FamilyMart convenience store under Mt. Fuji

FamilyMart is the second largest convenience store company in Japan. Source: Shutterstock

Japan’s FamilyMart hedges bets on in-store robots

  • FamilyMart plans to introduce remote-controlled robots into some of its Tokyo-area stores this summer
  • Robots are becoming an increasingly common feature of restaurants, and usage could accelerate following the pandemic

As part of its summer rollout, the FamilyMart convenience store chain (dubbed konbini in Japan) will not only be introducing their seasonal new food and drink items – the company will also be introducing remote-controlled, humanoid robots to some of its Tokyo-area stores.

The robots are created and made by Tokyo-based robotics firm Telexistence and can be controlled by human beings using a virtual reality headset and gear from an entirely separate location. Robots are able to stock ready-to-eat meals, sandwiches, and drinks on convenience store shelves.

Beginning August, prolific store operator FamilyMart will begin a trial of the Telexistence bots at some of its Tokyo locations as a means to study ways to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs. This is specially pertinent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it has put on limiting the number of humans gathered at particular locations.

If the trial proceeds as expected, FamilyMart expects to roll out robotic store assistants in as many as 20 of its Tokyo outlets, out of 16,600 locations across Japan by 2022, the chain said in a press release. Research from Gartner indicates that robotics in retail is here to stay, with a minimum of two out of the top 10 global retailers predicted to rely more heavily on robotic resources by 2025.

Robots being tapped to automate processes in the retail sector are not a revolutionary concept, but what is especially interesting about Telexistence’s system is that at first, humans will operate the machines remotely using virtual reality goggles and motion-sensor controls to simulate the packing and stacking of items.

Over time, the system’s artificial intelligence (AI) will learn to mimic the human movements required to perform its various tasks. Using human controllers to train the AI technology can drastically reduce the costs normally associated with retail robots requiring complex programming, says Telexistence.

The robotics maker also says that programmed retail machines could cost up to ten times more than its hardware alone, and take months to complete.

At present, the human controllers can be situated anywhere and can be operated by most people. Telexistence chief executive Jin Tomioka explained that his company’s technology lets people sense and experience places other than where they are, a concept dubbed “telexistence” by the startup’s co-founder, University of Tokyo professor Susumu Tachi, around forty years ago.

“There are about 1.6 million people in Japan, who for various reasons are not active in the workforce,” said Tomohiro Kano, FamilyMart’s general manager in charge of franchise development. In the future, robots either operated by humans or using AI trained on human behavior, could become more prevalent in retail and other industrialized sectors.

This would be a boon in countries like rapidly-aging Japan, as well as for operations that have been forced to operate with a lesser number of people due to emergency restrictions, such as with the coronavirus outbreak.

Telexistence chief Tomioka says that his firm has been contacted by hotels, restaurants and even gas and oil companies since the emergence of COVID-19 in Japan.

Professor Takeo Kanade, an AI and robotics scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who joined Telexistence as an adviser in February, believes that upcoming telexistence robots could also be used in hospitals so doctors could perform operations from remote locations– but that it might take another two decades before before robots can work in people’s homes.

“In order for robots to be really usable at home we really have to be able to communicate,” he said. “The fundamental thing that is lacking is knowing how humans behave.”

Last month, the first robotic restaurant complex opened in China’s Guangdong province. Opened in the city of Shunde and built by Qianxi Robot Catering Group, the restaurant has separate sections for Chinese food, hot pot and fast food and features a wide selection of dishes, each one of which is delivered to the waiting diner within seconds