Volume 78 / Number 16, September 17 - 23, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Caroline Debevec

A customer checks out Wakamaru in action at Uniqlo in Soho.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto: ‘Retail R2D2’ hits Soho shop

By Casey Samulski

The Uniqlo at Soho has a new employee in its ranks. He doesn’t breathe, he has no legs, and he can talk to you about the weather. He’ll shake your hand and greet you at the door. His name is Wakamaru. And he isn’t human.

Wakamaru is a robot on loan from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Japanese conglomerate that makes everything from automobiles to nuclear power plants. The latter is what Wakamaru was originally intended for, to enter sections of power plants too radioactive for human workers.

This use is still something Mitsubishi has in mind and what Kazuhiro Yusuda, vice president of Marketing for Mitsubishi USA, called a “fundamental point” behind the robot’s design. But, for now, Wakamaru works in the much more habitable environment of consumer fashion, handling customers, not fuel rods. And while Wakamaru can navigate using microwave signals, Yusuda described the programming as “still primitive.”

The robotic retailer’s transition was not easy. Wakamaru arrived speaking only Japanese. His introduction to English began only a month ago and his Japanese vocabulary is still much larger. But customers can ask him what time it is or where the bathrooms are.

Jean Shein, marketing manager of Uniqlo USA, said Wakamaru is not in the store as just a toy or gadget.

“The goal is to get him to work,” he said. But retail employees need not fear for their job security. While Wakamaru is capable of greeting customers, his hands and motor capabilities are still too limited to have him stocking shelves or working a cash register. His speech-recognition functions also seem to have a ways to go. On a recent visit to the store, when one customer inquired, “How are you doing?” after a lengthy pause, the robot replied somewhat enigmatically, “I work at this store.”

Mitsubishi’s long-term plans for Wakamaru are in another direction entirely. They want to put Wakamarus in homes, acting as robotic nannies to help keep an eye on things while parents are out of the house.

Customers can find him either in motion or by the left of the front entrance, standing obediently at his station and looking, as much as any robot can, bewildered. He will gladly answer shoppers’ questions if asked.

Wakamaru will stay on loan to the Uniqlo for at least a few more months. But as the holidays roll in and the shopping season picks up, most likely he’ll have to be taken off of the floor. The pace and noise of New York may prove to be just too much for Wakamaru to handle. After all, as Shein admits somewhat solemnly, “Wakamaru works better when it’s quiet.”

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