Robotics

VR-controlled robot shelf-stacker starts shift in Japanese stores

VR-controlled robot shelf-stac...
The Model T robot by Telexistence can stack shelves, controlled by a human operator via VR
The Model T robot by Telexistence can stack shelves, controlled by a human operator via VR
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The Model T robot by Telexistence can stack shelves, controlled by a human operator via VR
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The Model T robot by Telexistence can stack shelves, controlled by a human operator via VR
The Model T robot by Telexistence is beginning trials in Japanese convenience store chain, FamilyMart
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The Model T robot by Telexistence is beginning trials in Japanese convenience store chain, FamilyMart
The Model T robot by Telexistence has joints with 22 degrees of freedom
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The Model T robot by Telexistence has joints with 22 degrees of freedom
The Model T robot by Telexistence will start by restocking plastic bottles of drinks, but will be promoted to other objects in future
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The Model T robot by Telexistence will start by restocking plastic bottles of drinks, but will be promoted to other objects in future
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Robots are an increasingly common sight in stores, helping customers carry their shopping, keeping track of stock and mapping the layout. Now they’re getting a bit more hands-on thanks to Japanese company Telexistence, which has begun trials in convenience stores of a robot shelf-stacker that can be controlled by a human via VR.

The Model T (yes, it’s named after the classic Ford car) looks like the most mundane Gundam ever. It’s basically a robot torso mounted to a waist-high platform, restocking shelves in a store with its two articulating arms and complex hands.

But it doesn’t need to be particularly artificially intelligent to do this. The Model T is directly controlled by a human using a stock-standard VR setup from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection.

The robot’s joints have 22 degrees of freedom, giving it a pretty wide range of movement without requiring much more space than a human would need. Telexistence also says the video connection between the robot and the human operator has a latency of 50 milliseconds, so it should be smooth-controlling.

The Model T robot by Telexistence is beginning trials in Japanese convenience store chain, FamilyMart
The Model T robot by Telexistence is beginning trials in Japanese convenience store chain, FamilyMart

That said, in the video it does look like pretty slow going, with the robot timidly restocking bottles of drinks at a pace that would get a regular human worker called to the manager’s office. Still, maybe the human operator was unfamiliar with the tech and was just being a bit overly cautious.

It’s a little hard to see what advantages the robot has over a human employee, but Telexistence says that it could allow staff to work from home – crucial in our current age of social distancing – and recruit workers from basically anywhere.

The first trials are now beginning between Telexistence and FamilyMart, a major chain of Japanese convenience stores. The companies say that the Model T will start off working out the back, restocking plastic beverage bottles, while its speed and accuracy are verified.

Later on, FamilyMart and Telexistence will test the robot’s abilities at handling other items, like rice balls, sandwiches and bento boxes. The plan is to have the Model T in up to 20 stores by 2022, with the eventual goal of expanding that to every store in the country.

Check out the Model T in “action” in the video below.

FM POC with Telexistence Model-T

Source: Telexistence

View gallery - 4 images
7 comments
michael_dowling
Even Telexistence admits it has trouble thinking of ways this is superior to a human employee stacking shelves. At best,these things could be used until a Covid vaccine becomes available. In the meantime,yet another way to fatten people up.
FB36
In The Simpsons episode "The Miseducation of Lisa Simpson", kids at "school of future" were playing VR games which were actually jobs done using remote controlled robots! :-)
Username
The present AI is more than capable of re-stoking shelves. This is a step backwards.
Nelson Hyde Chick
So instead of having a human do a task you have a human controlling doing a task, which means no real human savings. Technology for technology's sake.
paul314
Even in non-pandemic times there might be conditions that a bot could work in (temperature, lousy atmosphere, stocking stuff that's dangerous) where you wouldn't want to send even a minimum-wage non-union human. Another possibility is multiple locations where there's not really enough work for a person for a full shift . The VR worker can teleport from one location to another as needed.

I see this mostly as a relatively low-risk test run for applications that might get much more serious once the link and control algorithms are thoroughly debugged.
ptim
This tech won't come of age with shelf stacking, but consider high risk construction - highly recommend Sleep Dealer [2008] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0804529/
kopej
The average Japanese wage is 20 times that of the average Vietnamese wage, so it's not hard to imagine how this would be used. If I was a shelf stocker in Japan I'd be worried.