The results of studies on changes in the labor market include forecasts for robotisation of many professions, including the receptionist and cashier. However, technological progress and predictions published in the media is one thing, and experiences and needs of customers are another. In Japan, I verified whether staying in a hotel where machines have replaced a significant proportion of the staff, is part of the pleasure, or rather a part of a grim vision of the future.
The words of the American science fiction writer William Gibson – “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed” – nowhere does seem more tangible for European than in Japan. The process of robotisation of professions that do not require high-level qualifications forecasted for the next decade has already begun in Japan. In Henn-na Hotel, which was opened in the middle of this year on the south-western tip of the country on Kyushu island, guests are welcomed by robots, baggage is delivered to rooms by self-driving vehicles, and artificial intelligence answers to requests for wake-up service and questions regarding the weather forecast. What in Europe seems to be quite distant future, in Japan has already been completed. Below you can find the report from my one-day stay in an amazing Henn-na Hotel, which I will remember as a journey into the future.
Henn-na Hotel, which in Japanese means “strange hotel” abuts popular Huis Ten Bosch amusement park. Japanese theme park is a cluster of copies of distinctive buildings from the Netherlands. Its brand comes from the name of the palace located in Hague and owned by the Dutch royal family. I must admit that they are strikingly similar to European originals. Only the design of the new Henn-na Hotel does not have anything in common with Dutch architecture.
Huis Ten Bosch theme park and a railway station of the same name are located one and a half hour by train from Nagasaki. To reach this place from Tokyo (at the turn of October and November I traveled to the Japanese capital to do research on three events: Tokyo Design Week, Tokyo Motor Show and Good Design exhibition) I went on a two-hour journey by plane to the city of Fukuoka, combined with a two-hour train ride from Hakata station to Huis Ten Bosch. I arrived at the place on October 28 around 3.00 PM.
When you enter the Henn-na Hotel, you should not expect a warm welcome from a human. Instead of people, you meet three robots at the front desk. Unfortunately, during my visit the smallest of them (the first from the left) has been turned off. An android in the middle that looks like a woman was on, but it’s software does not allow to communicate with her in any other language than Japanese. Luckily, the dinosaur on the right spoke English.
Just after saying “Hello”, I was asked by a dinosaur to press a button number one to start the process of check-in. I felt disappointed that the robot has not a voice recognition interface. Then the robot asked me to say my name and fill in a paper with my contact details and to put the paper into the box. At the same moment, a woman emerged (I have no doubt it was a real person). She asked me to show my passport, and then she disappeared with it for a few moments. It’s a standard procedure, but did not expect that in a place such as Henn-na Hotel, it is being done in a traditional way. It was the most disappointing point of the entire stay in Henn-na Hotel. In the meantime I finished filling in the document, threw it into the box and following the instructions I pressed the button number two. Then the dinosaur asked me to use another machine placed one step on the right to check-in. I used a touch screen to type my name and confirm the payment made in advance. Finally, an ATM-looking machine gave me a white key card and instructed me how to activate the facial recognition system that opens the doors do my room – I will write more about this feature in one of the following points.
Next to the reception there are two parking spaces for self-driving porters. After loading my suitcase into one of them and pressing “Start” button on the rear panel, the machine asked me to select the number of my room. Unfortunately, it shortly turned out that my room was not covered by the range of the automatic porter. The room where I was going to spend the night was placed in a neighboring building, and automatic porters can not drive outdoors. Once again, I felt a considerable disappointment. However, I was determined to see how the porter robot works, so I selected the number of an apartment located in the covered wing. Once approved, the robot with my suitcase headed to the destination.
The vehicle was moving on only when I was walking directly behind him. When I made a step to the right, left or back, the porter immediately stopped. The same happens when it detects another man in front on him. You can be sure that self-driving trolley will not cause anyone harm. On the other hand, the machine is moving so slowly, that the walk to the room took a couple of minutes. I would be much faster at the door if I carry my wheeled suitcase by myself. When we reached the selected room, I took the luggage from the machine. Then the vehicle automatically, at a snail’s pace, drove back to the reception desk.
Entering the room
In addition to the contactless key card system, in Henn-na Hotel you can also open doors to your room using a face recognition technology. To use this feature you must activate it during the check-in at the reception, and the initial scanning of your face will be taken in front of the camera installed next to the doors to your room.
