Most folks don't interact with robots every day, so unless you work in a factory, the tech can seem remote. But if you’re a San Jose local? Welcome to the future. Orchard Supply Hardware just hired a pair of bots to greet and engage customers.

This holiday season, the robots, dubbed OSHbot, will employ a suite of new technologies to field simple customer questions, identify items, search inventory, act as guides, and even summon Orchard Supply Hardware experts for a video chat.

OSHbot was developed in a collaboration between Orchard Supply Hardware's parent company Lowe’s, Singularity University Labs, and robotics startup Fellow Robots.

Corporate groups, like Lowe's Innovation Labs, join Singularity University Labs to extend their horizons, get a feel for technologies in the pipeline, and strike up mutually beneficial partnerships with startups immersed in those technologies.

“Lowe's Innovation Labs is here to build new technologies to solve consumer problems with uncommon partners,” says Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs. “We focus on making science fiction a reality.”

The five-foot-tall gleaming white OSHbot has two video monitors, two lasers for navigation and obstacle avoidance, a 3D scanner (akin to Kinect, we imagine), natural language processing, and a set of wheels to navigate the store.

fellow-robots-lowes-bot-5Customers walk up to OSHbot and ask where they can find a particular item, or if they don’t know the item’s name, they can show it to the 3D scanner. OSHbot matches it up with inventory and autonomously leads the customer up the right aisle, using its onboard sensors to navigate the store and avoid obstacles.

As the robot works, it creates a digital map of its environment and compares that map to the store’s official inventory map. Of course, memorizing long lists and locations is a skill particularly well suited to machines, and something humans struggle to do.

But humans are still a key part of the experience.

If a customer has a more complicated question, perhaps advice on a home improvement project or a product comparison, OSHbot is equipped to wirelessly connect to experts at other Orchard Supply Hardware stores for live video chat.

The robot speaks multiple languages—witness its fine Spanish in the video—and we think its video interface might prove a great helper for hearing impaired customers.

fellow-robots-lowes-oshbot-31

OSHbot is indeed cool—but it isn’t the first service robot we’ve seen.

In 2012, we covered a Korean robot, FURO, that answered traveler questions in multiple languages and served as roving billboard in a Brazilian airport. Even further back, in 2010, we wrote about PAL robotics’ Rheem-H1 robot mall guide.

OSHbot isn’t the first service robot to employ autonomous navigation and obstacle avoidance either. Indeed, the RP-Vita robot, made by iRobot and InTouchHealth, is already traversing hospital hallways, connecting distant doctors with patients by video.

But OSHbot is significant for a few other reasons.

fellow-robots-lowes-oshbot-2For one, it’s being adopted by Lowe's, a big established firm in a sector of the economy—lumber, tools, and screws—you might not associate with robotics. Lowe's hiring robots is akin to office supply chain, Staples, announcing they’ll carry 3D printers or UPS stores offering 3D printing services to customers.

Just as 3D printing is doggedly entering the mainstream, so too is robotics.

Also, OSHbot ties together a number of technologies in a clever new package. That laser guidance system? It’s not so different from the tech used in Google’s self-driving cars. And 3D scanning? We've seen it in gaming, but recently it's been miniaturized in Leap Motion’s infrared gesture controls or Google’s Project Tango.

When we first saw Project Tango smartphones with 3D scanning hardware, we speculated it wouldn’t be long before it appeared in robots. Indeed, one early adopter strapped a Tango smartphone to his drone. Now OSHbot is using similar tech to model and identify nails, screws, and tools in the hardware world.

And there’s room for improvement. Instead of a static creation, think of OSHbot as a kind of service platform on which its makers can hang other useful tech gadgetry.

fellow-robots-lowes-oshbot-4Paired with 3D scanning capability, Marco Mascorro, CEO of Fellow Robots, suggests a future version might have a 3D printer to make parts on the spot.

We imagine other hardware might include a credit card scanner for checkout or NFC for mobile payments (think Apple Pay). It’d be just like those roving bands of Apple store employees with iPads—only, you know, with robots.

And why not add face detection software akin to RealEyes or IMRSV’s Cara?

These programs could allow the robot to gauge a customer’s attentiveness and even basic emotions. If the customer looks confused, the software would recognize the expression and ask if they need more specific help finding an item. Or perhaps the robot got it wrong, and they need to be guided to a different product altogether.

We think OSHbot has lots of potential—but it’s still a new creation.

The goal in San Jose is to put its potential to the test in the real world. There is no better way to find bugs in a system than daily interaction with the public. We expect there might be a few glitches (perhaps even comical ones). Voice recognition and natural language processing, for example, are vastly improved but still imperfect.

Also, the robot’s price tag will matter for wider adoption. Similar robots run into the tens of thousands of dollars, not including maintenance costs. But the trend in robotics has been rapidly falling prices—and a few (even pricey) robots might not only ease the burden on human employees, but attract a few new customers to boot.

Will OSHbot and other customer service robots increasingly make their way into our everyday lives? We think so. But fear not—they’re here to help.

Image Credit: Fellow Robots

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.