"Are You Being Served?" – Robot Style

There seems to be no question that robots will soon be used as personal assistants to help us not only in the factory and at the office, but also with domestic chores like shopping. Of course, that involves dealing with the complex and dynamically changing department store and shopping mall environment. NTT Communications in Fukuoka is about to run a real world proof of concept test to verify their design approach.

The popular Roomba robot vacuum cleaner deals with the home environment by basically ignoring it. The Roomba runs around in a quasi-random fashion and eventually manages to clean every nook and cranny of your home – even if you move the furniture around. It doesn’t need to follow you around, nor to know if it’s in a bedroom, living room, or kitchen. In fact, it doesn’t care whether you are there or not.

A shopping robot, in contrast, should be able to follow you around the store or shopping mall, and to respond to your needs. It needs to know where it is, and where you are, to even begin to do an effective job. GPS or vision systems might be a workable solution but have some practical limitations with today’s technology, and probably a more important factor, they are extremely expensive.

The NTT experiment, scheduled for February 9th through the 15th, involves the use of autonomous service robots developed by Tmsuk that will acquire the positional and other operational information they need via an NTT Comm IPv6 network of RFID electronic tags. Volunteer shoppers, drawn by lottery from a pool of applicants, will participate in the test.

The RFID tags are cheap enough that they can be plastered anywhere (and everywhere) allowing the robot to identify and respond to the store, its location within the store, the items in the store around it, and most important - to you. Assuming that all goes well with this test and others like it, NTT plans to begin commercial deployment during calendar 2007.

  NTT’s overall system concept diagram (see link below)

So, what does NTT’s vision of the future hold for all of us?

Forget about pushing a shopping cart up and down the aisles. A few years from now, perhaps even sooner, you’ll clip a small badge on when you enter a store and a shopping robot will quietly follow you around to carry your purchases.

Equipped with a display and cameras,
they will be able to instantly put you
in touch with a remote service desk
to answer any shopping questions
you have, or make suggestions.
 No more store clerks that
 are too busy chatting with
 each other to bother with
 the customers.
 You never have to worry
 about robots sleeping
 on the job.
 Robots are rarely guilty of making
 sarcastic remarks or insulting
 customers. And, they never get
 hit with sexual harassment lawsuits.
 The robot shopping systems will
 offer a very professional and
 consistent image.

 Fewer headaches for
 store management,
 and much lower costs.

Related links:

NTT Press Release February 2, 2006 (Japanese)

NTT shopping robot system concept diagram (Japanese)


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