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Barrier-free 'avatar robot cafe' opening in Tokyo aims to 'eliminate loneliness'

Kentaro Yoshifuji, co-founder and CEO of Ory Laboratories Inc., is seen in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on April 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuka Obuno)

TOKYO -- A cafe where robots serve customers will open here in June. People with severe disabilities who have difficulty leaving their homes will remotely control the "avatar" robots to deliver drinks and chat with customers. A young robotics researcher, who has made it his life's mission to "eliminate loneliness" through his experiences of truancy and social withdrawal, has put his cherished idea into practice.

    The "Avatar Robot Cafe DAWNver.beta" is scheduled to open on June 21 in the Nihombashi district in the capital, and has raised funds for its operation through crowdfunding. The project was planned by Kentaro Yoshifuji, 33, a robot researcher and co-founding CEO of Ory Laboratories Inc.

    The cafe will have 70 seats over about a 170-square-meter space, and will serve various kinds of coffee, lunch, etc. It will be wheelchair accessible, including for stretcher-type wheelchairs, and will be fully barrier-free, with a power supply for charging medical equipment such as ventilators available for rent. One of the special features of the facility is the 120-centimeter-tall "OriHime-D," a mobile robot that guides the cafe, serves customers, and directs the entire floor.

    OriHime-D is not an automatic robot based on artificial intelligence, but rather each robot has its own operator. This is the reason why they are called "avatar." The person who operates the robot is called the "pilot."

    At the cafe, the pilots are people with severe physical disabilities from all over the country who suffer from intractable diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and have limited mobility. They control the robot remotely from their homes or hospitals. In addition, an ALS patient, who used to be a barista, will operate a custom-made "tele-barista" by inputting data into a computer to make a cup of coffee according to the customer's taste.

    How does OriHime work? I heard that a table-top type OriHime, not the movable type introduced in cafes, was actually working at the Mos Burger Osaki store in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, so I visited the store.

    OriHime is seen working at the self-service checkout corner of the Mos Burger Osaki store in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, on April 15, 2021. The robot's eyes glow green when it is "on duty." (Mainichi/Yuka Obuno)

    "What do you recommend?" I called out to OriHime at the self-service checkout corner. The robot turned its head in the direction of me and said, "Welcome. Would you like to try the seasonal burger?" It was a young woman's voice. When I was having a hard time paying for my order, the voice advised me to "turn your payment card the other way," or "turn it a little more sideways to let the barcode be read." When I picked up my items at another counter, I was waved off by OriHime, who said, "Thank you very much."

    The pilot of this OriHime was Maya, 24, an SMA patient. Almost every weekday, she spends an hour from 2 p.m. at her home in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, while serving customers at a store in Tokyo by remote control. Through OriHime, Maya said, "It's a lot of fun. The elderly customers, who are usually not good at self-service checkouts, often use my service. I explain things slowly, according to their pace."

    According to Ory Laboratories, OriHime moves by the pilot's gaze and fingertip control of the computer. It can also talk to "guests" through speakers and express its intentions by moving OriHime's face and arms up, down, left and right. OriHime has a built-in microphone and camera, so the pilot can see the expressions and movements of the guests in front of the machine. This allows them to see the scenery as if they were there, and to communicate with others in a flexible manner. Artificial voices are also available for those who have difficulty speaking.

    Yoshifuji's development of OriHime was influenced by his childhood experiences. As he was often sick, absent from school or hospitalized, he found it painful to go to classes. For 3 1/2 years, from the fifth grade of elementary school to the second year of junior high school, he skipped school and stayed at home, which made him realize, even as a child, how lonely he was.

    At the suggestion of his mother, he participated in a robot-building event, which led him to enter a technical college. However, he had difficulty listening to classes and communicating with his friends, and he had felt uncomfortable in life.

    This April 2015 photo shows Kentaro Yoshifuji, left, and his secretary Yuta Banda. (Photo courtesy of Ory Laboratories Inc.)

    While continuing his research on robots at Waseda University, Yoshifuji came up with the idea of communicating with people through robots. His experience of feeling lonely during his former hospitalization led him to work on research to provide children in long-term hospitalization with a tool to connect with their families, which led to the development of the first OriHime. In 2012, while still in college, he established Ory Laboratories.

    It was during this time that Yoshifuji met Yuta Banda, then 24 and living in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, who had been involved in a car accident at the age of 4 and had been hospitalized for 20 years, bedridden, with a spinal cord injury.

    After learning of OriHime's existence, Banda sent a message to Yoshifuji through social media in the winter of 2013, saying, "I'm rooting for you. I want to join forces with you if we share the same dream."

    Looking back, Yoshifuji said, "Banda never said, 'I can't help it' or 'I can't do it' because he was hospitalized or physically disabled. I thought he had an amazing spirit, whereas I wanted to die after living in isolation for a mere 3 1/2 years."

    The following year, Yoshifuji met Banda in Morioka and they hit it off. "I think we were a good match. When I saw Banda, I thought, 'If he's willing to take on a challenge, I'm willing to do so too,' and I felt that he had the ability to inspire others and get them involved," Yoshifuji recalled.

    The two began giving lectures together. Yoshifuji explained about OriHime, and Banda operated a computer with his chin from Morioka, and through OriHime, talked about his life at that time, which had changed completely after 20 years in bed. Later, Yoshifuji hired Banda as his secretary. Banda "came" to the office every day from his hospital room in Morioka using OriHime to manage Yoshifuji's schedule and update the company's website.

    One day in 2016, Yoshifuji said casually to OriHime, piloted by Banda, "You're my secretary, so why don't you make me coffee?" Then Banda replied, "Well, then, make me a body like that." These words became the starting point of the avatar robot cafe.

    OriHime-D converses with customers at the Nippon Foundation building in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 3, 2018. A person with severe disabilities controls it remotely from home. (Mainichi/Manami Ono)

    However, in 2017, just as Yoshifuji started to plan the opening of the cafe in earnest, Banda suddenly became ill and passed away at the age of 28. Yoshifuji was shocked beyond words, and preparation work stopped for about six months. However, he took the opening of the cafe as Banda's "last will" and made it a reality.

    The rent for a prime location in Tokyo to set up the cafe was not cheap, and the five to ten "pilots" had to be paid part-time. But Yoshifuji was not worried and said, "It's the world's first cafe where customers are served by avatar robots, so we can show them an unknown world. I'd be happy if they get excited together with us."

    "Of course, there is a possibility of failure at first, but all we have to do is find the cause and improve it. My ultimate goal is to create a society where people who are using wheelchairs or bedridden due to illness or a disability can have hope that they will be able to work and be of service to others. I want to use the cafe as an opportunity to make working with an avatar robot an option in society."

    The cafe is located at 3-8-3 Nihombashi-Honcho, Chuo Ward, Tokyo. For more information, please visit the website at https://dawn2021.orylab.com/

    (Japanese original by Yuka Obuno, Digital News Center)

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