Why the home of the future is forever 20 years away

Senior reporter

Dyson’s robotic vacuum cleaner may be an impressive feat of enginering but we need a bigger breakthrough to relieve us from domestic drugery.

It’s taken 16 years and £28m worth of development. And now the Dyson robotic vacuum cleaner is finally here. Or at least, it’s in Japan, where the “Dyson 360 Eye” is being launched a year ahead of its scheduled European release.

Like most Dyson products, the Eye appears to be an impressive feat of engineering, combining a 360-degree camera and infrared sensors with a digital mapping system that allows it to build up a picture of the room to avoid cleaning the same patch twice.

And the incoming EU ban on high-powered vacuums won’t be worrying Dyson. The company has already spent £150m developing its series of digital motors, which allows the Eye to consumer just 100W of power, thereby lengthening the time it can go between battery charges.

But for all the advanced technology the Eye brings with it, it still looks unlikely to be the device that finally brings robots into most people’s homes. Fundamentally it suffers from the same problem as most visions of futuristic appliances that will make our domestic lives easier and free up our spare time: it offers too small an improvement for too great a cost.

Dyson products have always been set in the premium end of the market and, with an expected price tag of £750, the Eye is likely to be seen as equally out of reach for most consumers. That’s not to say a large number of households couldn’t rustle up the cash if they really wanted to. (Just look at the rapid spread of premium computing products like iPads.) But the proposition doesn’t appear great enough to persuade them to do so.

It may have advantages over existing robotic vacuums, but the Eye doesn’t actually replace the need for a conventional vacuum or for human exertion in order to sufficiently clean the house. The device may be able to navigate around table legs but it can’t move furniture, clean curtains, sills and skirting boards or get into those awkward corners where dirt loves to hide.

Dyson
The Dyson 360 Eye: has greater vision than a Dalek but still can’t climb stairs

The 1950s and ’60s saw a genuine transformation of our domestic workload, with increasingly affordable appliances such as fridges and washing machines making a huge difference to the way people ran their homes. From the 1970s onwards (and perhaps earlier), the likes of Tomorrow’s World began to show us a future when robotic devices would relieve humans of their chores altogether.

The problem is that the solutions that have made it to market have rarely, if ever, lived up to that promise, and those that showed the most potential were beyond the average family’s means. The last mainstream disruption to the home appliance market was arguably the microwave oven and, though most of us probably now own one, it has provided more of an additional tool than a revolution in cooking.

Today we are offered the perhaps more feasible vision of the smart home, which heats itself ready for return and allows us to control all electric lights and devices from a smartphone app. But while not having to turn individual radiators on and off in order to warm different rooms of the house would be welcome, this kind of technology often leaves me cold.

I already own a wireless multi-room stereo that’s operated via my phone, and my tendency to leave the handset in the kitchen when I’m at home means relying on this method of control is just as annoying as it is useful. The real reason I don’t turn my washing machine on when I’m out of the house is not because I don’t have an app to control it via the internet but because of the continuing propensity of such appliances to catch fire. And this is without considering the privacy and security concerns that come from wiring up every switch in your house to the internet

It sometimes seems as if the high-tech home, much like nuclear fusion, is forever 20 years away, continually on the cusp of becoming a reality. And yet it is hard to see how robots will really take over domestic drudgery at all without major breakthroughs in capability and cost that for the foreseeable future remain in the minds of science fiction writers only.