To be freed from the necessity of carrying a key card and enjoy the convenience of the door lock that can recognise your face and unlock the doors, you have to hold the card at the reader and look at the camera installed in front of the doors right before the first entering the room. Now this procedure seems to be simple, but when I was using it for the first time in front of the doors to my room it wasn’t so easy. The registration ends up with success after the fourth or fifth attempt of scanning my face. Because of the initial problem with the scanner, I carried the key card with me during the entire stay in the hotel. I wanted to be sure that in the case of the advanced system’s failure I would not have any problems with opening the doors. At the end it turned out it was unnecessary – the face recognition scanner worked seamlessly.
Whet I entered the room for the first time I was warmly welcomed by a little robot sitting on the nightstand between two beds (despite booking a single room I got a twin one). Chu-Ri-Chan is smiling, talkative and very curious robot. It is a pity that it speaks Japanese only.
To wake up the concierge from a stand-by mode, you do not have to press any button. All you have to do is to say its name loudly: “Chu-Ri-Chan”. In the English brochure that was lying on the table, I found a list of voice commands and tips on the pronunciation of Japanese vocabulary. Reading Japanese words written in the Latin alphabet is quite easy, and I enjoyed asking Chu-Ri-Chan to turn on and off lights, as well as setting the alarm clock in a foreign language. On the other hand, it does not make sense to ask questions such as: “What time is it?” or “What is the weather forecast for tomorrow?”, because all answers you get are spoken in Japanese. The English version of the voice control system will be available later.
Three types of rooms are available in the Henn-na Hotel: standard, superior and deluxe. The main difference between them is the size. I chose for myself a standard one. I had 21 square meters, which I consider as a spacious apartment, comparing to other hotels in Japan. Superior and deluxe rooms are even bigger (respectively 29 and 34 square meters), but apart from an extra sofa, there is no other significant difference in their design. All rooms have a bathtub, a shower, a sink, a high-tech toilet with a heated seat, and a modern and efficient heating and cooling system.
Beverages, snacks and ice cream can be purchased around the clock in vending machines standing in the dining room opposite the reception. Tasty and healthy breakfast (this is an option that is paid extra when you make a reservation) is served in the Aura restaurant located in the neighboring building. Robots are not working there (at least not yet).
Check-out takes just a few seconds. You do not have to talk to a robot to do so. Just insert your card into the ATM-looking machine with a touch panel and it is done.
If necessary, you can store your personal belongings before check-in or after check-out (early check-in before 3.00 PM or late check-out after 11.00 AM are not available in Henn-na Hotel) in the fully automated checkroom.
When you pay 500 yen (approx. 4 euros), Yaskawa robot that works behind glass walls takes down for you one of the available drawers and places it in a box behind folding doors. When a client put his or her belongings inside, the robot takes the drawer back to its place. When this spectacular dance ends, don’t forget to wave back to Yaskawa.
One-night stay in the Henn-na Hotel was like a journey into the future. It was fantastic, but, unfortunately, I will also remember some disappointments. The major one is that the real role of three robots standing at the reception desk is only to make an impression on guests and to attract the attention of media. They are not helpful at all. During your check-in, you still have to fill in a paper document with your contact details, show your passport to a hotel staff, and get your key card from a machine that looks like ATM. Three robots from the reception are mascots of this place, but nothing more. They do not facilitate the process of check-in nor check-out. Standard looking machines with touch screens do the entire job. Without watching the welcome show made by the dinosaur or the android, check-in would take much less time. But I want to admit, that it is a very memorable experience.
I would praise the porter robot if only it could carry luggage to every room, including those located in other buildings of the hotel. Now it drives only within the main building. I also wish it was not necessary to walk behind the robot at a snail’s pace. I understand that for safety reasons the vehicle must move slowly, but it my opinion it should go to selected room independently without any assistance of the guest, just like human porters do.
The little room concierge with a voice interface was friendly and quite helpful. Voice commands: “Chu-Ri-Chan, Akari-keshite” and “Chu-Ri-Chan, mezamashidokei” spoken after going to bed was the most convenient way to turn off the lights and set the alarm clock that I have ever experienced in a hotel. I hope that the English version of the system will be available soon.
Face recognition scanner integrated with a door lock system is also very convenient. Finally, you do not have to find a card in your pocket or bag to enter your room. Press “Scan” button, look at the camera, and the doors are open. It sounds great, but the first impression was not perfect. I had to make several attempts to register my face in the system.
I rate Yaskawa robot that works in the cloakroom with 10/10 points. In my opinion, this is the most successful, practical and spectacular idea implemented in Henn-na Hotel. In addition to his storage duties, the robot also knows how to wave friendly his arm. That simple gesture arouses very positive, human emotions, which are missing when speaking about contact with other robots that you can meet in Henn-na Hotel.
Photos and videos: TrendNomad.com
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