Pop-up cafe in Tokyo features robot waiters controlled by people with disabilities

Last December, robotics company Ory Laboratory piloted a new robot to help reintegrate patients with ALS and other mobility issues back into society

Written by
Miroku Hina

‘Who's to say that each person only gets one body?’ This is a question that Ory Laboratory CEO Kentaro Yoshifuji is asking. Some people find it extremely difficult to leave the house, whether due to physical disability or severe social anxiety. For those afflicted individuals, Ory Laboratory is introducing a robot that would allow them to once again connect with their family members and even the workplace. These eponymous remote-control robots can nod, move and speak in the voice of the person controlling it.

This past November/December, the new full-body robot (named OriHime-D) was used for the first time. As part of the ‘Dawn ver.β’ pilot project, a pop-up café was set up in the Nippon Foundation Building, staffed by robots remotely controlled by disabled people suffering from ALS (also known as motor neuron or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and those facing tremendous mobility obstacles in their daily life. This event demonstrated that it’s possible for bedridden individuals to be integrated into society. We check in with Yoshifuji to find out the sort of future he seeks to create with these revolutionary robots.

How did you come up with the idea of the OriHime avatar robot?
In elementary and middle school, I suffered from hikikomori (social withdrawal syndrome). Because of that, there were a lot of events at my school that I was expected to participate in that I just wasn’t able to attend. It was incredibly frustrating. At that time, I thought about how if I just had another body outside of my own I’d be able to go anywhere. So the idea came from my own experience.

Since video chat such as Skype already exists, what would you say is the significance of using OriHime?
For conveying information, phones and video chat devices are the right tools. In the workplace, you make a phone call when you have something specific to discuss. But with those kinds of conversations alone, you can’t get to know someone intimately. But by walking home together with someone, having lunch or just chit-chatting, you can foster a real connection with your community. Actually, within the company we have an employee with disabilities who comes to work using OriHime. Even in just a bit of conversation, as she speaks to you in real-time and nods through the robot, you get the feeling that she really is ‘there’ with you.

In November/December last year, the pop-up café ‘DAWN ver.β’ opened, where the servers were remotely controlled robots. Who was operating those robots?
For that event, we had patients suffering from ALS, muscular dystrophy and psychological illnesses. Individuals that, for whatever reason, found it impossible to leave the house – what they all had in common was the strong determination to work. The farthest operator that we had was based in Shimane prefecture, near Hiroshima, which is more than 700km away. For the café customers, I think they were able to see that, using remote devices, even bedridden individuals can be ‘mobile’. And for the robot operators, I hope that they were able to really feel that ‘mobility’ is possible and that they don’t have to be limited by their physical bodies.

Do you have any plans to put on a café like this again in the future?
Looking forward to 2020, we have plans to incorporate these robot servers into existing restaurants. We collected a huge amount of data from this café that can be used to plan our next steps with the project. We’re continuing to look for operators. Even those with extreme disabilities can, through remote means, have employment and be active members of society. This is the model case we hope to show the world.

What’s your vision for the future with OriHime?
My mission is to eliminate isolation. To that end, even for those unable to go outside, it’s important for them to feel that they have a role in society and to feel needed. As the development of OriHime advances, if we’re able to make small, portable machines with wheels that allow them to move quickly, it may even be possible for them to work more efficiently than humans. Furthermore, as more and more avatar robots come out, we’ll have more and more opportunities to become friends with people living with physical handicaps. If this can be done, we will see a world that we haven’t seen before.

There will be more Dawn ver.β pop-up cafés in the future. For more information, check this website.

Open Tokyo

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