Imagine the scene – you go into the hotel you’ve booked and head over to reception desk to check in. But rather than a friendly face behind the desk, you’re greeted by a large dinosaur wearing a hat. What’s more, the dinosaur that can talk.
Moreover, positioned next to the prehistoric monster is a women speaking Japanese. Except that it’s not actually a woman – it’s a robot that sits demurely waiting for customers, its eyelashes fluttering as it tells guests how they can get to their room.
It might sound like a scene from a particularly strange fever dream, but this is actually a real hotel. It’s in Japan, of course, and the dinosaur and its human companion are just the start of the weirdness.
The hotel in question is called Henn-na Hotel – which in Japanese translates as “weird hotel” – and can be found in the Nagaski region of south-west Japan. It was opened in 2015 in the giant Huis ten Bosch amusement park by founder Hideo Sawada, and, according to him at least, the robot staff are not a gimmick.
“I wanted to highlight innovation,” Sawada said when the park opened. “I also wanted to do something about hotel prices going up.” Indeed, a night at the hotel is actually something of a bargain in Japan, starting at just 9,000 yen. That’s a little less than $90 to you.
After dealing with the talking, growling dinosaur receptionist, visitors to the hotel come face to face with some other amazing contraptions. In fact, almost everything at the hotel has been automated.
The left-baggage check, for example, involves guests sliding their suitcase through a window. The luggage falls from the window into a box and then gets stacked by the sort of massive robotic arm usually only seen in factories. And things get stranger still.
The porters in the hotel, for instance, are motorized trolleys that can carry guests’ luggage and lead them to their room. It’s worth noting, however, that only guests who are checked into the expensive, luxury section of the hotel are offered this service.
Guests also get to talk to a robot concierge. It’s only a foot high, but it can tell guests when and where breakfast will be served and also book taxis for them. Unfortunately for English speakers, at the moment it only speaks Japanese.
There are some other incredible innovations in the hotel as well. In fact, some of the ideas that the establishment has implemented would be great assets in more mainstream hotels too – and maybe one day they will be.
One of the big innovations to be found in the Henn-na Hotel is facial-recognition technology. Rather than giving out keys, which would be difficult for the robots to find if the human guests lost them, the hotel scans residents’ faces at check-in. Incredibly, this means that they simply have to show up at their room door for it to unlock.
Then there’s Tuly, the cute pink tulip-shaped robot that sits in every guest’s room with a permanent smile on its face. Moreover, it performs a number of functions in order to make life easier for guests at the hotel.
For example, the robot can respond to simple questions, such as ones about the weather and the time. There are no light switches in the room either – to have the lights dimmed, guests only need to ask Tuly.
And it’s not just Tuly that helps out in the rooms. Indeed, heat sensors detect the body temperature of each room’s inhabitant. If they detect that the guest is getting too cold or hot, then, the heating settings in the room will be altered accordingly.
The one thing that the robots don’t control, though, is the hotel security. In fact, everything is monitored by CCTV cameras, and humans are at hand to keep an eye on the feeds to make sure that nothing untoward is happening.
It certainly sounds like an interesting place to stay. Perhaps inevitably, though, there were a few teething problems when the hotel opened. For instance, a room-service robot that was meant to deliver simple food and drinks to the hotel rooms wasn’t ready for the hotel’s unveiling.
Furthermore, an overnight stay for select media attendees was cancelled at the very last minute, as the owners of the hotel decided that the robots just weren’t ready to deal with guests. And when one of those robots is a robot velociraptor, that’s probably for the best.
That hasn’t stopped Sawada looking to the future, however. He has big plans for his robot-run hotel, including expanding the vocabulary of the robots who work in Henn-na to include Chinese and Korean in a bid to attract more guests to come and stay.
On top of that, he has ambitions to open another branch of the hotel in Japan before rolling out the idea across the world. Not everyone is completely sold on the idea, however.
The Guardian journalist Monisha Rajesh, who has stayed at the hotel, found that the robots weren’t quite up to scratch. “Robots may be the future, but for hotel hospitality, you still can’t beat the human touch,” she reported. Time will tell if she is correct.