"Welcome to our avatar cafe," said a real woman's voice, coming from a robot. This was the Avatar Cafe "DAWN ver. β," and the robots were being operated via remote control by people with severe physical disabilities working from their homes or elsewhere.
"Give various people the opportunity to participate in society, and give them the freedom to work with colleagues." Under this catchphrase, the cafe was open from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7 in Tokyo.
Called OriHime-D, the cafe robots are different from AI robots. OriHime-D are manipulated remotely by people using a mouse or their eyes to operate a computer or other equipment. The robots have cameras that capture images of their surroundings, and the operators can move them around and deliver drinks.
Operators can talk with customers through the microphone and speaker in the robots and take their orders.
Ten people with severe disabilities such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) from around the country took turns operating the robots. They receive hourly pay for their work. One of them was Saeko Murai, a 36-year-old woman with somatic symptom disorder that makes it difficult for her to go outside. She controlled the robot from her home in Soka, Saitama Prefecture.
"I worked at a company in the past, and this was my first work in 10 years," Murai said excitedly. "I really felt like I was working at a cafe. I enjoyed conversations with many customers, and it was an encouraging experience for me. I would like to treat my family to sushi," she added.
The robots were developed by Kentaro Yoshifuji, the chief executive officer of Ory Lab Inc.
"I want people with disabilities to know that they can work even if they can't move their body or go outside," Yoshifuji said. "At the same time, I want everyone to know that there are many people who want to work even though they can't move. If they have an opportunity to get a job, it gives them confidence as people who are needed."
The cafe opened as a pilot project set up by Ory Lab, the Nippon Foundation and ANA Holdings Inc. partially through a crowdfunding campaign. Each day was almost fully booked, and more than 900 customers visited and interacted through the robots with people who have disabilities.
The three entities plan to upgrade the robots and open the cafe often to support job creation for people with disabilities.