An Experimental Café in Nihombashi where Avatar Robots Facilitate Human Connections

"Avatar Robot Café" is a place where people who are housebound can work as service staff through the use of remote-controlled robots.
OriHime-D robots act as avatars for their operators, or "pilots," whose name and face is shown on a little screen.

People Unable to Leave Their Homes Take on Hospitality

"Hello. Welcome to DAWN. Please help yourself to some water." A 120-centimeter-tall Orihime-D robot slowly makes its way along a guideline on the floor to greet us, stopping next to our table and offering us a tray of drinks. We can see a picture of the robot's pilot along with their nickname on a little monitor on the robot's chest. Such is the service you'll receive at which opened in Chuo City, Tokyo, in 2021.

Their server for the day and operating the OriHime-D unit was Ito, a resident of Akishima City, Tokyo, who is currently engaged in a battle against cancer and is recuperating at home. Ito has a weakened immune system due to her chemotherapy, which makes it difficult for her to go outside and mingle with others. She also has to use a wheelchair and cane to get around because the cancer has spread to her bones and she is prone to fractures.

OriHime-D welcomes customers at the entrance to the café. Customers can choose to sit at OriHime tables and receive service from the robots (reservation recommended) or at self-service tables that are not served by the robots.

The café utilizes the OriHime robot series, which can be remotely controlled by a mouse or the tracking of eye motions to act as avatars for their pilots. Pilots move the robots around based on what they can see of their surroundings from a camera on the robot's forehead, as well as what they hear through a microphone. They can perform simple movements, such as nodding the head or raising a hand, all through eye tracking technology, and by using the microphone and speakers, they can communicate as if they were standing right there. As such, the robots have been introduced into corporate reception areas, and they are also gaining attention as a means of helping children who have chronic or terminal illnesses attend their classes remotely from hospital.

Yoshifuji Ory, the developer of OriHime and CEO of Ory Laboratory, the Tokyo-based company behind Avatar Robot Café, said that he wanted to create an assistive device that could help mitigate the loneliness that people feel when they are unable to go outside and participate in society.

He states, "I have a friend who is bedridden with a terminal illness, and he once told me that the biggest challenge of not being able to move around freely is that you don't get to have those daily encounters and new discoveries. That sparked an idea: what if we used OriHime to create a work environment where these sorts of people could actively participate in society? It would create an opportunity for people who have never worked before to take their first steps into the working world by allowing them to engage in simple physical labor, such as carrying food and serving tea. I figured a café would be the perfect environment for us to conduct a social experiment that could involve our customers as well. It would be a way to show that teleworking is a viable alternative to manual labor."

Yoshifuji, CEO of Ory Laboratory, was born in 1987. He took up robotics research while studying at Waseda University. His "Avatar Robot Café DAWN ver.β" and his robot OriHime won the Good Design Award in 2021. Photo: Courtesy of OryLab Inc.

Towards a Japanese Model of a Welfare Society

"Hello, my name is Yui. I will be assisting you at this table today. Do you know how to order?" says a small OriHime atop one of the tables. Customers can access the café's menu online and place their orders by scanning a QR code with their smartphone. Pilot Yui lives all the way in Fukuoka Prefecture. She was born with cerebral palsy and has difficulties using her arms and legs. She used to work at a regular company in a wheelchair, but she often felt anxious on days when she could not attend in person due to bad weather or a flare up of her condition.

Yui says, "There are many clerical job offerings for people in wheelchairs, but I just love talking to people so I think I'm better suited to the service industry. I may not be able to physically come in to work, but I can use a fully remote-controlled robot to engage with customers. It took some getting used to, but now I even use the robot to train new pilots as well as carrying out my regular customer service! I find it all very rewarding."

These are not AI robots; they are operated by real people. Yoshifuji designed the robot faces after Noh masks to make them look as universal as possible, while at the same time retaining a sense of Japanese culture.

There are about 70 pilots involved in the program, all of whom have various circumstances that prevent them from leaving the house for work. Some are people with disabilities or terminal illnesses, some are people with mobility issues living overseas who, due to a lack of foreigner-friendly workplaces within their range of accessibility, are unable to secure employment, and some are caregivers who are unable to leave their homes due to a family member's care needs. Some of the pilots, having gained new social experience through the project, have gone on to be scouted for new jobs. There has also been an increasing number of visitors from abroad, and the overall response to the café seems to be overwhelmingly positive.

Yoshifuji says "Japan is an advanced country with a super-aging society. I hope that with our experimental café, we can move towards a Japanese model of a welfare society. We are living in a society where there are going to be more and more people using breathing apparatuses and wheelchairs. We want to change people's mindsets from 'I can't do that' to 'Yes, I can!' I hope that when the world sees what we're doing at Avatar Robot Café, people will take it as an opportunity to reflect on what such a style of working might mean for their own wellbeing."

A pilot trained as a barista remotely controls the Tele-Barista. Coffees are made to order on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 12pm, 2pm, and 4pm (online reservations recommended).

There is plenty of room for robots and wheelchairs to move around, and customers and pilots engage in lively conversation, while pilots in remote areas check in on each other. Sometimes the robots lose their bearings and spin around in circles, and sometimes there are communication breakdowns, but that's all part of the charm of the café.

Yoshifuji hopes that customers can enjoy the process in its entirety, mishaps and all, because it is those mishaps that can actually become the turning point when it comes to the advancement of robotics. Every customer who visits the café is a participant in a public experiment paving the way to the future.

Drinks and sweets are available, as well as hamburgers and other dishes. Mixers and blenders are also on hand to be used for children's meals, or for those of people with swallowing difficulties.

Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver. β

Nihonbashi Life Science Building 31F, 3-8-3 Nihonbashi-Honcho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Business hours: 11am - 6pm
Closed: Thursdays (open if Thursday is a national holiday)
* Reservations recommended for OriHime Seats served by the robots
Interview and writing by Iwasaki Kaori
Photos by Tonomura Seiji
Translation by Amitt