A look inside Japan's robot-run hotel

This past week, headlines buzzed with updates from the aptly named Weird Hotel (or Henn na Hotel) in Nagasaki, Japan, that is run almost entirely by machinery. This includes the check-in receptionist (an android for guests who speak Japanese; a dinosaur for English-speakers) and the porter that helps guests with their luggage—in this case, an automated trolley.

Hideo Sawada, who runs the hotel as part of an amusement park, told The Guardian that using robots is not a gimmick but a serious effort to use technology and achieve efficiency…and it also helps save labor costs.

The two robot receptionists aren't quite sophisticated enough to hold a conversation, so guests are required to tap in their information via a touch-screen panel and then have their photo taken for use as a facial recognition room key. (Robots aren’t good at finding keys should guests lose them.)

A giant robotic arm, usually seen in manufacturing, sits in glass quarters in the lobby. It lifts one of the boxes stacked into the wall and puts it through a space in the glass, where a guest can place an item in it, to use as a locker.

A tulip-shaped concierge robot, Tuly, replaces antiquated devices like light switches or clocks in guestrooms. Instead, to adjust the brightness of a room or to determine time or the weather outside, guests can ask Tuly or use a tablet. Rather than a traditional thermostat, all rooms have a "radiant panel" air conditioning system that detects guests' body heat and uses electromagnetic waves to transfer heat directly from one object to another without affecting the air in between. (From the hotel's website: "When it is hot out, this radiating-type heating/cooling system draws heat away from your body to make you feel cool. When it is cold out, it makes you feel warm by keeping heat from escaping your body. It also creates a lower temperature differential than conventional heating/cooling systems and is less affected by air currents.") No word yet on how this will affect people who are particularly sensitive to cold or heat, or who have medical conditions that make it difficult for them to regulate their own body temperatures.

Reduced services, improved efficiency
In an effort to keep prices down (most rooms currently go for about $80 per night) and maximize efficiency, the hotel has skipped features that have become customary in most midscale to high-end hotels. For example, guestrooms do not have refrigerators or TVs. Instead, guests can watch TV on a tablet (that may be provided depending on the room type). A motion sensor turns off the lights if no one is in the room. Cleaning is not conducted on a daily basis, and is only complimentary for guests staying seven nights or longer. 

The human factor
But technology must still defer to human expertise in some fields of hospitality. The Weird Hotel uses traditional security cameras, through which real people watch everything through a monitor to ensure guests are safe and no one makes off with an expensive robot. “And they still can’t make beds,” Sawada added of the mechanical staff.

If the enterprise proves successful, Sawada wants robot hotels to become a fixture in the hospitality industry. As he told Japan’s Nikkei News, “In the future, we’re hoping to build 1,000 similar hotels around the world.” In the meantime, he plans to add other languages, such as Chinese and Korean, to the robots’ vocabulary.