Visit to avatar robot cafe reveals what it means to build a workplace where everyone can shine

2024 / 4 / 10 | Author: enw_editor

At Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β near Shin-Nihombashi Station in Tokyo, customers are served by what appears at first glance to be AI-operated robots. However, these are actually avatar robots remotely controlled by people who have difficulty going out for various reasons. Looking at the workplace flexibilities in place at this cafe, which strives to create a work environment that accommodates its employees who experience such challenges by using advanced robot technologies, let’s consider how to make workplaces more accessible to diverse populations.

A mission to solve human loneliness, a need heightened by the pandemic

Ory Laboratory Co., Ltd., which manages Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β, has a mission to solve human loneliness through communication technology. According to the company, there are many in Japan who struggle to leave their houses due to a variety of circumstances.

  • – Over 40,000 children cannot attend school due to sickness or injury
  • – An estimated 540,000 people between the ages of 15 and 39 are hikikomori (social recluses), broadly defined
  • – 34 million people have difficulty going out due to limited mobility associated with physical disability, old age, child care responsibilities and other reasons

In response, Ory Laboratory has worked alongside people with severe disabilities since 2012 in an experiment to shape a society where people can meet who they want to meet, work together with their peers, and live the life they want, even while bedridden. The company has developed OriHime (in Japanese), an avatar robot that is operated remotely but provides the sense of being in person; OriHime eye, which facilitates communication solely through eye movement; and OriHime-D, an avatar robot that allows for physical participation in social settings during telework.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began impeding everyone’s ability to go out in 2020, society as a whole was challenged to mitigate loneliness and to implement and share a variety of experiences — even while in a remote environment. It was in this context that Ory Laboratory expanded its efforts to meet these universal needs.

A popular cafe where tourists gather and communication flourishes through robots

The outside of Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β

One of the company’s projects is Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β, which opened in June 2021. The message at the top of their website proclaims, “Giving all the possibility to stay connected with society.” This endeavor is forging jobs and an environment where people can work dynamically through avatar robots.

after opening. Most of the customers were tourists visiting from various countries outside of Japan. According to Keiko Hamaguchi from Ory Laboratory’s CVO’s Office, about 70% of customers are such tourists. It’s not just fascination in the robot technology that is so unique to Tokyo — many visit DAWN because they are interested in diverse ways of working.

An avatar robot greets customers at the cafe entrance

The area where avatar robot OriHime serves customers includes the OriHime Diner, where guests with reservations can enjoy a meal; a bar counter where guests without reservations can enjoy alcoholic beverages; a Tele-Barista robot, which pilots who have undergone barista training operate to brew coffee; and an OriHime operating experience corner (admission fee is required for all).

The tabletop OriHime guides you through the menu

A 23-centimeter-long OriHime is installed on each table. When I took my seat, the pilot remotely operating OriHime first gave a self-introduction, including their nickname, where they live, interests, background on why they have difficulty going out on their own and so on. They then provided an overview of the cafe and menu and took my order. In response to the conversation, OriHime nodded and raised its arms, providing clear reactions that thoroughly imparted the sense that I was communicating with the pilot through a robot medium.

OriHime-D, serves food and beverages, making physical labor a possibility

Bringing out the food and drinks is the some 120-centimeter-long avatar robot, OriHime-D, which is capable of performing tasks that involve manual labor. A pilot also controls this robot remotely and will chat and explain the dishes to you. In a place with many tourists from other countries, service in English is not out of the question either. While most of the pilots did not originally speak English, they advanced in ability after preparing lines and using them repeatedly when serving customers. In addition to the food and drinks, the customers all seemed to appreciate the novel communication experience at the cafe and the new way the pilots were working behind the robots.

The challenges of needing 24-hour care: Meet OHAMU, a pilot with dilated cardiomyopathy

OHAMU introduces herself through OriHime

Around 70 pilots currently work at the Avatar Robot Cafe. During recruitment, there are eight to ten times the number of applicants per position, demonstrating just how many individuals struggle with being  unable to go out freely. I asked OHAMU, the pilot who served my table, about her background, working at the cafe and workplace environments that are accessible to everyone.

— Why is it difficult for you to leave your house, OHAMU?

