Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Wal-Mart Hires Robots for Blind Shoppers

This is a follow-up on the robot shboppers for the blind covered earlier.

A Utah Walmart is the first to try out the helper robots. This first version is still moronic in its abilities.

The initial version of RG—which weighs about 22 pounds and is roughly the height of an upright vacuum cleaner—is limited to three basic functions.

First, it guides the consumer through the aisles and around people, displays and merchandise using RFID readers and 16 ultrasonic sonars. The navigation system is sophisticated enough to handle environments—including elevators and limited open spaces—that usually literally trip up robots, Kulyukin said.

ts second function is to communicate with the consumer. It takes instructions via a small Braille directory of products that is attached to the robot's handle, and it replies to the shopper's questions with spoken answers

The third function is to use its RFID reader to locate the desired products. The store's RFID tags help the robot navigate the lanes as well as locate products.

The robot has its limitations, though. Until item-level tagging becomes the norm, the system can indicate only the part of the shelf where the product is supposed to be. If it's been moved—either by an employee moving stock who forgot to move the update the RFID tag or by another consumer who put a tube of Aim toothpaste amidst the Colgate—the visually impaired consumer might grab the wrong product.

"It's a great thing for the customers who don't have their eyesight," said Wal-Mart store manager Ron Tuttle. "We have a lot of customers who come in and ask for someone to help them. I talked with one lady and she was very excited about it because it makes her feel more independent."

Kulyukin also said that having a small squadron of robots around a retail shop could be valuable in other ways. When there are no customers using the robots, they can assist in moving merchandise, carrying extremely heavy boxes and unloading trucks.

Wal-Mart Tests Robots for Blind Shoppers


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