For most of us, working from home has become the norm, but if circumstances permit, we can always pop into the office. For those with disabilities, that’s not usually the case, but a cafe in Tokyo, Japan is leading the way towards a more inclusive society.

Japanese company Ory Laboratory opened a coffee shop in June this year called Dawn Avatar Robot Cafe, where robots prepare and serve coffee. However, the robots are controlled by people with physical disabilities known as “pilots”, who operate the machines from their homes. These robots have also been leased out to other companies for similar purposes as well.

These robots were developed from Yoshifuji’s idea of wanting multiple bodies as a teenager

A total of four trials have been conducted with these robots since 2018 throughout Japan. Company co-founder and CEO Ory Yoshifuji started the company two years after creating the original OriHime avatar robot. These robots were developed from Yoshifuji’s idea of wanting multiple bodies as a teenager when he was confined at home for three and a half years due to an illness.

Yoshifuji stated: 

The conventional wisdom is that bedridden people can’t work. But I wanted to show that job opportunities are open for people who can’t move their bodies or even speak. I would like guests to know that these people exist and that they are part of our society.

In order to open the coffee shop, Ory Lab conducted a crowdfunding campaign from March to May, intending to raise 10 million yen ($91k). The company eventually raised over 44 million yen ($400k), along with 10 corporate sponsors including Biogen, and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. The shop is located in the same building as the company’s office so that developers can conveniently make any adjustments to the robots if needed. 

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Working in the coffee shop for over four years through a 20-centimetre “avatar” robot called OriHime is Mikado Fujita, who was a barista for over seven years before she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — an incurable disease that destroys the nerve cells that control muscles in the body. Fujita communicates with customers through OriHime, which sits on a humanoid robot called Tele-Barista, which Fujita controls with a computer mouse to prepare the coffee. 

Fujita hopes that, as her disease progresses and it would be more difficult for her to move physically, she would be able to operate the robots through a control panel that tracks her eye movements instead.

In the Dawn coffee shop, over 60 “pilots” operate these robots, including a bigger design called OriHime-D, which serves drinks to tables.

The popular Japanese burger chain, Moss Burger, is one that makes use of OriHime. In July 2020, the company introduced the usage of these robots as a way to tackle labour shortages as well as to reduce face to face interaction during the pandemic. The company also introduced OriHime Porter in August this year, to bring food from the kitchen to the customers.

With its technology, Ory Lab has created an innovation capable of levelling the playing field, transforming what is considered impossible in a normal circumstance into something achievable through multiple means.

ed. The Japanese are seen as leaders in robotics, and I think in part that is because they find genuine use cases to employ the technology, instead of relying on a novelty factor.

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