Will robot shop assistants spell the end for shop work?
It would be surprising if Wickes or Homebase announced they were opening a futuristic research arm aimed at developing “disruptive innovation” strategies. This, however, was the decision made two years ago by Lowe’s – an equivalent, albeit bigger, homeware chain in the US. “It’s not the kind of thing people expect from a home-improvement retailer,” says Kyle Nel, the youthful executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs.
This new department has already borne fruit in the form of Lowe’s virtual-reality “holoroom”, in which customers at its Toronto branch can envisage their new kitchen or conservatory by entering a chamber and looking through a hi-tech screen. More ambitious still, though, is OSHbot: a gliding, chattering “retail assistant” robot who will be hitting the floor of a San Jose DIY store this month.
According to Nel, OSHbot is the product of an extraordinary innovation scheme in which Lowe’s Innovation Labs ask published science-fiction writers to produce stories predicting futuristic scenarios for the store. Lowe’s then seek out what Nel calls “uncommon partners” to help make the stories reality; in OSHbot’s case, the trendy Silicon Valley learning hub Singularity University and the startup robotics firm Fellow Robots.
OSHbot is a 4ft-something, pear-shaped character; limbless, with nothing but a vague green glow for a face, and a screen slanted in front like a starched pinny. “It’s basically a roving kiosk; we definitely didn’t want it to have arms or anything like that,” says Nel. “But there’s still lots to figure out, for instance: what voice should the robot have? Should it be male, should it be female? There are so many things we can’t know until we try it.”
Nel is quick to clarify that OSHbot is not a replacement for human beings – rather it is there to “augment [the] store associates”. Her range of duties (she sounds female in her promotional video) is restricted to greeting customers, discussing their needs in brief and escorting them to the correct aisle and shelf. Despite these limits, however, she is considerably more sophisticated than a human worker in a number of other ways. A 3D scanner secreted in her front can examine any item – from a strimmer to a tack – and match it to a stock database. She knows the precise location of every product in the shop at any given time, and she is also multilingual.
For now, OSHbot is only going to appear in one store – the Silicon Valley branch of the Lowe’s-owned Orchard Supply and Hardware. But although Nel anticipates people coming to “gawk and try it out”, he insists it is more than a publicity stunt. “Our ambition is to go beyond one store” he says, “and clearly the sky’s the limit when it comes to robotics.”
Robots, he feels, will soon be as indispensable as smartphones, and OSHbot is just the beginning.