British engineering company Dyson unveiled its first commercially available robot vacuum cleaner at an event in Tokyo on Thursday. The company, led by prolific inventor James Dyson and best known for its higher-end bagless vacuum cleaners, has reportedly spent 16 years and $47 million developing its robot vacuum, the Dyson 360 Eye. The 360 Eye will launch in Japan in early 2015, and then elsewhere later in the year.

Dyson boasts that its robot vacuum is superior to competitive products on the market largely for two reasons -- its unique camera system makes it better at "seeing" the area to be vacuumed, and its suction is more powerful at sucking up dirt. First, let's "look" at the 360 Eye and then explore how this new entrant might affect the leadership position of iRobot's (NASDAQ:IRBT) Roomba.

Dyson

Source: Dyson.

A look at Dyson's 360 Eye robot vacuum

The 360 Eye name stems from the vacuum's unique vision system, which Dyson believes is the future of robotic navigation technology. The system consists of a 360-degree panoramic-view camera and infrared sensors, which map out and plot the robot's navigation.

Here's a snippet from Wired about how the robot vacuum works:

To get started, the Eye undocks itself from a charging station. ... The robot triangulates its position in the room, finds the center, and starts spiraling outward. Once it has vacuumed 10 square feet, it relocates to clean a new patch. Infrared sensors keep the Eye aware of pets or thin table legs, but the bulk of the vacuum's spatial smarts come from the real-time map of the room. ... Once it's covered the entire floor, it scoots back into its charging dock.

Like Dyson's handheld vacuums, its robot vacuum operates using cyclonic action, which reportedly allows it to capture particles as small as pollen. The company claims the 360 Eye sports the strongest suction of any robot vacuum, thanks to being equipped with Dyson's proprietary digital motor.

Dyson

Source: Dyson.

The 360 Eye is the only robot vacuum that moves via continuous treads. Competing products use wheels, which Dyson says can cause them to get stuck or shift off course. Unlike most robot vacuums, Dyson's vac provides suction across the full width of the machine and reportedly features the most advanced cleaner-head technology. Lastly, Dyson's 360 Eye can be controlled by an app available on iOS and Android platforms, which allows the user to control and schedule how and when it cleans. It also enables the user to view maps of cleaning progress.

Drawbacks? People have varying needs and wants, of course, but some consumers might consider the 360 Eye's 20-to-30-minute battery life too short or its higher-than-Roomba profile a disadvantage, since it means it can't get under many sofas or other low-sitting furniture. Additionally, some folks may bristle at the price. While Dyson's release didn't mention a price and most outlets are reporting that no price is yet available, CNET reported that the price in Japan, where the product will first launch early next year, is 130,000 yen, which is about $1,237. If accurate, that's pricey compared with iRobot's Roomba and competing products. The highest-end Roomba, the 880 model, sells for about $700.

Will the 360 Eye give the Roomba a black eye?

iRobot's Roomba is considered the leader in the more intuitive, higher-end robot vacuum space. However, LG Electronics and Samsung -- both of which have solid chops in the consumer electronics and related products category -- also compete in this arena. Additionally, there are a handful of manufacturers that offer less intuitive and lower-priced products.

It's certainly too soon to determine the extent of the competitive threat that the 360 Eye presents to iRobot's Roomba. The product has yet to be used in an objective, real-world environment, and there appears to be no official price. That said, it would be a mistake to underestimate the 360 Eye's potential to pull the rug out from under the Roomba's wheeled feet. Dyson is a top name in the higher-end, higher-quality vacuum cleaner market and is known for its engineering expertise. It's also a good-sized company -- it generated nearly $10 billion in revenue in 2013, versus iRobot's $487 million -- run by a rich founder with deep pockets.

James Dyson founded his company after he invented the first bagless vacuum cleaner. The tenacious Brit spent years designing thousands of prototypes of his first vacuum, which was revolutionary as it operates using cyclonic action. When the high-end vacuum finally hit the market, however, it became -- and remains -- very popular.

Given this background, it seems reasonable to believe two things:

  • Dyson's robot vacuum will function very well.
  • Consumers who are pleased with Dyson's handheld vacuums should be more predisposed to buy the 360 Eye over a competing product if they're in the market for a robot vac.

However, there's also a potential positive for iRobot. It seems very likely that Dyson's entrance will increase consumer awareness of the robot vacuum category and expand the entire market. Depending on how well the 360 Eye functions and on its pricing relative to the Roomba, sales of the Roomba could actually increase. If the 360 Eye's price is, indeed, about $1,237, it seems likely that Roomba could benefit.

Foolish final thoughts

Dyson's entrance into the robot vacuum market should be a good thing for consumers, as consumers almost always benefit when there is increased competition. The story for iRobot investors, however, isn't so clear yet, as I've discussed. Certainly, investors need to monitor how well received Dyson's 360 Eye is when it starts selling in Japan early next year. While iRobot reportedly possesses some impressive robotics technology and patents, the fact is that currently the Roomba is the company's meal ticket. iRobot's home (consumer) business accounts for about 90% of its revenue, and the Roomba is its best-selling product within this business.

Beth McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and iRobot and owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.