"I'm looking for a hammer," I tell a wheeled rectangle idling at a conference expo area in the San Francisco Union Square Hilton Hotel. The rectangle moves toward me, and I jump.
Fellow Robots CEO Marco Mascorro and chief information officer Thavidu Ranatunga tells me there's nothing to worry about; it won't crash into me. This particular display robot made by their Silicon Valley startup is programmed for Ranatunga to control with a remote, though in stores it will be autonomous.
"We have multiple sensors, so it's really smart," says Mascorro.
The robot swivels and maneuvers to the center of a small group of people wandering the expo, then stops.
LoweBot, as the contraption made for Lowe's is called, is slated to appear in 11 Lowe's Hardware stores in the Bay Area this fall. The retail bot can answer questions and find items based on voice and typed queries provided through its rectangular touch screen.
"It's like the evolution of a kiosk," says Ranatunga.
Lowe's and Fellow Robot announced the release of the LoweBot Tuesday at Silicon Valley-based think tank/university/incubator hybrid Singularity University's Global Summit. Lowe's is a founding corporate partner of Singularity.
This is not Lowe's first foray into robot workers--the company has piloted the same model of retail robot (called the NAVii) at a San Jose location of its Orchard Supply Hardware stores. What's being placed at Lowe's is essentially the same deal.
"LoweBot will add a layer of support to amplify the trusted advice of Lowe's employees as it helps customers with simple questions, enabling more time for employees to focus on delivering project expertise and personalized service. Having the ability to scan inventory and capture real-time data with LoweBot will also help detect patterns or gaps that will ultimately influence business decisions," states a press release about the device.
By way of example, the multilingual robot will help stores determine if they need more staff with different language capabilities or whether people are asking more for certain items at certain times.
Some people might call a robot that can perform duties like directing customers to items a "job killer." Not at all, says Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs. "We designed this to be an assistant to the associate," he says.