Avatar robots are beginning to stake out their place in the workforce, and Japan is leading the way
- Robots are increasingly finding their way into the workforce in a variety of sectors
- Kentaro Yoshifuji of OryLab is one of a number of entrepreneurs experimenting in the avatar robot field
- Yohsifuji believes robots can help people with physical disabilities participate more in society
- Because of his work, Insider named Yoshifuji to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming healthcare in Asia
- Visit Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories.
This summer a different kind of restaurant is expecting to open its doors to customers in Tokyo. Unlike regular eateries, patrons at the Dawn Avatar Robot Café will be served by an unusual waiting staff – fully functional 120 centimeter-tall robots.
Robots in the service industry are of course nothing new. But where the previous cases have tended to be mainly of novelty value, the Dawn Cafe has a much more serious objective.
These avatar robots will all be controlled remotely by individuals who for whatever reason are unable to leave their homes for long periods and is one part of a broader objective to help people use robot technology to overcome social and physical isolation.
Operators can talk with customers through the microphone and speaker systems in the robots and take their orders, while the robots range of motion enables them to perform basic manual tasks.
The café is the brainchild of Kentaro Yoshifuji, CEO and cofounder of OryLab. As a child, he was unable to attend school for close to three years for medical reasons, and it was during that time that he first began thinking about developing an avatar communication robot to help combat loneliness.
The Dawn Café will be the latest incarnation of his own personal mission.
“I want to make it so that people are able to meet the people they want to even while staying in their sickbed, and at the same time I am aiming to create a future where everyone can participate in society,” Yoshifuji said.
The new robot workforce is here
Robots are increasingly finding their way into the workforce and OryLab is just one of a number of start-ups in the country that are experimenting with robot technology in this space.
Telexistence, one of the early pioneers in the field, already has avatar robot prototypes in place stocking shelves in a number of Japanese convenience stores. The robots are controlled remotely by operators using VR technology. Telexistence says it hopes to have the technology in 1500 stores over the next several years.
Similarly, Japanese aviation giant ANA Holdings, has created an ambitious road map for the implementation of avatar robot technology applications over a variety of telework situations. The company is currently testing avatar robots as tour guides, corporate trainers, receptionists and customer service assistants. Future use cases include farming, fishing and even space exploration.
In November 2018, ANA partnered with OryLab and the Nippon Foundation to open a temporary pop-up version of the Dawn Café. During the café’s two-week run, the avatar robots were operated remotely by ten people with serious physical disabilities, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal muscular atrophy.
OryLab’s eye-tracking technology even enabled operators to manage the robots through eye movement alone, using a software which reproduces a transparent analogue keyboard on the screen. Over 900 people visited the café during its short run. “The robots enable physical work and social participation,” Yoshifuji said.
Avatar robots providing an end to loneliness
Following his isolation as a child, Yoshifuji immersed himself in robotics. After attending a robot programming class in high school, he joined the Waseda Universities robot research program in 2007. This ultimately gave birth to OryLab, where Yohshifuji partnered with cofounders and Yohsifumi Shiiba and current CFO Aki Yuki, who is described as the ultimate driving force behind turning Yoshifuji’s vision into an actual business.
The resulting technology was christened OriHime – a combination of Ori and Hime, the respective nicknames of Yoshifuji and Yuki. The original OriHime is a desktop unit equipped with a camera, microphone, and speakers, and operated via the internet with a smartphone or tablet. The larger versions at the Dawn Café are known as OriHime-D.
The OriHime robot is already showing its value. Roughly 500 are already in use by about 80 companies, enabling advanced remote working. But true to its mission, OryLab has also been experimenting with its robots in other ways.
In 2019, a 6-year-old girl born with congenital myopathy, which makes it difficult for her to move her arms and legs, was able to attend a pop concert with help from a OriHime. The robot was placed in situ at the concert venue and the girl was able to control the robot’s movements and reactions from her bed at her home in Yokohama.
Similarly, the company has been looking at how the technology can help children with physical impairments attend classes virtually. In one instance OriHime was used to enable a teacher with ALS attend his students’ graduation ceremony.
A future of robot collaborators
According to a forecast by Verified Market Research, the global market for remote-controlled robots will grow to $789 million in 2027, up from $181 million in 2019. The spread of 5G and 6G technology is expected to help fuel the growth.
For Japan in particular, where the impact of a rapidly-aging population and a declining birth rate is already having an impact on the country’s workforce, avatar robot technology could help alleviate the looming labor shortage by opening up the market to people that had previously been left out.
And with the COVID-19 pandemic changing the rules on social interaction and social distancing, new ways of using avatar robots are already emerging. From security patrol robots to self-driving wheelchairs and more, robot technology is opening up new ways of working.
With increasing automation, however, the fear of workers around the world losing their jobs to robots is also on the rise. Manufacturers and developers see things differently, arguing that avatar robots in particular will only help open up the workforce. ANA Holdings, for instance, says that its technology is not seeking to replace human presence, but rather will allow greater human collaboration and allow people to connect with society, regardless of physical limitations.
ANA is also supporting the US$10 million ANA Avatar XPrize to promote new thinking in the field. The prize has attracted 77 companies from 19 countries. The winning team will be the one that is able to best develop an avatar system that allows the operator to see, hear and interact within a remote environment. The winners of the four-year competition are expected to be announced in 2022.
For Yoshifuj as well, avatar robots represent less of a dystopian future and more a vision of a society where everybody can feel part of something and where communication technology can ultimately solve human loneliness. “I want to create a world in which people who can’t move their bodies can work too,” he said.
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