DAWN Avatar: A Robot-Run Café Made for Inclusion in Tokyo

DAWN Avatar is a future-positive café, with robot waiters controlled remotely by workers with limited mobility.

BY VASILEIA FANARIOTI
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Photos courtesy of OryLab

Nervous jokes that human labor will one day be replaced by robots are nothing new. But what if we told you there is one café in Tokyo called DAWN that has already started using robots as waiters, and they are being operated by remote workers?

Welcome to DAWN Café

DAWN (Diverse Avatar Working Network) Avatar Café, located in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, is owned by tech company Ory Laboratory. The café opened its doors in June 2021 with the aim of promoting social inclusion by providing jobs for people with mobility issues, family responsibilities, or other barriers that make it difficult to take conventional employment.

We reached out to Ory Laboratory’s public relations manager, Keiko Hamaguchi, to learn more about this innovative café and its social mission.

The interior of DAWN Avatar Café.

Introducing the DAWN Café Robots

As you walk into DAWN, the first thing you see is a big, open space with plenty of light. The second thing you notice are the robots. The one at the entrance is the small OriHime bot, remotely controlled by a pilot who is ready to welcome you. OriHime is the first avatar robot by Ory Laboratory and has been around since 2010—way before the team decided to open a café.

It features a camera, microphone, and speaker, which are all operated remotely via the internet. The bot can be operated by anyone, as long as they have a web connection, making it the perfect option for people who are unable to leave their homes.

Further inside the café, you will find OriHime-D, a 3-foot-11-inch-tall avatar who will serve you drinks. Hamaguchi explains that the idea behind developing another bigger bot that would make and serve coffee came from Ory Laboratory’s CEO’s secretary. 

“Our CEO’s secretary, Yuta Banda, suffered from a cervical spinal cord injury when he was four and was working remotely for us through OriHime. One day our CEO jokingly asked him for a cup of coffee and his reply was, ’Make me a robot that can do that and I will.’ So, in 2016, Ory Laboratory started developing OriHime-D, focusing on physical labor,“ she says.

Finally, if you want to see how your coffee is made, you can go to the Tele-Barista counter. There you will find a large humanoid robot brewing away, with OriHime by its side. Designed by Nextage, the Tele-Barista isn’t made to communicate with clients. An OriHime pilot who has undergone barista training will guide you through the different beans available and help you make a choice. 

At the brew bar, an OriHime pilot controls the Tele-Barista remotely.

A New Way of Telecommuting

As a young student, Ory Laboratory’s CEO, Kentaro Yoshifuji, had to be hospitalized on and off for three years. He found the experience very isolating, and it was during this time that he started thinking about ways to help people with mobility issues or those who could not leave their houses for one reason or another.

He believes there is a misconception in society regarding working by telecommuting. Keiko of Ory Laboratory says, “The reality is that it is difficult for people with severe disabilities and who have little social experience to suddenly start working, unless they have past work experience or have qualifications.“

It’s true that manual labor is easier to access for someone with no prior professional experience, thus making the concept of using remotely controlled robots to do physical labor a very logical one. Keiko says that this is what the avatar robot café concept is all about. “It is a new form of telecommuting that enables physical labor, and shows promise that the number of people who can find employment via ‘avatar work‘ will increase in the future,” she says.

An OriHime-D pilot serving coffee and interacting with customers.

The Pilots Behind the Bots

The pilots behind the avatar robots at DAWN are people from all over Japan and even Australia. With the help of iPads, they are able to see and communicate with customers, as well as take their orders. This also allows customers to get to know them and ask about their story.

Many pilots have shown a remarkable change in their “attitude toward life“ after remotely working with the OriHime bots, according to Keiko. “We have heard words such as ’I feel as if I have been reborn’ from more people than we had ever expected. We ourselves have realized that people, no matter what their circumstances, can gain confidence and change greatly when they feel that they can be of use to others.”

The DAWN Avatar Café is setting a great example of how future-positive technology can be used to help those with mobility and isolation issues by creating opportunities for social interaction and inclusion.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vasileia Fanarioti (she/her) is a freelance copywriter and editor with a primary focus on the coffee niche. She has also been a volunteer copywriter for the I’M NOT A BARISTA NPO, providing content to help educate people about baristas and their work. You can follow her adventures at thewanderingbean.net.

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