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SASEBO, Japan -- From the receptionist that does the check-in and check-out to the porter that's an automated trolley taking luggage up to the room, this hotel in southwestern Japan, aptly called Weird Hotel, is "manned" almost totally by robots to save labor costs. Hideo Sawada, who runs the hotel as part of an amusement park, insists using robots is not a gimmick, but a serious effort to utilize technology and achieve efficiency. The receptionist robot that speaks in English is a vicious-looking dinosaur, and the one that speaks Japanese is a female humanoid with blinking lashes. "If you want to check in, push one," the dinosaur says. The visitor still has to punch a button on the desk, and type in information on a touch panel screen.
Henn na Hotel, as it is called in Japanese, was shown to reporters Wednesday, complete with robot demonstrations, ahead of its opening to the public Friday. Another feature of the hotel is the use of facial recognition technology, instead of the standard electronic keys, by registering the digital image of the guest's face during check-in. The reason? Robots aren't good at finding keys, if people happen to lose them.
Staying at Henn na Hotel starts at 9,000 yen ($80), a bargain for Japan, where a stay in one of the nicer hotels can easily cost twice or three times that much. The concierge is a doll-like hairless robot with voice recognition that prattles breakfast and event information. It cannot call a cab or do other errands.
Japan is a world leader in robotics technology, and the government is trumpeting robotics as a pillar of its growth strategy. Robots have long been used here in manufacturing. But interest is also high in exploring the potential of robots in human interaction, including helping care for the elderly.
One area Henn na Hotel still relies on human beings is security. The place is dotted with security cameras, and real people are watching everything through a monitor to make sure guests stay safe and no one makes off with one of the expensive robots. "And they still can't make beds," said Sawada.
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Outdoors, Sawada also demonstrated a drone that flew in to deliver a few small jars filled with snacks. He said he wanted to eventually have drones perform in shows for guests.
In the hotel's rooms, a lamp-size robot in the shape of a fat pink tulip called Tuly answers simple questions like, "What time is it?" and "What is the weather tomorrow?" You can also tell it to turn the room lights on or off. There are no switches on the walls. Sawada is keeping the hotel half-filled for the first few weeks to make sure nothing goes wrong. He also canceled at the last minute the overnight stay planned for media.
The robots simply weren't ready.