Home Empowering the Bedridden: How Robots Are Changing Lives by Enabling Work and Social Engagement

Empowering the Bedridden: How Robots Are Changing Lives by Enabling Work and Social Engagement

Ory Lab Gallery


Imagine being confined to your home, unable to step outside, yet still having the ability to work and socialize as if you were out in the world. This isn’t a futuristic dream; it’s a reality thanks to innovative robotics technology.

Using robots to combat social isolation

Many people found the social isolation caused by the COVID-19 lockdowns hard. But at least the lockdowns came to an end. What about people suffering from an illness or disability leaving them bedridden? A Japanese company aims to allow them to get out into the world again too using robots.

We often hear about robots in dystopian contexts—machines replacing humans or causing havoc. However, the Avatar Cafe DAWN ver.β in Tokyo is rewriting this narrative. This unique cafe employs “robot avatars,” controlled not by AI but by individuals who can’t leave their homes due to illnesses or disabilities. The best part? These “pilots” earn a standard wage, just like any other wait-staff in Japan.

The Mission: Solving Loneliness Through Technology

Ory Laboratory, the Japanese company behind this initiative, is on a mission to “solve loneliness through technology.” The project, which has been operational since 2021, aims to enable those confined to their homes to work and socialize via robot avatars.

If people can’t leave their house in their own bodies, then give them robot bodies as avatars. Whereas muscle suits or exeskeletons can help people who have some mobility, a robot avatar can allow people who are completely bedridden to have a presence in the world. This is not only a limited time trial but an ongoing operation since 2021. What’s more it gives people a means to earn an income.

What is Telepresence?

Telepresence gives someone a presence in a place some distance from their physical body. It’s not a new idea, the term telepresence dates from the 1980s, but as far as I know it’s always been intended as a way to “transport” able-bodied people to enable them to work in hazadous environments or communicate with other people without needing to physically travel. I find this new use of it much more appealing because its enabling people who don’t even have the option to travel to make contact with other people.

How It Works

The people who control the robots - The Ory Laboratory refers to them as “pilots” - are given an interface appropriate to their condition. The exact form of the interface is not specified, but there are several options:

  • controlling the robot using gaze direction
  • mouse-based interface using hands
  • mouse-based interface controlled using mouth

Having to control every movement of a robot using this sort of interface could be cumbersome and tiring so there are a number of pre-defined movements that can be triggered (not clear if pilots can add additional movements). The robots are also capable of following pre-defined paths between known locations which makes moving the robots easier for the pilots.

Beyond Movement: Communication Features

As well as moving about, the robot bodies are capable of grasping small objects and have microphones and speakers so that the pilots can communicate with people using either their natural voice (if possible) or a synthesized voice. The pilots can also change the robots eye colour to show their mood. A tablet or phone-like “name badge” can also be worn by the robots so that customers can learn a bit more about the pilot.

The cafe

The Cafe

Once disabled people have access to telepresence what should they do? Ory Laboratory’s answer is that they can both support themselves via work and develop social contacts. This in achieved not in a lab, but in a cafe.

Whereas other places staffed by robots seem gimmicky - the robots being present more for novelty value or entertainment than utilty - the Avatar Cafe DAWN ver.β provides a means for disabled people to earn a living and have greater social contact with other people. It also allows able-bodied visitors to talk to the “pilots” and perhaps learn more about what it’s like to be permamently cut-off from the world. Customers and pilots are actually encouraged to talk. Hopefully, this will promote empathy and greater understanding of the difficulties faced by heavily disabled people.

Fittingly, the cafe also makes provision for visitors who are not able-bodied

The robot

The OriHime-D robots that wait tables at the cafe are 120cm tall. This height was chosen to be close to that of a 6 year-old child to make the robot seem unthreatening. The robot has 14 joint motors in the upper body and moves on two omniwheels. The arms are strong enough to hold a 500g bottle when extended. Rather than attempt to look human the robots faces are inspired by designs for Japanese Noh masks.

It’s not clear how many OriHime-D robots actually exist or how much they might cost. The Ory Laboratory’s website indicates that they are only available for rental.

Other Robot-Staffed Venues

There are a few places also staffed by robots. These include the Robotazia restaurant that was located in Milton Keynes, UK before it closed. Robotazia used robots both for entertainment and delivering orders. However humans were required to take customer orders. There is also the Henn na hotel in Nagasaki, Japan. However it sounds like the robots didn’t work very well.

Both Robotazia and the Henn na hotel appeared to use robots both for entertainment value and also to perform day-to-day operations. However, the robots were expensive to maintain and, at least at the Henn na, didn’t work that well.

Find out more

You can find out more about the robot, the cafe and pilots by reading this paper: Avatar Work: Telework for Disabled People Unable to Go Outside by Using Avatar Robots “OriHime-D” and Its Verification


As we navigate the ethical and practical implications of robotics, the Avatar Cafe stands as an example of how technology can genuinely improve lives. It’s not just about robots serving coffee; it’s about redefining social engagement and work for those who would otherwise be excluded. So the next time you’re served by a robot, remember, you might just be interacting with someone’s new found freedom.

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