Several years ago, I experienced what at first seemed like cold symptoms that suddenly worsened, to the extent that I became unable to walk. I was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, an intractable heart disease, and had an emergency operation to implant a ventricular assist device (VAD). I was hospitalized for seven months and discharged right around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the increased risk of infection, I could not go out except to the hospital. Now though, I have a child who goes to nursery school and a life to attend to, so there are times when I need to leave my house.

That said, there are risks of mechanical malfunctioning with the VAD, so I need to have a caregiver present 24 hours a day. My mother takes on this role during the day and my husband does so at night, so it is impossible for me to go out by myself on a whim. Caregivers have their own lives too, so there is a huge hurdle for patients with this condition to go out or work outside the home.

— How do you feel about your situation?

The seven months that I spent in the hospital were almost entirely in the ICU, but it wasn’t just the treatment that was rough ― not being able to communicate with anyone other than my doctor, nurses and husband was really hard. Even after I was discharged, I was unable to accept my illness right away. Not being able to do anything made me pessimistic, which sometimes made me misdirect my anger at my family. I was under a great deal of stress.

A purpose and a new challenge discovered through work

The lunch set at Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β

— How did you come to start working at DAWN?

I actually knew another patient who was working as a pilot at the avatar robot cafe. When I first learned about Ory Laboratory and the cafe, I was impressed that this kind of job existed.

After being discharged, my daily life consisted of seeing just my mother and husband, who are my caregivers, and my child. My desire to talk to people other than my family and to try working kept growing stronger and stronger. At that fateful timing, there was a job opening for a pilot and I applied immediately. Then and there, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

— How is your job at the cafe? Have there been any changes within yourself?

Before I became ill, I had always worked in the service industry, so I am happy that I can do a job I love. It is actually more fun to serve customers through OriHime than in real life. I am a more sensitive person by nature, so with the buffer of OriHime, I can look at customers directly in the eyes, relax and have a straightforward conversation. I don’t just take orders; I chat with customers and occasionally they talk to me about their problems.

In addition to working at the cafe in Nihonbashi, I worked at the limited-time pop-up store in Kyoto in December 2023, and I do other jobs outside of the cafe. Currently I work about six days a week. Going forward, I’d like to challenge myself more and do work that involves communicating with hospitalized children. If I am able to get a heart transplant someday, I will no longer need the VAD and the 24-hour caretaking. I would like to work towards that next stage.

Workplaces should enable everyone to freely choose how they work

— What do you think is important to fostering a work environment that enables everyone to work with confidence and pride when there are people dealing with an array of conditions, including those that hinder their ability to go out?

While remote work has increased post-pandemic, it has also created a divide between those who can work at home and those who cannot. I am able to work now precisely because I am remote, but sometimes people tell how nice it is to be able to work from home. I think it is important to be able to freely choose your work style to accommodate a range of circumstances.

Hamaguchi from Ory Laboratory’s CVO’s Office shared a similar sentiment: “Previously, people were unable to find employment or were forced to quit their jobs for reasons like sickness and disabilities. If companies can provide different ways of working, those people would have an opportunity to do the things that they are capable of doing. We would like to use technology to further expand the opportunities and spread awareness of these examples.”

Technology and attitude shifts cultivate an environment where everyone can work confidently

We all need jobs, work styles and work environments that accommodate our different characteristics and circumstances. As with the example of OriHime, using technologies to make what we thought of as “impossible” possible will greatly transform the working environment. In addition to integrating the latest technologies, it is critical to change the attitudes of each of us and our coworkers. Understanding and consideration of each other’s characteristics and circumstances is one thing; it is imperative that we also eliminate unconscious biases that lead us to believe someone cannot do something because of their disability. By focusing our attention on each individual’s needs and strengths, we can create optimal jobs and work environments. The robot cafe’s innovative experiment helped me to rediscover what is important in shaping work environments of the future.

The concepts of disabilities and barriers are social constructs. With technologies and an awareness of coworkers, we can design more accessible work environments. If everyone can freely choose their work style, what we previously considered “disabilities” and “barriers” will cease to exist. As we move towards shaping environments that allow everyone to work at their best, companies should make serious efforts to integrate technology and change mindsets.

(Author: Momoko Miyahara, Translation: Melody Poland)