Life is stranger than fiction.
That was one of my dad’s favorite sayings, and I’ll admit that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between real life and News of the Weird. This week proved dad right as the Henn na Hotel opened in Sasebo, Japan. In case you missed it, Henn na (which means weird) is the all-robot hotel. Not as in robots can check in – which might not be too surprising in Japan – but as in robots check you in. In fact, the entire staff is robotic. Which also is not too surprising to learn is in Japan.
We’ve been watching automation creep into the industry over the past several years, but the closest thing we’ve had to robots are the interactive telephone systems that drive us crazy. And we’ve seen some pretty extreme cost-cutting measures, although not all bad. At those crossroads, we find Hideo Sawada, president of Japan’s Huis Ten Bosch Company, who introduced the all-robot staff to keep costs down while showcasing technology.
We have seen robots in other industries that could easily employed in hotels. Mobile robots that allow doctors to make rounds and deliver medicines remotely in a hospital could deliver your room service and extra towels, as could Amazon’s drone empire. The Henn na Hotel comes close to that with an automated luggage trolley, and emulates production line robotics with a big robotic arm that takes care of your belongings in the lobby locker room.
The most controversial place robots are employed is behind the desk. Although, frankly, the T Rex robot is likely on par with more than a few human desk agents I’ve had to deal with over the years. Plus, he looks like a fun chap, as does his robot super hero co-worker. The, uhm, “woman” (?) humanoid robot creeps me out just a little. (Okay, more than just a little.) Most of the guest interaction is actually done via touch screens where guests check in and enter their information, something a human desk agent would normally do.
So is this a gimmick? Is the Henn na Hotel the front runner of a fad or the harbinger of things to come? We suspect the truth is someplace in between. There are certainly many tasks that could be easily handled through automation and robotics, arguably improving the guest’s experience while certainly containing costs. I wonder, though, how long an entirely robotic staff would remain an entertaining novelty.
Being part of a company which also operates a nearby amusement park, it’s easy to assume the hotel is more gimmick than “hotel of the future.” However, Sawada told reporters at the hotel’s opening that he wanted to highlight innovation and do something about escalating hotel prices. Both are noble ambitions, but first things first. “They still can’t make the beds,” Sawada noted.
The hotel is pioneering other uses for technology in the hotel industry. While some hotels are employing keyless RFID entry locks, Henn na Hotel uses face recognition. An interactive, voice-controlled lamp-sized robot in each room controls lights, and provides information. Future innovations Sawada plans to introduce are drones, and even drone entertainment for guests. It nothing else, the hotel could be a working laboratory for the industry.
It will be interesting to see how guests react to the robots, and how the robots impact guest satisfaction. Would you stay at the Henn na Hotel? What would your expectations be? Aside from an inexplicable desire to snap a selfie with the T Rex, I think the hotel might be an exciting experience. Just so long as HAL doesn’t refuse to open the bathroom door.
Photographs: Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press.
Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto.