Appliances: Race for the robot intensifies in U.S.

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They're far from the Jetsons' Rosie in functionality or friendliness, but home-cleaning robots are on their way to U.S. stores by late this year or early next.

Maytag Corp.'s Hoover, AB Electrolux's Eureka and European appliance maker Dyson are among those in a race to land the first robotic vacuum cleaner in North American homes, while Procter & Gamble Co. is shopping to appliance manufacturers an idea for "Dusty," a robot that sweeps and mops hard-surface floors-and may even scoop up backyard dog droppings.

Hoover brand earlier this month entered an agreement with Friendly Robotics, an Israeli company located outside Tel Aviv, to develop what the companies said would be the first vacuuming robot in North America.

A spokeswoman said Hoover plans to launch its vacuuming robot, still unnamed, by late this year or early next, but did not disclose marketing plans or an agency assignment. Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, Chicago, handles other Hoover products.

Hoover is already behind European and Japanese marketers. Dyson last year launched in the United Kingdom its DC06 vacuum, billed somewhat ominously as "the first fully autonomous household appliance." Earlier this year, Dyson launched a $40 million review centered in London for creative and media agencies to handle what an executive familiar with the matter said may include a U.S. launch of the robot.

AB Electrolux, owner of Eureka in the U.S., launched its red, disc-shaped Trilobite vacuum robot in Sweden last November, expanded to Switzerland earlier this year and plans to enter more European countries soon, a spokeswoman said. Trilobite sells for about $1,300, still well below the $3,800 Matsushita vacuuming robot launched last year in Japan.

early adopters

The spokeswoman wouldn't say when Eureka plans to launch a robot in the U.S. or whether it would try to beat Hoover to market here. Eureka first demonstrated a prototype, the Eureka Robo Vac, in 1997 at the International Housewares Show and has been compiling ever since a database of interested consumers who could serve as a vanguard of early adopters.

But Tom Millis, project director for the Hoover robotic vacuum, said, "We are confident that the research we have done to date indicates we will be the first."

Perhaps more intriguing is the proposed cleaning robot from P&G. A group of five P&G employees tried unsuccessfully last year through Cincinnati small-business incubators to raise outside venture capital for the robot, which cleans hard surface floors. The robot idea being peddled by Iams marketer P&G might one day also be fitted for backyard doggie duty.

Alternately called Convenience Companion, Home-Bot or "Dusty," the device is projected to be priced under $200 and will benefit P&G by using Swiffer cloths, said executives familiar with the matter. P&G is soliciting bids from other companies to license the product. A spokeswoman said, "We expect pricing to be affordable in a consumer marketplace."

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