Our robot future rolls ever closer, and this time, it's in the form of a pint-sized hotel concierge about to begin its trial run at the upscale, high-tech Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, California.
SaviOne comes from Savioke (pronounced "Savvy Oak") and was dubbed A.L.O Botlr by Aloft Hotels.
The mostly white, waist-high, 3-foot tall, 45-kg robot rolls about on four wheels, has a 7-inch phablet-sized touch-screen face and a compartment on top where it can carry hotel guest deliveries (of up to around 1 kg).
Botlr is wi-fi and 4G-ready, but thanks to sonar, LADR and a Kinect-like 3D camera, it can navigate a hotel on its own.
Backed by Jerry Yang's AME cloud Ventures and Google ventures, the robot is the brainchild of Savioke CEO Steve Cousins, who previously served as president and CEO of the now defunctWillow Garage, where he helped develop the PR2 research robot.
Unlike PR2, SaviOne is designed for real-world use and not research. Aloft Hotels, which is owned by Starwood, will eventually deploy several Botlrs in its hotel after a trial run that begins Aug. 20. "A.L.O," by the way, does not stand for anything, it's just the name Aloft applied to its first Botlr. Additional robots may be given different names.
A.L.O Botlr will assist existing concierge staff and autonomously deliver requested items to hotel guest rooms.
When the A.L.O. Botlr arrives, it will trigger an in-room phone call to tell the guest the robot is outside the door (which sounds a bit creepy, but isn't). Guests will be able to interact with the robot via its touch screen (there are no other touch sensors on the robot, though Cousins reported some people do like to pat A.L.O. on its head).
Unlike a real concierge or bellhop, Botlr will not hold out its hand for a tip - it lacks hands and arms. Instead, guests will be encouraged to tweet their approval with the hashtag #meetbotlr.
"A.L.O has the work ethic of 'Wall-E,' the humour of Rosey from The Jetsons and reminds me of my favorite childhood robot, R2-D2," said Brian McGuinness, Global Brand leader for Starwood's Specialty Brands.
At least some industry-watchers are sort of on board with the idea.
“Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a hotel robot that looks like R2D2? Right now it feels like an interesting gimmick for Aloft, but if Botlr provides efficient, seamless service for guests, it could signal a trend in a new kind of automation in hospitality. That being said, there’s nothing like human interaction for intuitive service,” said Julia Cosgrove, editor-in-chief of travel publication AFAR.
Travel expert Taylor Cole of Hotels.com sees Botlr as part of a trend. "From the drone delivery service offered by the Casa Madrona hotel in Sausalito, to the robotic luggage storage system used by the Yotel in Times Square, we've seen a number of properties utilise innovation and cutting-edge technology to create a unique guest experience. Innovations like these excite many guests and help hotels differentiate themselves from other properties."
A MORE FRIENDLY DESIGN
The choice of hotels as the first pilot program is no accident. Savioke CEO Cousins told Mashable that while his company was originally focused on healthcare robots, they soon realised a crucial difference between the hotel and eldercare industry: one is highly fragmented, while the other, hotels, is filled with huge brands and chains, each with a significant number of hotels.
That made it easier to build a single purpose robot, — with Starwood Hotels identifying that purpose — that could be mass produced and widely distributed.
The hotel industry can likely better shoulder the cost of what could be an expensive robot. Cousins wouldn't tell us what SaviOne, or Botlr, costs, but did say that the Willow Garage experience taught them that the service industry wouldn't be interested in anything over US$200,000 (NZ$236,266).
The hulking, 227-kg PR2 cost US$400,000. Savioke controlled some of those costs in this new bot by eschewing PR2's most expensive feature: arms and hands. Those appendages gave the robot 32 degrees of freedom, but also accounted for half the cost. SaviOne, by comparison, has just three-degrees of freedom.
Aloft's Botlr's are distinct from the PR2 in more than just cost. "We spent a lot of time thinking about the design details to make it comfortable around people," said Cousins who admitted that the giant PR2 experimental robot was a bit "intimidating." The SaviOne Botlr is child-size by comparison. Its often-smiling interface was designed, in part, by Google Ventures.
As for future robots, Cousins says they're always thinking about the next product, but are really focused on SaviOne deployment. He does, though have a broader philosophy about robot and humans. Cousins said that from one perspective, all humans have disabilities and we’ve always innovated to fill those human-gaps.
We can't run 90 kilometres per hour, for example, so we built a car. "I believe that technology can automate the annoying things in life ... I use them to make myself and other people more productive.”
Savioke plans to open the pilot program to additional hotels in 2015 and is accepting applications from other service industries that want to become a part of the company's "Early Adopter" program.