Kyle Nel, who runs the Innovation Labs division of the Lowe’s hardware chain, began brainstorming several months ago about how the company might make use of an in-store robot.
He got an introduction to Marco Mascorro, the C.E.O. of a robotics startup called Fellow Robots, and together Lowe’s and Fellow Robots designed, developed, and built OSHbot, a machine that can talk and move, and that evokes a taller, squarer version of Wall-E’s love interest, EVE. Starting next month, Lowe’s plans to release several OSHbots into one of its Orchard Supply Hardware stores (the “OSH” in OSHbot) in San Jose, California. The robots’ job will be to greet customers, help them find what they need, and guide them around the store.
In a typical interaction, Nel told me, an OSHbot would roll up and greet you as you walked in: “Hi, can I help you? What are you looking for today?” You might answer that you need to replace some plumbing pipes, prompting the OSHbot to ask whether you’ve got the original pipe. If you had it, you would put it in front of a viewfinder, and the robot would scan it, identify it, and direct you to the item in the store. It could even guide you to the place where the item is stocked. The OSHbot will be conversant in English and Spanish, to start, with other languages to be added later. It is also impressively self-sufficient: when it’s about to run out of power, it slides itself right over to a charging spot. Nel hopes OSHbots will eventually be rolling around in Lowe’s stores around the country.