such tasks as spray-painting or welding. Most of the experimentation was being done in university research labs, and that is where it usually stopped; there was very little practical application. As Greiner told Dataquest: “I saw the work going on in research labs and universities. It was really great stuff, but it all seemed to die when the funding ran out, or when the student left. I found this really appalling.” She went on to explain, “Commercial successes will drive the innovation.”
Calling their company IS Robotics, the MIT partners set up shop in Angle’s apartment. Greiner was named president, Angle became the chief executive officer, and Brooks took on the role of chief technology officer. They started out building robots for university researchers at a cost of $3,000 each. Since they only sold about sixty per year, and the cost of parts was steep, the company barely broke even. The partners worked eighteen-hour days, writing their own computer codes and soldering parts, parts that were frequently built in MIT’s machine shop. Eventually they were able to hire a handful of other engineers, but they also recruited interns from MIT who were paid minimum wage. They were so dedicated to their vision that they put up all the manufacturing costs themselves, maxing out their credit cards and racking up over $100,000 in bank loans.
Regardless of her success, Greiner’s main goal was still to break into the consumer market with something affordable and practical. The company’s first foray into the consumer market was definitely more affordable than the PackBot, which had a price tag of $45,000, but it was more fun than truly practical. In the late 1990s, iRobot partnered with the Hasbro toy company to develop a robotic doll. Engineers worked on the design for almost two years, equipping the doll’s skin with electronic sensors so that it giggled when its feet were tickled and smiled when it was held. The doll was also programmed to “learn” to speak.
Called My Real Baby, the toy hit store shelves in 2000. Considering the doll was quite expensive to produce, at $95.95 it was fairly reasonably priced. Not reasonable enough for customers, however, since Hasbro sold only 100,000 units. Greiner still considered the product to be a company milestone since it paved the way for advancements in artificial intelligence. Rodney Brooks, who spoke with Joseph Pereira, explained that, “for the first time our robots had to interact with countless numbers of people in ordinary homes, not graduate students [in labs].”
In 2002 iRobot introduced the product that finally put it firmly on the consumer map, a disc-shaped robotic vacuum cleaner called the Roomba. Engineers had been working on the design for twelve years. They also put in countless hours studying the science of floor-cleaning; iRoboters even spent one night at a Target department store to watch industrial cleaners at work. The result was a 5-pound, 13-inch-wide appliance that looks very much like a horseshoe crab. It runs on rechargeable batteries and propels around a room in wide circles, bouncing lightly off any obstacle it encounters. When it is finished, it stops, beeps, and turns itself off.
According to the company, Roomba has enjoyed brisk sales. It also received wide publicity on television, radio, and in countless magazines. Oprah Winfrey (1954–) named it “one of her favorite things,” and the Roomba was awarded the seal of approval from Good Housekeeping, a magazine that has long served consumers. In addition, iRobot and Roomba received hearty approval within the robotics industry. As Craig Jennings, president of the Robotic Industries Association, told Elizabeth Durant, “Nobody else has a product that has had the success of Roomba. I think [iRobot] hit a home run.”
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