Yesterday just before 7 PM I got an unexpected series of texts from a friend:
I got ice cream from a robot
I’m at 18th and Dolores.
There’s a robot here
Intrigued, I texted back letting her know I was on the way; what sort of maniac could say no to watching a robot serve ice cream? I raced over from BART, practically running down 18th Street.
The “robot” as it turned out was a pair of robot arms attached to a mannequin torso, sitting on a table under a tent on the sidewalk outside Bi-Rite Creamery. A guy waving around a pair of HTC Vive controllers caused the two arms to scoop up ice cream and sprinkles — for free — to robot and/or ice cream fans passing by the creamery on 18th Street.
Not wanting to spoil my appetite for dinner, I declined the ice cream, but happily watched as others partook. My friend said the ice cream was oddly flavored with a mix of blueberry and anise, but is the taste really the point? Much like robot arm serving coffee in Cafe-X in the Metreon, sometimes it’s the mechanized process that’s the star, not the resulting food products.
The robot did seem to have a camera in its “head,” and I noticed there was an unused Vive virtual reality headset sitting on the table. The desktop PC controlling everything had a high-end GeForce GTX graphics card glowing from under the case’s grill which seemed capable of driving the headset. When I asked the operator if the VR headset worked with this contraption he confirmed that it does, though he said it’s difficult to see what he’s doing while wearing the headset.
Perhaps in the future this might be addressed. At that point it’s only a matter of time before a remote operator could use this device to serve ice cream, then a few years down the line the contraption could be fully automated with artificial intelligence to remove the need for a human operator at all, thus putting hard-working ice cream scoopers out of a job.
For now though this device not only requires a human operator, but also requires the recipient of the dessert to carefully move their bowl as the ice cream drops out of the serving spoon.
Watch my video above to see this somewhat chaotic process in action, and check out some photos in the gallery below.