The newly opened "Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β" in Nihonbashi, Tokyo has a spacious interior. Decorated with greenery, it has a clean feel to it.

As we entered the store, we were greeted by a robot.

Our appointment was at Orihime Diner, where guests are served by OriHime robots. Or to be more precise, they are served by human "pilots" remotely operating OriHime robots.

The pilots are people with intractable diseases such as ALS, are full-time caretakers of family members with medical needs, or have difficulty going out for other reasons.

But thanks to this experimental café, they are able to work as waitstaff by remotely controlling the avatar robots OriHime and OriHime-D.

A new way of working

There are more than 50 pilots working here. You can talk to the pilots while enjoying a meal or a drink.

Many people come to the "DAWN" café by themselves. On the day of our interview, there were also customers who came alone.

Pilots are recruited through SNS and other means.

You can talk to the pilots through OriHime at the entrance, at the shop where they sell merchandise, and at the tables where you can enjoy the excellent food.

The pilot can see what's going on in the store through the camera on OriHime's forehead, and can control its movements such as nodding its head with the touch of a button.

At the café, you can actually experience operating an OriHime robot.

We had a chance to talk to some of the pilots...

A bedridden university student working from her home in Fukuoka

Nene (Nene Nakajima 中島寧音) is bedridden due to spinal muscular atrophy.

She was introduced to OriHime by a teacher when she was in high school, and is now working at Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β while enrolled at a university to become a social worker.

Nene says that she is gradually getting used to operating OriHime. It seems that there are some customers who are not used to talking to a robot...

Nene: "From the customer's point of view, it may look like a robot, but I want them to talk to me like a normal person."

Since there's a flesh-and-blood human being "behind" the robot, it's only natural that pilots want to be treated as if they were having normal conservations with other human beings.

Nene also said that her daily life has changed since she started this job.

Nene: "I'm connected to the robot cafe in Tokyo from my home here in Fukuoka. I've never had the chance to talk to people from far away, so I feel like I'm able to connect with society! It's rewarding to see customers leave with a smile on their face and say, "That was great." I would like to see a society where robots are commonplace in the city, making it easier for people who have difficulty going out to have jobs."

Leveraging this technology, Nene is not only able to overcome the barrier of physical distance but also the social barrier caused by her disability.

Here's hoping we'll see more robots like this in cities around the world.

A mother-and-daughter pilot duo

There are many reasons for becoming a pilot.

Yūchan (Yūka Masuda 増田優花), who has been in an electric wheelchair since she was four years old, says she became as a pilot because she wanted to work in customer service.

Yūchan: "I wanted to have a job where I could talk to people, but it was difficult because I needed assistance with everything. But if my customers are pleased and I can work without straining myself and prioritizing my health needs, then I'm happy."

Yūchan uses OriHime to do three jobs at the same time.

"It's a funny feeling. It's like using Doraemon's 'Anywhere Door'..." Her new way of working has expanded her horizons.

Yūchan: "Thanks to OriHime, I also work at the fast-food restaurant MOS Burger. I make efforts to talk in a way that doesn't scare people when they see a robot. AI is so advanced now that people ask, 'Is this AI or a human?' So I tell them that I am operating it remotely, and try to provide warm customer service even via a robot."

Yūchan's mother, Yōchan (Yoko Masuda 増田容子), is also pilot. She started working after seeing her daughter working first.

Yōchan has to take care of Yūchan 24 hours a day, but she says she enjoys working with OriHime even if it is only for a short time.

Yōchan told us about a change that occurred in her life from the perspective of a mother.

Yōchan: "She had been studying English for a long time, but was disappointed that there was no place where she could practice her skills. But with OriHime, she can control it remotely, so her horizons have broadened. My daughter also talks to foreigners with OriHime!"

Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β draws an international crowd, so Yūchan's English skills are often put to good use.

Yōchan: "My daughter has weak muscles and can't move, but with OriHime, she can take action at the touch of a button to show her feelings, which I think bolsters her emotional wellbeing. It gives her a reason to live, and the fact that she can give shape to her thoughts helps her self-esteem. I think it is having a beneficial effect on her health as well."

