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Soon, Clean Your House Like The Jetsons

What cook, for example, wouldn't be tempted by TMIO Inc.'s forthcoming "intelligent oven"? The double oven features touch-screen controls, built-in refrigeration and an electronic communication system letting people control it from afar via a cell phone or the Internet -- so they can start dinner while they are at the office or in their cars.

"It's Internet-controlled and keeps the food fresh until you're ready to cook. It adjusts to your schedule," said Diane Valachovic, chief operations officer of Ohio-based TMIO, as she showed off the online menu for setting the temperature.

The Roomba is a self-propelled, slow-moving robotic vacuum cleaner has sold more than 1 million units since its debut two years ago. (iRobot)

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Trouble is, TMIO will charge a whopping $7,500 for its ovens when they roll off the production line in April.

The futuristic house also was loaded with big-screen TVs and electronic wall-menus for controlling heating, lighting and security alarms. Of special interest was a new wrinkle: Several home-networking vendors have integrated their wares with the software running Microsoft's media center computers.

That means if you buy a fancy new security or lighting system from, say, Home Automation Inc., then the controls for dimming your chandelier or opening the kitchen blinds can show up on the main menu of a Microsoft media center computer, right beside controls for playing music and recording TV. The setup suggests Microsoft's media center operating system is poised for bigger things than just zapping music and movies around the house.

Like many folks, though, I'm not ready to pipe digital music into every room of my house. But I am ready to buy the Roomba, which has gotten decent reviews for its slow but steady ability to whisk up dirt.

A $150 unit I tested this week did an admirable job cleaning the wood and tile floors on the first floor of my house. Although it pained me to watch it bump aggressively against the legs of antique cabinets, the Roomba's bumper guard did its job. I was surprised it whirred nearly as loudly as my regular vacuum, which still does a better job -- though with a lot more effort on my part.

The bigger surprise was that my dogs didn't kill it, as they do many remote-controlled vehicles. The rumbling disc briefly trapped my cowering Yorkshire terrier in a corner, while her sister, a West Highland terrier, barked frantically and pawed the Roomba until its plastic dustbin fell open and the motor stopped. Soon, however, the dogs grew bored and let the Roomba go its merry way.

IRobot's Angle said Roomba is only the first of several products to come. "This year we are coming out with a new product that will be in the domain of automating housework, and over time we will offer an increasingly broad array of products."

Already, the Roomba has led to copycats, mostly at higher prices, including robo-vacs from AB Electrolux and Alfred Karcher GmbH costing five to 10 times as much as iRobot's. There is also a cheap knockoff called the Zoombot, available for $100 or less, which has drawn lousy reviews.

Angle declined to reveal what his company's next home robot will do, but household chores he considers feasible include folding laundry, cleaning windows and mowing lawns. In the future, he added, helping elderly people live alone for longer will be a key goal, through robots that perform health care and personal maintenance tasks.

Roomba's success reminds me of the predictions contained in a report last fall from a United Nations commission. While industrial robots underwent explosive growth in recent years, the report said, domestic service robots will grow even more rapidly over the next few years, surpassing the industrial robot market by 2006.

That is why many analysts believe personal robots today sit where personal computers did in the early 1980s -- on the mass-market launching pad.

No wonder Bill Gates went out of his way last week to meet the humble Roomba.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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