Fancy checking into a hotel with a horrifyingly realistic robotic, English-speaking robot receptionist at a hotel that is fully robot-operated? If you love Japan, and maybe speak Japanese, you will maybe want to forgo the dinosaur and choose the eerily human-like “female” robot who speaks fluent Japanese. This, sadly, isn’t a joke.
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“If you want to check in, push one,” the dinosaur says. The visitor still has to punch a button on the desk and type in information on a touch panel screen.
From the front desk to the porter that is an automated trolley taking luggage to the room, this hotel in south-western Japan, aptly called Weird Hotel, is “manned” almost totally by robots to save labour costs.
Hideo Sawada, who runs the hotel as part of an amusement park, insists using robots is not a gimmick but a serious effort to use technology and achieve efficiency.
Henn na Hotel, as it is called in Japanese, was shown to reporters on Wednesday, complete with robot demonstrations, before it opened on Friday.
Another feature is facial recognition technology, so instead of the standard electronic keys, a digital image of the guest’s face is registered during check-in.
The reason? Robots aren’t good at finding keys if people happen to lose them.
A giant robotic arm, usually seen in manufacturing, sits in glass quarters in the lobby. It lifts one of the boxes stacked into the wall and puts it through a space in the glass, where a guest can place an item in it, to use as a locker.
The arm will put the box back into the wall until the guest wants it again. The system is called “robot cloak room”.
Why a simple coin locker won’t do is not the point.
“I wanted to highlight innovation,” Sawada said. “I also wanted to do something about hotel prices going up.”
Staying at Henn na Hotel starts at 9,000 yen ($80), a bargain for Japan, where a stay in one of the nicer hotels can easily cost twice or three times that much.
The concierge is a doll-like hairless robot with voice recognition that prattles breakfast and event information. It cannot call a cab or do other errands.
Japan is a world leader in robotics technology, and the government is trumpeting robotics as a pillar of its growth strategy.
Robots have long been used in manufacturing but interest is also high in exploring the potential of robots in human interaction, including helping care for the elderly.
Robotics is also key in decommissioning the three reactors in Fukushima, northern Japan, which went into meltdowns in 2011, in the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl.
One area on which Henn na Hotel still relies on humans is security. It is dotted with security cameras, and real people watch everything through a monitor to ensure guests are safe and no one makes off with an expensive robot.
“And they still can’t make beds,” said Sawada, who has also engineered the rise of a popular affordable Japanese travel agency.
He has big ambitions for his robot hotel concept and wants to open another soon in Japan and, later, abroad. He is also keen to add other languages, such as Chinese and Korean, to the robots’ vocabulary.
A block-shaped robot that was scuttling around in the lobby had been brought in to do room service, delivering beverages and simple snacks. But it wasn’t ready to do that yet.
Outside, Sawada demonstrated a drone that flew in to deliver a few small jars filled with snacks. He wanted to eventually have drones perform in shows for guests.
In the rooms, a lamp-size robot in the shape of a fat pink tulip called Tuly answers simple questions such as, “What time is it?” and “What is the weather tomorrow?” You can also tell it to turn the room lights on or off. There are no switches on the walls.
Sawada is keeping the hotel half-filled for the first few weeks to make sure nothing goes wrong.
He also cancelled at the last minute the overnight stay planned for media. The robots simply weren’t ready.
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