The technology is definitely there, but are your elderly relatives ready for you to drive robots around their houses?
As one of Japan’s two largest airlines, ANA is all about helping people get to different parts of the world. Its newest initiative, though, is creating a system to help you feel like you’re somewhere else without ever leaving home.
Earlier this week, the company released a promotional video for newme, a robot that works with its avatarin communication system. Consisting of a shaft connecting a motorized base and pivoting 10.1-inch display, newme is equipped with a camera, microphone, and speakers that allow the user, who controls it remotely, to look around and communicate with people in the robot’s environment.
Theoretically, it’s all pretty feasible applications of current technology. Seeing it in action in ANA’s video, though, is surreal.
As things start off, our presenter is looking at a map showing the location of newme robots she can hop into. “Oh, an aquarium! Sounds fun,” she says, and with a tap of her finger the aquarium’s newme fires up, showing her face on its display.
Moved by the serene beauty of the underwater world, the woman swings the newme’s camera back and forth to take it all in. Once she’s had her fill, she brings up the map again, and this time hops into a newme that rolls into a kimono and fabric shop she’d been wanting to visit.
“All of our products are individually hand-dyed by their artisans,” the clerk says, with the newme’s audio/video system relaying the conversation in real-time. After the woman asks the clerk to hold the cloth closer to the camera for a better look, the clerk asks if she’d like to speak with the craftsman, and then it’s off to a newme in his rural workshop, where he demonstrates and explains his traditional production process.
However, the woman isn’t only interested in entertaining herself. “I wonder how Grandma is doing these days?” she asks herself, and to get the answer, she makes one last newme jaunt, jumping into a robot we see wheeling through her grandmother’s home.
“I wonder if she’s over here?” the woman’s voice says through the newme’s speakers before encountering the elderly woman in her living room. She then gets up and strolls into the kitchen with the robot, before sitting down for her midday meal and saying “This is just so nice, being able to talk with each other while eating,” Granny says, flashing a radiant smile at her granddaughter’s face on the display.
But while those all seem like things that, from a technical standpoint, shouldn’t be too hard, it still leaves us with a lot of questions. For example, does the aquarium have an entire fleet of robots being remotely driven around the facility, and if so, is anyone making sure they’re not crashing into the actual human guests, or are they just trusting that whoever decides to log into one of them is a skilled and attentive enough pilot to avoid collisions?
That goes ditto for the fabric store. Are they really OK with letting people cruise robots around the shop, with unfeeling motorized wheels and an angle-adjusting robot head potentially snagging cloths and toppling displays of their elegant, and ostensibly expensive, hand-crafted wares?
There’s also the question of how the newme is a better option for the aquarium, store, and craftsman to serve their customers than basic livestream cameras and video chat programs. The intended advantage is clearly supposed to be making it feel more like the user is actually there, promoting a more natural, human feeling in the conversations. By that logic, it seems like it’d actually be a good fit for the video’s last scenario: visiting relatives who live far away, but let’s take one more look at that part.
Notice how the robot pops out on its own, with the woman using it shouting “Grandma!” and instigating a mobilized search for the home’s occupant. When it does roll into the room where Grandma is, she’s surprised to see the machine, asking “Oh? What brings you here?” It’s clear that the granddaughter was able to power up the robot and get it moving (and sending video of the home) entirely from her end of the system, without needing Grandma to authorize any of the process. Granted, maybe the older woman willingly set up access privileges to allow her granddaughter to do that whenever she likes, but still, it seems like the potential stress of robots suddenly roaming your house and shouting would be extremely bad for your heart, especially if you’re of Grandma’s advanced age.
In fairness, it is kind of sweet to see the woman going for a short walk with her granddaughter’s robo-substitute, and that might actually be showing a legitimate benefit of the system. Rather than using the robot to let customers remotely visit leisure and shopping facilities, it might be more effective to have employees pilot the newme in order to guide guests remotely. It could be especially useful for internationally minded companies like ANA who might not have an attendant who speaks a customer’s language physically present in the building, but do have a multilingual team at a central location who could use the newme to lead them to where they need to go in an airport, sports stadium, or event venue.
ANA hopes to start field testing newme in office buildings, department stores, train stations, and real estate agencies soon, and to have 1,000 units in service by the end of next year.