This Cafe in Japan Employs People with Disabilities to Pilot Their Robot Servers

Have you ever been to a restaurant that uses robot waiters to serve its guests? In Japan, there is now a cafe that uses robots to attend to its guests. But that’s not the incredible part! Behind these robot servers are “pilots,” people with disabilities, who control them remotely. So how did this project come about and who is its mastermind? Let’s have a look!

A cafe in Japan hires people with disabilities to remotely operate their robot servers.

Image credits: Life Where I’m From/Youtube

In 2018, a rather unusual cafe opened up in Japan. This cafe had robot waiters that were controlled remotely by people with disabilities. The robot’s controllers even earned 1,000 yen (about $9) an hour, the standard pay rate for wait staff in Japan.

Initially, this food joint was meant to operate for just two weeks while its creators raised money for the future of this project. Later, encouraged by all the positive feedback from customers and employees, Ory Laboratory, the company behind this project, decided to open a permanent outpost. This is how, in June 2021, the “Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β” opened in Nihonbashi, Tokyo.

The pilots behind the robots are often severely disabled, with conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). They can control the robots from wherever they are, be it at home or in hospitals where they may be bedridden or in a wheelchair. As per Ory Laboratory, there are currently over 60 pilots in their employ.

The robots can be operated with eye moments as well, enabling immobilized people to work.

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The OriHime-D avatar robots that staff the cafe are about four feet tall. Their 14 joint motors allow them to do things like carrying trays and picking up plates and cups. Consequently, they are able to welcome diners, take orders, deliver food and drinks, and even clear tables like regular wait staff. These little servers also sport accessories like scarves or bonnets and ID cards with photographs of their pilots.

To enable communication between the pilots and the guests, the robots also have a built-in camera, a microphone, and speakers. Finally, as if these features weren’t already quite impressive, the robots can be controlled through eye movements as well. This then allows even immobilized people to work at this cafe. Besides the DAWN cafe, Ory Laboratory’s bots also work as guides and greeters at department stores, offices, and transport stations.

Since these robots were originally created to be used in the homes of people with severe disabilities, these features make sense. Nevertheless, it is truly incredible how they have now found applications beyond such homes. 

This project will hopefully give people with disabilities a chance to stay employed.

Undoubtedly, people with severe disabilities are often restricted in their movements. This then poses a huge hurdle in their abilities to be employed or participate in the world. At the same time, other people might find it difficult to commute to work due to responsibilities such as child care. For all such individuals, Ory Laboratory hopes that their robots can provide novel means of social participation. This way, their robots can give an all-new meaning to remote working.

The cafe project has since garnered much appreciation and prestige.

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Established in 1957, the Good Design Award is a leading commendation system in Japan. In 2021, the Japan Institute of Design Promotion gave the grand prize of this award to the avatar robot cafe. The judging committee also praised the cafe as an “epoch-making business” that helps remove obstacles faced by those who wish to work but cannot. In the future, this cafe can hopefully serve as a starting point for the expansion of contact between people with disabilities and the world.

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