By Nancy McKeon
“THIS IS ROOM 837,” I say, the stress evident in my voice. “Winnie seems to be dead!” Pause. “She’s lost the will to serve!”
The woman at the hotel desk catches on right away, thank goodness.
“Don’t worry,” she says with a laugh. “We’ll get her restarted.”
Winnie is the Room Service Robot at the airport Embassy Suites in not-so-balmy Los Angeles. I spotted her (him?) downstairs and definitely needed to try her (it?) out.
Winnie’s main task is to open the compartment on the top of her head so one of the front-desk people can insert (pricey) snacks from the lobby snack shop. Yes, I still had to talk to a human being. It went something like this:
Me: Hi, I’d like to have the robot bring us some snacks.
A male desk attendant asks what I would like.
Me: One regular Coke, a Diet Coke and some potato chips. Are they those tiny bags?
Desk attendant: Yes.
Me: Okay, make it two bags. Thanks.
A few minutes pass, not many but enough. The phone rings.
Desk attendant: I’m sorry, we have only one bag of potato chips left.
Me: Hmmm. Um, what else do you have that’s salty?
The desk attendant mentions some snacks, but I stop him when he says “Cheetos.”
Desk attendant: And we have Coke but no Diet Coke.
(Really? They’re out of America’s No. 2 most popular drink, Diet Coke? Well, maybe its popularity is why they’re out of it.)
Me: Okay. Do you have ginger ale?
Affirmative. And Winnie, built by the Savioke company of San Jose, California, for just this purpose, is presumably now on her way.
I’m in the sitting room of the suite with my brother-in-law, but I keep my face pressed against the window that looks out onto the hallway so I can record Winnie’s arrival.
Finally the elevator door opens. But it’s not just the 3-foot-tall, 100-pound Winnie. It’s also my sister (quite a bit taller but not all that much heavier), whose smile is as wide as her eyes. I signal to her not to come to the door; I want Winnie to announce herself.
That’s when the telephone rings and a, shall I say robotic, voice tells me my delivery has arrived. I open the door and her head pops open. Winnie’s, not my sister’s. Her screen reads HELLO HERE IS YOUR DELIVERY. Then PLEASE REMOVE YOUR ITEMS. Pushy little gal. I retrieve the snacks, Winnie’s head snaps shut and her video screen reads BYE! Then she turns around and rolls over to the elevator—and I finally let my sister into her room. (It’s hers and Bill’s because it’s the beginning of January and their American flight to JFK has been canceled due to the snow bomb hitting the East Coast. My flight to Washington Dulles is good to go so I’ll be leaving in a little while.)
The snacks are now on the table, but I want to watch Winnie navigate the hallway and the elevator. Nothing . . . nothing. Ah, an elevator arrives, and a family gets off, smiling at Winnie. But Winnie doesn’t roll herself into the lift. She sits there. And sits there. The other elevator arrives and sits open. No movement. That’s when I call the desk.
Eventually the novelty of Winnie’s plight wears off. When it’s time for me to go down to catch the airport shuttle, the hallway is empty. So Winnie went home after all.
Downstairs, I wander over to the desk while I wait for the shuttle. You’re the woman I talked to about Winnie? I ask. (She looks right, has an easy smile even though the lobby is bedlam.) How did you get her down?
She gives a little laugh: “We had to push her.”
Considering how much engagement—me, two desk clerks and four phone calls—was involved in this little “autonomous” delivery, I’m not sure I’d bet on the future of robotics in hotels, at least not at this stage.
But I’m willing to bet that sales from the little lobby snack shop have gone up, fueled by people like me who just want to have a few meaningful moments with Winnie.