This Japanese Robot Cafe Is Improving Employment Accessibility for People With Disabilities

An OriHime-D robot delivers drinks to customers at Tokyo’s Avatar Dawn Robot Cafe. Photo Courtesy: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

On June 22, 2021, just a few weeks before the city’s Summer Paralympic Games were slated to begin, Tokyo’s Dawn Avatar Robot Cafe officially opened its doors for business. Located on the busy side street of a neighborhood business district, the cozy restaurant, packed with tropical plants and golden-toned wood furniture, makes for a warm escape from the hustle and bustle just outside its doors. But its classic bistro menu and homey decor are where Dawn Avatar’s typical cafe experience ends. Instead of living servers crisscrossing the aisles, cheerful robots glide from table to table, taking orders and delivering meals.

Called OriHime-D, these machines aren’t a fun and futuristic novelty for drumming up publicity, though — they’re an innovative opportunity for people with disabilities to find meaningful employment. Each is remotely controlled by a worker who uses specially programmed software and other adaptive technologies to operate their robot and communicate with customers.

Both OriHime-D and Dawn Avatar are part of a new effort from Ory Laboratories — a Japanese robotics company aiming to “create a new way of participating in the social sphere” for people with disabilities. Ory Labs’ mission is to develop adaptive technologies that make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. So far, it looks like the company is well on its way to achieving this goal with OriHime-D and Dawn Avatar — and in inspiring other employers to follow suit.

Remote Pilots Bring OriHime-D to Life Using Adaptive Technology

A closeup view of OriHime-D’s features, including a digital pilot badge. Photo Courtesy: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Standing at about 4 feet tall with a glossy white shell, movable arms and hands, and large, luminous eyes, OriHime-D wouldn’t look too out of place in a Pixar movie. But, there’s a lot of helpful technology behind its charming exterior.

Using motorized joints and multidirectional wheels, the robot can roll freely around Dawn Avatar, deliver orders and converse with guests. OriHime-D isn’t programmed to do these things on its own, though. Behind each robot is a “pilot”: a person with a disability who uses Ory Labs’ innovative software to tell each machine what to do and where to go. Pilots can operate the internet-connected robots remotely — many live hundreds of miles away from the cafe — using a handheld mouse to select different functions in the software that controls OriHime-D units. But, they can also choose to use the OriHime Eye camera.

The Eye is a piece of adaptive technology — a device that’s designed to make certain tasks easier for people with disabilities to perform. Specifically, the Eye helps pilots whose disabilities limit their keyboard use. Instead of moving their arms and hands to type, a pilot can look at a digital keyboard on their computer screen. The Eye’s sensors track and record eye movements as the pilot selects onscreen letters, words and functions. Then, those selections tell the pilot’s corresponding OriHime-D in Dawn Avatar where to go and what to do, whether that’s heading to the kitchen or handing coffee to a customer.

What help pilots fully connect with customers, though, are OriHime-D’s microphones, speakers and cameras. Like video-chatting, these features let pilots and customers have real conversations. Digital badges attached to OriHime-D units show photos of the pilots to make communication and connections more genuine. This lineup of tech features provides what Ory Labs calls a “feeling of presence in both directions” — and ultimately creates an interactive, personal experience that’s also a key way for pilots to maintain social connections from home.

So Far, OriHime-D’s Feedback Is Positive — and Breaking Barriers

The Tele-Barista OriHime-D robot that’s operated by pilot Mikako Fujita. Photo Courtesy: @OryLaboratory/Twitter

OriHime-D has been life-changing for several pilots who now work regular shifts with Dawn Avatar. Michio Imai, an OriHime-D pilot, works as a server at Dawn Avatar from his home nearly 500 miles away and finds the work fulfilling. “I talk to our customers about many subjects, including the weather, my hometown and my health condition,” Imai told The Japan Times. “As long as I’m alive, I want to give something back to the community… I feel happy [that] I can be part of society.”

Mikako Fujita, a pilot who remotely prepares coffee drinks using the cafe’s specialized Tele-Barista robot, is also finding her work with Dawn Avatar valuable. In 2018, she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a condition that’s gradually causing her to lose muscle control. She explained to Nikkei Asia that she had difficulty accepting her diagnosis, but that working at Dawn Avatar has given her “a new sense of hope.”

Ory Labs’ innovations are also presenting new opportunities for businesses that want to promote workplace inclusion. The company is licensing robots to other restaurants across Japan — like MOS Burger, one of the country’s largest fast-food franchises. The chain is introducing OriHime-D into its restaurants to create more accessible workplaces, but it’s also looking into using the robots at its main offices. This will help employees with disabilities utilize their talents in an environment that’s designed with their needs in mind — one of the most important goals of adaptive technology.

Adaptive Technology Is Vital in the Workplace

A worker demonstrates how Baxter, an adaptive robot with a camera in its hand, views and locates objects. Photo Courtesy: Star Tribune/Getty Images

Adaptive tech isn’t a recent innovation; large-print books are adaptive tools people have used for more than 100 years. But as society grows more digitized and technological progress speeds up, adaptive tech tools have more changes to keep up with more often. What if the adaptive tech itself could lead the way in creating those changes?

That idea — the concept behind OriHime-D — is what’s driving innovations in adaptive tech for businesses around the world. Ability Works, an Australian company, is another employer that’s using robots to create meaningful work opportunities for people with disabilities. Using specially built robotic arms with text readers, workers with vision impairments and low literacy can sort and process mail, product tags and other materials for Ability Works’ clients, which include one of the world’s largest toll road operators.

These and other efforts represent a step away from the outdated idea that robots and automation will “take away jobs” and impact the workforce negatively. Instead, it’s the exact opposite; increasingly, robots are creating jobs for people of all abilities. According to the research nonprofit Brookings Institution, “the future of work and the workforce” will depend more and more on “labor-reinstating technologies, [which] generate new tasks” people can perform. It’s an approach that Brookings calls “pro-human” — an important perspective that’s at the heart of adaptive tech.

Technology is making great strides when it comes to improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities. And while it’s important to envision how tech can create a more accessible world, it’s even more vital to focus these efforts on changing environments and tools, not people. Behind every piece of adaptive tech is a person, and it’s their unique talents that drive success through these new technologies. Ory Labs’ founder Kentaro Yoshifuji perhaps put the idea best in an interview with The Japan Times: “Customers [at Dawn Avatar] are not exactly coming to this location just to meet OriHime. There are people operating OriHime…and customers will come back to see them again.”

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