East Japan Railway Company (JR East) has become the world's first railway company to develop a humanoid robot guide. JR East spent two years working with a Japanese robot manufacturer to develop the droid, nicknamed "I" (which stands for "information"), who the company is now grooming for employment at train stations.
I stands 120 centimeters (4 ft) tall, weighs 50 kilograms (110 lbs) and is equipped with a Suica card (JR's rechargeable contactless train pass) reader on its shoulder and a touch screen on its chest that can display a variety of data. The robot moves around on wheels and is nimble enough to spin around in place.
I's future duties include providing assistance at customer service windows, performing security patrols around stations at night, and assisting station workers with other duties as needed.
As of now, the robot's reception skills include the ability to read Suica cards held near its shoulder and ring telephones to notify representatives of customers in need. The robot can also show customers to reception areas and it can point the direction to the restrooms if asked. Face and voice recognition skills allow it to carry on simple conversations with the people it encounters.
The robot was subjected to about 10 days of testing at JR's research facility in Saitama City at the end of July. However, the droid did not perform very well in the tests, receiving poor marks for awkward and slow movements.
Being awkward and slow does not appear to be a major obstacle to I's employment prospects, though. For the time being, it seems that the robot will get by on charm. "Customers find the robot entertaining," says JR East research director Takashi Endo. "There are still a number of issues that we need to address, but it can be used to create some amusement in the stations."
[Source: Asahi Shimbun]