Will Apple map your home with iRobot's Roomba? (UPDATED)

Apple and others have set their sights on indoor mapping, Roomba sees potential in mapping your home

Apple, iOS, ARKit, ROomba, robot, indoor mapping, maps, iPhone

Is it counterintuitive to predict that one of the impacts of virtual reality will be better indoor maps of the reality we are already in? I don’t think it’s such an outlandish idea, as software developers, device manufacturers and technology firms are already looking to map every nook and cranny of your planet.

The robots are coming

Look at the popular Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. The device already gathers all kinds of data—room dimensions, furniture position and distances between items—data that could help inform next-generation IoT devices.

iRobot, the company behind Roomba, wants to collect this information and sell it to the big software firms, according to a Reuters report that was later corrected.

"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," Colin Angle, company chief executive, Reuters reported he said, before correcting the story.

[Also read: Apple’s ARKit is accelerating AR development]

Angle knows that the latest Roomba robot has much more advanced mapping capabilities, but in his later statement wanted to stress:

"iRobot does not sell data customer data. Our customers always come first. We will never violate our customer’s trust by selling or misusing customer-related data, including data collected by our connected products. Right now, the data Roomba collects enables it to effectively clean the home and provides customers with information about cleaning performance. iRobot believes that in the future, this information could provide even more value for our customers by enabling the smart home and the devices within it to work better, but always with their explicit consent."

The need to consent to such things seems essential. It's good Roomba understands this.

Spatial awareness

All the same, to make indoor maps at scale we need technologies that are more capable of recognizing and distinguishing between walls, furniture and other items. They need to be accurate, too. The latest high-end Roomba hosts technology that is designed to achieve more with the information it collects, but the direction is certainly toward more detailed special mapping technology.

How can this data be used? Think about spatial technology to help audio equipment manufacturers build better sound stages in your home, intelligent and contextual smart lighting systems, and heating and ventilation design. That’s before you end up with holographic furniture ads appearing in your front room while you’re trying to eat.

Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google—all four firms are chasing this kind of data.

Apple put indoor maps of airports and malls inside of iOS 11 and has acquired multiple indoor mapping startups (WiFiSLAM, indoor.io, FlyByMedia and so on). Microsoft’s recently announced Path Guide also shows its interest in indoor navigation.

There are implications in retail (with beacons), public transit, energy, telecoms, surveillance, public health and more.

I hope the Electronic Frontier Foundation has begun looking at these matters. Someone needs to translate the significance of the privacy agreements you already sign when you agree to use the products within this emerging value chain.

Ulterior design

We can see it coming. Apple’s ARKit is going to have a profound effect on the development of augmented and virtual reality technologies.

You can already see the kind of advances we can expect in new apps for room management, mapping and interior design.

Planner 5D is an interior design app.

The developers recently announced plans to use ARKit to develop a new version of the software that will recognize walls and furniture and create a house design model within the app using image recognition. The new app with AR is scheduled to launch in November 2017—the video below does not show these capabilities.

It is important to note that Apple’s ARKit currently only recognizes horizontal planes, but this could potentially change by the time the software ships this fall.

“There is an exciting future for interior design, when smartphones start integrating advanced AR technology,” said Alexey Sheremetyev, CEO of Planner 5D, in a press release.

“iPhone 8, for example, will possibly have a depth-sensing camera and will recognize vertical dimensions, such as walls. This would be a huge leap forward also for anyone designing their home.”

Is this an investment opportunity?

Thinking about the potential of indoor mapping technologies and AR, I can’t help but imagine that we may see a little M&A activity in the home mapping app development space.

IoT technologists, platform developers and other investors will soon recognize the potential significance of these solutions. They (and you) will want to think about who will own the maps created by these technologies, and how the data contained within those maps might be mined.

UPDATED: 29 July 2017 with subsequently received iRobot statement that stressed the importance of user consent.

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