RG: Really Great If It Works

After reading this story about the testing of an RFID Tag-reading robot designed to help blind shoppers around the store, I am a pendulum swinging from “cool idea!” to “oh shit we’re in trouble.” Come swing with me a while.

Weee! We’re up in the “cool idea!” area. That would be sweet to walk into some big store and say “Can I borrow your RG robot?” and walk around the store in search of whatever I want without having to bug store staff, feel like I’m taking up too much of their time, or decide quickly what I would like without price-comparing. It would be cool to read a braille directory of what was in the store and then go find it.

Weee! After a spine-tingling corkscrew turn, we’re over in the “oh shit we’re in trouble.” area. First off, it claims the robot will guide you around people and things. What if it fails? What if you and 22-pound R2D2 just pound some unfortunate customers into mush because it didn’t perceive them until you did, and told it to stop?

I think it’s awesome that it has a braille directory, but I’ve seen how often things in braille are updated. Has anyone been at a restaurant, asked for a braille menu, looked at it, ordered something off it, and had the waitress go “You want a what? Oh! That was on our menu years ago!” Now imagine trying to buy stuff at a store that they no longer carry, but is stil in the directory. If it wasn’t happening to you, it would be really funny. Imagine you’re a blind man looking for a shirt. RG plants you in front of an aisle full of women’s panties and tries to claim it’s men’s shirts. Oh boy.

On top of that, there are a lot of places where other people are going to screw up its ability to work. As of now, it can only take you to the colgate aisle and tell you what part of the shelf holds the thing you want. If someone moves it, or throws something in there that isn’t Colgate, it has no idea. Just think of how many times customers and staf rearrange things.

And, what if the battery fails or you just can’t seem to get the message through to RG. Will it have a “call a staff” function? People love their independence, but they won’t feel so independent marooned in the women’s panties aisle trying to talk to this stupid machine who insists it’s men’s shirts or can only beep “battery low, please recharge.”

Next, I wonder about RG’s durability. If he’s always in the shop, he’s not practical.

My biggest fear is that stores will be of the opinion that RG will replace customer service for us. They will forget that some of us might not read braille. Others may not understand the voice. Others may need something complex that RG won’t be able to provide. I think it’s a great option, as long as store staff see it as such. It is an option. It is something else to try.

I read this post, and I feel like an old fart. I hear another part of me saying “Without people trying new things, you wouldn’t be typing on this computer. You wouldn’t have a cellphone that talks. Hell, you may not even have a white cane! Stop raining on RG’s parade.” I’m not trying to say it sucks. I just worry that there is too much potential for human error to get in the way. If Vladimir Kulyukin and his team of researchers can eliminate some of that potential for failure, I’ll march into my nearest store that uses one and proudly try out Mr. RG. Now that would be cool. The poor robot would have to contend with a sniffing dog at its heels…which brings me to another question. Are the developers considering guide dog interactions? Could you even manage a dog and it? Both are trying to guide you. even if you heeled the dog, what if RG perceived the dog as an obstacle? Or worse, what if it hurt the dog because it didn’t notice it’s sniffing nose and trampled it? Isn’t there a lot of risk of traumatizing the dog?

All I’m saying is I hope blind folks are having some input into its design so we can think out some of the potential flaws. Until then, I’ll stick with a human customer service rep. Humans don’t usually spout out error messages or strange codes.

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