Yōchan told us: "It makes me happy to see my daughter so full of life."

During our conversation, the facial expressions of the OriHime Yōchan was piloting didn't change. However, it was obvious to us while listening to her story that she was smiling and proud of her daughter.

Yūchan also admitted that her feelings have changed a lot.

Yūchan: "I became more positive because I realized that I could now do things that I thought I couldn't. I can do what I want to do and talk to people from other countries as well."

Yūchan was very enthusiastic about studying English more in the future.

A family affair

Miyoshi (Miki Takahashi 高橋美喜) works at Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β from Akita Prefecture. She is unable to leave the house due to nursing care.

Miyoshi's daughter and sister also work as pilots.

We also asked Miyoshi for her thoughts on her daughter's work.

Miyoshi: "I saw my daughter doing it, and I thought she would enjoy talking to other people. I think her illness is painful, but if she can distract herself from thinking about it even a little..."

Miyoshi felt that just the time spent talking happily with other people was a good way to distract her mind from her suffering.

She was optimistic about the future, seeing the power of technology to solve various problems.

Miyoshi: "I think that technology can help us overcome a lot of things, even if we have disabilities, and even if we're old, the power of technology can open up new worlds to us. It's fun to work in different places and talk to so many people!"

A woman whose health was affected by the pandemic

Masako (Masako Imai 今井雅子) is a pilot who lives alone with the support of a caregiver. She has been a pilot for six months.

She used to work outside her home, but she refrained from going out due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and it has had a negative impact on her health.

Masako: "I used to work outside, but the pandemic has narrowed down my activities. Operating OriHime is great because I can work from home, don't have to commute, and can take a break right after work! I think it has broadened my outlook because I can meet many different people."

Masako works both at a cafe in Kanagawa Prefecture and at a MOS Burger in Tokyo.

She says she has to face challenges specific to piloting an avatar robot that she doesn't encounter at Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β.

Masako: "The big difference from 'DAWN café' is that customers who don't know what OriHime is are startled, at first. When I talk to them, they're surprised, so I explain to them that it's a human being talking to them. Older people are sometimes surprised by the robot's form."

Customer service through robots has not yet become commonplace.

Although many people come to Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β. looking forward to talking with the human pilots through the intermediary of avatar obots, it seems that at the other establishments where Masako works, some people come in without any prior knowledge of OriHime and are surprised to be faced with a robot.

Talking with customers is one of the best aspects of being a robot in appearance.

Masako: "My interaction with customers is intense. I'm from Osaka, so when I talk to them in Osakan dialect, they sometimes say, 'That was so much fun!' In the past, I also worked as a consultant. Maybe it's the robot appearance that makes it easier for people to speak freely compared to talking to a human, but sometimes people open up to me and tell me: 'I have a family member with an intractable disease...' or other personal matters."

Robot baristas with a human touch

At Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β., there are also pilots who can make coffee for you.

Mika, a former barista with ALS, makes coffee at the "Bar & Tele-Barista" area of the café. With OriHime perched on the barista robot's shoulder, Mika listens to customers' requests and preferences.

Mika: "We select and serve coffees according to the customer's wishes and recommend chocolates that go well with the coffee too."

Mika does her best to entertain customers while waiting for the water to boil.

NEXTAGE is a large robot. It looked like a confident craftsman who doesn't say much but knows what to do. We admired it as it dexterously picked up the kettle and cup and silently brewed a delicious cup of coffee.

We talked to a customer who was being served.

"Its movements are bold yet delicate. It moves quickly but the details made me think it might be better than a human. It really was like a taciturn artisan!"

You can see it in action here:

Reservations are required for the OriHime Diner and the Bar & Tele-Barista, where you can enjoy conversations with the pilots while eating. Please check the website for more information.

The "CAFE Lounge" can be used without reservations. You can enjoy conversations with OriHime at the gift shop without reservations as well.

Avatar Robot Café DAWN Ver. β and the OriHime avatar robots showed us that even those who are bedridden or confined to their homes for whatever reason can continue to maintain a relationship with society.

As this initiative spreads, more people in such circumstances will be able to enjoy a better quality of life and have hope for the future.

By - grape Japan editorial staff.