In August, a robot vaguely resembling a kangaroo will begin stacking sandwiches, drinks and ready meals on shelves at a Japanese convenience store in a test its maker, Telexistence, hopes will help trigger a wave of retail automation. Following that trial, store operator FamilyMart says it plans to use robot workers at 20 stores around Tokyo by 2022. At first, people will operate them remotely -- until the machines' artificial intelligence (AI) can learn to mimic human movements. Rival convenience store chain Lawson is deploying its first robot in September, according to Telexistence. "It advances the scope and scale of human existence," the robot maker's chief executive, Jin Tomioka, said as he explained how its technology lets people sense and experience places other than where they are.
Japanese convenience stores are testing out robots to stock store shelves in hopes of combating the country's labor shortage and allowing human workers to socially distance during a pandemic. FamilyMart, Japan's second largest convenience store chain, has partnered with robotics company Telexistence on an android stock boy named Model-T, after Henry Ford's famous car. Rather than use AI, Model-T is connected to a human operator who manipulates the robot's movements remotely using virtual reality (VR). The seven-foot tall robot has a wide range of motion, necessary for lifting and moving products, with a lag time of only 50 milliseconds between operator and automaton. This week Model-T was rolled out at Lawson, another convenience store that is a subsidiary of Mitsubishi.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced society to reshape how people interact, and robots are fast filling the void, even to the point of helping alleviate feelings of loneliness in a world where social distancing has become the new norm. While automatons were primarily utilized to perform menial tasks such as cleaning in the past, their ability to remove the need for close contact has now elevated their status and importance. In February, robot and technology solutions company Seikatsu Kakumei Inc. began selling what it dubbed a "digital teleportation robot" package to help businesses carry out customer-facing activities during the pandemic. By helping shops, showrooms, conventions and trade exhibitions handle visitors, robots "can bring people closer to the normal state of communication," said CEO Yuko Miyazawa. "Being holed up in a room is unnatural for human beings," he added.
In a quiet aisle of a small supermarket in Tokyo, a robot dutifully goes about its work. It looks like a well-integrated autonomous mechanical worker, but that is something of an illusion. This robot doesn't have a mind of its own. Several miles away, a human worker is controlling its every movement remotely and watching via a virtual reality (VR) headset that provides a robot's eye view. This is the work of Japanese firm Telexistence, whose Model-T robot is designed to allow people to do physical labour in supermarkets and other locations from the comfort of their own homes.
Telexistence Inc is a Tokyo-based robotic startup that I stumbled upon that made me think about the future of retail. Telexistence unveiled its first mass production prototype for Model H. The premise is simple, the drone is dormant until a user logs on with a VR headset and starts moving it around. While the kit in the video is bulky (and I am not sure why that is the case) in the future it's likely to be as simple as logging into a social network. In a way, this is the future that Mark Zuckerburg wants and one I can see happen en mass if drones start to really take off.