All the webs are going on about the new Henn-na Hotel that just opened for business at the Huis Ten Bosch amusement park with an “Eco-Friendly Future City” theme in the Nagasaki Prefecture. (Shea covered the original announcement here.) The hotel is pitched as being run by robots, and what’s not to love about the talking dinosaur that greets English-speaking guests? But there's a lot going on here beyond the silly robots — which is a good thing, because all the robots are doing things that are pretty much history in any budget business hotel.

checkin deskSo why do the foreigners get the dinosaur? (Photo: Henn-na Hotel)

I suppose they want a scary dinosaur staff member to deal with the gai-jin or foreigners; meanwhile, Japanese guests interact with a polite young woman robot. (Or, you could just check in on the computer like many hotels do.)

robot bellhopHmm, how do you tip a robot bellhop? Batteries? (Photo: Henn-na Hotel)

Then there is the bellhop, a computerized trolley that carries your bag to your room. (Except this seems to be more for show — and frankly, more trouble than just pulling out the handle on your rolling bag and pulling it yourself. It’s slow and you have to sort of program it to where you want to go.)

face recognitionLet's hope it works better than my iPhone's fingerprint recognition. (Photo: Henn-na Hotel)

Room entry is gained by facial recognition. "This allows for smart entry in the room by eliminating the handing over and carrying of keys." (Which does require people or at least some form of vending machine.)

deluxe roomThis is a deluxe room, and it sure doesn't look budget. (Photo: Henn-na Hotel)

In your room, there's a cute talking doll named Chu-ri-Robo on the bedside table that takes your instructions, or you can enter them by tablet.

bag robotThat's a fancy way to store a bag. (Photo: Henn-na Hotel)

And if you arrive before check-in time, an industrial-looking robot will put your bag in a locker for you (instead of you putting a coin into a locker.)

There's no mention of those other hotel functions that are so important, like cleaning the rooms or changing the bedding. There might be a fleet of Roombas running around, and perhaps some serious robotic bed-changer. They might even use Steven Johnson’s continue-sheet idea. But you won’t see it; they don’t clean the rooms or change the sheets unless you're staying for seven days. It’s a budget hotel after all. (They do change the towels once a day — none of that save the planet stuff. No word on whether they are delivered by robots.)

hotel exteriorIt's made of sustainable wood. (Photo: Henn-na Hotel)

It all gets much more interesting when you get beyond the robots and see what's really going on here. The hotel is designed by Kawazoe Lab, the Institute of Industrial Science, University of Tokyo and Kajima Corporation with an ambitious program:

  • The implementation of construction methods expandable to the world, intended to reduce construction costs
  • The implementation of automation and service robots aimed to reduce labor costs and save energy
  • The implementation of solar power intended to improve the self-sufficiency rate of fuel and light expenses

radiant panelsRadiant panels. How these work merits a whole other post. (Photo: Henn-na Hotel)

It's built out of my favorite building materials, Cross Laminated Timber, made from sustainably harvested wood with some steel framing. This is a form of prefab that allowed an ambitious timetable: they start construction in January and open in July. It has an innovative heating system using radiant panels instead of conventional air conditioning, which is a complicated story in itself.

The real purpose of the robots: Fun.

We want to provide a pleasant and comfortable hotel to stay in, at a more reasonable price. While equipping modern “smart facilities” that is also friendly to the environment, we wish to bring “fun” that will encourage people to visit, and also wish to create lasting memories.

Japan has a rapidly decreasing and aging population, and very restrictive immigration policies, so there are not a lot of people to work in hotels. Designs and operating plans that reduce labor during construction and operation are the future of hotels here.

The robots are cute and fun. But the real story here is how they're looking at the entire concept, how they have "eliminated excessive services and amenities, and rethought what facilities are truly necessary in order to stay."

This is where the hotel business is going. So smile at the dino robot while you can — other chains won’t even give you that. And here's a video from the Guardian:

Related in MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.