Tomomi Sayuda

Robot-mania: A visit to Japan’s Henn na Hotel

At Fjord, we are dedicated to human centric innovation through design, and we strive to put humans at the heart of everything we do. So how does it effect the experience, when all you have is robots? When I went to Japan earlier in the year, I spent a night at the infamous ‘robot hotel’ to find out.

1200km from Tokyo, and after 9 hours of several bullet train journeys, I finally arrived at the world’s first robot operated hotel – the Henn na Hotel in Sasebo, Nagasaki, South West Japan.

You have probably read about this hotel in the news: their receptionists, porters, cloaks, window cleaners, garden janitors, concierges are all replaced by robots. I visited because I was curious about how I would feel being served by robots and being emerged in a world where human interactions are replaced by artificial intelligence.

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The exterior of the robot hotel is a basic modern Japanese boxy building. When I got into the hotel I was welcomed by the robot Chu-ri-Chan (Tulip girl). Chu-ri-chan wears her hotel uniform and waves her arms while saying “Welcome to Henn na Hotel, please go to the reception to check in”.

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Near Chu-ri-chan, I encountered the robot cloakroom, where you can pay 500 yen (£3), to leave hand luggage sized bags for 24 hours. A robot arm will pick up your bag from a bag point next to the vending machine. It basically has the same function as a coin locker, but seeing the robot arm in action has entertainment value.

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When I reached the reception, I was greeted by three robot receptionists: Two dinosaurs and a lady by the name of “Yumeko-san”. You can choose your favourite receptionist to check in with, and I chose to speak to Yumeko-san.

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As I approached Yumeko-san she said “Welcome to Henn na Hotel, please select your language on the tablet.” I found out that the robot receptionist’s purpose is mostly to attract guests to the area – the actual registration process is mainly done on the tablet on the receptionist’s table.

The check-in process took about three minutes. Once I confirmed my details on the screen, my check in process was completed and I received my keycard from a vending machine next to the robot receptionist.

Although my interaction with the robot was, again, limited, they did add some entertainment value to an otherwise boring tasks. (Also, there are ‘real’ humans available to help if need be – there is a ‘call attendant’ button on the screen).

Being served by the robot receptionist was an amusing process. But I did find it disappointing that the process was mainly done using the tablet, most likely due to the reliability of voice recognition as opposed to information input.

There are two robot porters available in the lobby to help move guest’s luggage around. If you scan your keycard, the robot porter will carry your luggage to your room. Unfortunately, the robot porter only works in the main  building, which meant I couldn’t test it out.

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In the lobby I also encountered an auto-play piano, of course played by a robot. The robot was not actually playing the piano, but again, being Japanese I love characters that tell a story, so I found it still had the desired effect.

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Window cleaner robots in the main lobby – automatic window cleaners moving around on the surface.

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I was impressed by the accuracy of the facial recognition system. The first time I used it, I needed to register my face using my keycard. Once my face had been registered, I could get into my room just by scanning my face, and I achieved a 6 out of 6 unlock success rate – I had a nice and stress-free time not having to worry about any physical keys.

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In my room I had my own personal robot concierge, Chu-ri-chan. I could ask her certain questions using my voice. such as the weather forecast or recommended restaurants, or give her commands such as turning the lights on or off – she even sang me a song!

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I liked this grass cutter robot that was busy keeping the lawns around the hotel neat. The grass cutter robot works in the same way as the vacuum cleaner robot, moving across the lawn while cutting the grass in a specific pattern. When it hit the edge of the lawn it turned around and went in a different direction. I found this robot particularly useful – on a hot summer day I think most people would like to leave the grass-cutting job to a robot!

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I also visited the robot hotel next door, the Dutch themed entertainment park Huis Ten Bosch, which was built in the early 90s, when Japan was experiencing its investment boom. This location makes a lot of sense for the robot hotel, as being next to an amusement park helps emphasize its entertainment value.

At Huis Ten Bosch there are perfect copies of Dutch city building, paired with crazy night light scenes and other attractions. Nothing was in harmony, which is probably the charm of the place. At Huis Ten Bosch I came across a robot pavilion, where people could interact with the latest robots. Various robot demos were on display and the guests were allowed to interact with them in activities such as robot dancing and playing with pet robots.

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Another interesting system was, facial recognition system, which will guess how old you are and your gender. I was recognized as 22 years old! Hurrah!

Another interesting system was, facial recognition system, which will guess how old you are and your gender. I was recognized as 22 years old! Hurrah!

Another interesting system was, facial recognition system, which will guess how old you are and your gender. I was recognized as 22 years old! Hurrah!

) I saw a robot restaurant chef who serves Okonomiyaki, which is Japanese greasy pancake, very popular with both Japanese and non Japanese people.

I saw a robot restaurant chef who serves Okonomiyaki, which is Japanese greasy pancake, that’s very popular with both Japanese and non Japanese people.

I found the visit to the Henn na Hotel and Huis Ten Bosch very inspiring – actually seeing how robotic technology can adapt to our daily life was very interesting. However, it became apparent to me that when actually turning the ideas into reality it is very important to develop and consider real future adaptation. I liked both the robot hotel and the robot pavilion – they are both accessible to everyone, and once something has been released to the public it opens up for more refinement opportunities – as opposed to if the technology had been tested in a lab environment.

According to the owner Hideo Sawada, the idea behind the hotel was to create the most cost effective hotel in the world by reducing manpower and having 90% of the staff be robotic. Perhaps a peek into the future?

Tomomi Sayuda

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