Robot Tour of San Francisco

A quick run for glasses, lunch, and coffee—all served by robots.

Last Friday, I had a doctor’s appointment across Market Street, and after getting stuck with a few needles, I decided to treat myself.

This video gives you some pretty visuals, but there’s some more interesting stuff that I’d love to discuss with you: scroll down!

Glasses: JINS (Union Square/Powell)

First up, I needed some new glasses. JINS does them in 30 minutes, so I figured I’d pick some out, grab lunch, and loop back. The store now offers in-store eye exams with a prescription for $55, and frames with lenses start at $60. The styles are many, diverse, and elegant; picking them out feels like tweaking combos on a character creator, since there are tons of style variations in consistent colors. Since my scrip is expired and I like having backup glasses, I moseyed by.

The eye exam was closed, but I took some footage of their cool glasses machine, which ferries around little red trays and includes a spiral conveyor-belt staircase. Oooooohhh.

Jins employs humans, too, who do all the customer-interfacey stuff and make sure you get what you want. But it’s sure nice to have a fixed time frame and quick turnaround.

Lunch: Eatsa (Spear St./FiDi)

Next up, I stopped for lunch at Eatsa, my favorite “robot restaurant” (sadly, I haven’t been to the one in Tokyo). The place has a kind of cult-temple aesthetic that I love, and food is ordered at little credit-card kiosks, then picked up from lighted cubbies.

They recently had a bit of an identity crisis: originally, they offered about 10–12 different bowls of plentiful, delicious veggie food, each costing $7. Then they redid their menu with a new ingredient-based pricing system, and everything got confusing and expensive. But now, they’re back on track, with bowls from $3–11 (ish) and a cleaner menu. Everything’s still veggie.

After you order, you wait for your name to be highlighted on a list, then approach the numbered cubby that holds your food. These cubbies are lovely. They are fantastic. They are lit up bright white inside, which provides a backlight for the clear LCD screens in front. Each screen plays cute little animations, and when your food is about to appear, it goes black. Then it shows your name and the cubby number. Knock twice on the cubby door, and it folds up and in, so you can grab the goods.

Grab some utensils from another machine—it shows a single fork, spoon, and knife at a time—and they are immediately replaced from an invisible stack.

To be honest, this place is more of a mechanical-Turk restaurant: I believe there are totally humans behind that wall of cubbies, and that’s an interesting lens for the supposed coming robot revolution.

Remember, in The Matrix, humans were originally supposed to be IBM chips — not batteries. Our processing power is still much faster and cheaper for many tasks. That’s partly why Lyft and Uber are still killing it (if I may), despite the years of research already dumped into autonomous vehicles. Regulation also is, and should be, a major contributor, despite Uber’s scofflaw approach.

I took part in a survey for Eatsa last January, and asked about this. Of course, it’s company policy not to tell. Which, y’know, is a pretty big flashing “SOYLENT RESTAURANT” sign.

Coffee: Café X (Metreon/Powell)

Rounding out our little field trip, just off Yerba Buena Park, there’s a robot, table, and chairs that apparently constitute an entire “café”. Café X has been there for a few months, and it wants your phone number.

To order, first wait for the excited kid posse to finish their order, then approach the podium and choose your drink. Like the others, this one thrives on customizability: pick your style, creamer, beans (!!), flavorings, and more, then give it your money and your number. It issues you a code to retrieve your beverage.

The robot gets to work immediately, grabbing a cup and placing it delicately under the spigot, which disgorges liquid and foam. The cup is removed to a safe spot, and the ‘bot goes dormant, waiting for you to approach and enter the sacred code. Once you do, it grabs the cup and places it on a little altar that descends into the “floor”, down to a little alcove where you reach in to retrieve the drink.

No misspelled names, no exasperation with my slow decisions, and near-infinite choices with perfect assembly, every time. I’ve just made the Robot Bargain: once again, convenience wins over privacy.

Is It Worth It?

I mean, it’s hella fun to interact with machines for a few hours, but these three have very specific applications for the technology.

The “greeter” robots I’ve seen, such as Pepper—which recently ended its temporary residency at the Westfield mall—tend to feel slow and imprecise for interactions where a tablet will suffice. For the record, Pepper also includes a tablet, but interaction is primarily intended to be with the robot personality. Tablets are perfect for presenting a wide array of options in an easily sortable, choosable, revise-able way.

Robot workers also excel where great customizability is desired, because a good robot can handle complex, changing instructions quickly and accurately.

What do you think?

DIY robots, music, EEG, wearables, languages. FIRST alumna. Hardware Nerd @hacksterio. She/her