Family Mart’s robots will still be controlled by human employees.

Hardly a day goes by that we don’t find ourselves stopping into one of Japan’s many convenience stores to grab a bite to eat or something to drink. But while we’ve come to expect tasty onigiri rice balls and tempting dessert beverages when we walk through the door, soon we might be seeing robots.

Convenience store chain Family Mart has announced a partnership with Tokyo-based robotics firm Telexistence. Together, the companies plan to study ways to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs by using Telexistence’s technology to stock Family Mart store shelve with products.

What’s especially interesting about the project, though, is that full automation isn’t necessarily the goal. Rather than turn Family Mart branches into essentially giant vending machines, where products are automatically replaced after a customer selects one for purchase, the plan is to use remote-control robots, operated by human beings using VR terminals at a separate location.

▼ An example of Telexistence’s VR robotics

Family Mart’s hope is that successful implementation of the system would increase the work flexibility of employees, since they wouldn’t have to be on-site to do their jobs, and also allow for stores unable to find local workers to still operate with a small number of employees.

Test installations are scheduled to start this summer at select Family Mart locations in Tokyo, with the goal of having robots stocking shelves in 20 branches by 2022 and further expansion after that, if the trials yield positive results. Even then, though, the plan isn’t to make Family Mart locations all-robot, so don’t forget the proper manners for shopping at convenience stores in Japan.

Sources: Press release, Asahi Shimbun Digital
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Insert image: Telexistence
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where that VR control setup reminds him of the AV-98 finger gloves in Patlabor.