There is no shortage of robot baristas coming to market. Cafe X, Costa Coffee (née Briggo), Truebird, Crown Coffee, OrionStar, Cafe Rozum, FIBBEE and MontyCafe to name just some of the ones we’ve covered. But Seattle-based Blue Hill aims to differentiate itself from other players in the space by using computer vision to make a smarter machine that recreates the human barista experience.
We should start of by saying that when it comes to computer vision, Blue Hill has the bona fides. Blue Hill Founder is Meng Wang, who was previously CTO and Co-Founder of Orbeus, which developed the Rekognition computer vision/image analysis system. (Orbeus was acquired by Amazon in 2016 and became AWS Rekognition, which has become controversial in its own right.)
Wang is applying his computer vision pedigree to coffee. Like other robo-baristas, Blue Hill’s system (dubbed “Jarvis”) features an articulating arm that grabs cups and operates a La Marzocco espresso machine. But unlike other robots, Blue Hill’s arm is aided by robust computer vision which not only assists with item recognition, but also helps the articulating arm act more like a human barista.
As Wang explained it to me over video chat this week, Blue Hill’s computer vision means that things like milk or cups or spoons don’t need to placed in a specific area in order to be found by the robotic arm. The arm can open a fridge and identify “soy milk” wherever it is placed inside just by looking. Or if the grinder is moved, the arm doesn’t need to be re-programmed because it recognizes the grinder and can still operate it, no matter where it is. As long as the robot knows what to “look” for, the system can be set up to accommodate different shapes and spaces.
But Wang says the other advantage with its computer vision is its ability to train the articulating arm. By examining video of human baristas making coffee, Blue Hill’s robotic arm can replicate those same movements. The high pull, the frothing, the milk blending, even the latte art can be recreated by the robot by watching humans do the same thing. It uses the same coffee equipment used by specialty cafes, it just has a robot handling them.
The reason for all this high-tech robotic re-creation is that at the end of the day, Blue Hill wants to be in the high-end coffee business. It’s not just about the robot, it’s about creating a perfect cup of coffee. Blue Hill even sources and roasts its own beans. To be fair, Blue Hill isn’t the first company to tell me that they want to create a premium coffee experience delivered by robot. Briggo had its own line of coffee beans too, and Cafe X had a human on hand at each kiosk to curate a customer’s coffee choice.
But Blue Hill is more interested in building up its own brand of automated coffee experiences, rather than licensing out the technology to another coffee company. That choice could be a tough hill to climb for the company as people don’t know what a Blue Hill is and robots are still very new. As a result, lots of people will need to learn that a) robots can make coffee, and b) getting Blue Hill’s brand of robotic coffee is a better choice than finding a nearby Starbucks (a drink they’re already familiar with).
Blue Hill sticking with a premium, human-like experience also means that they are sacrificing a certain amount of speed. Right now, Blue Hill is focused on opening its kiosks inside other retailers like the Super Joy Coffee Lab or Swee20 desert shop, both in Portland, OR. But if Blue Hill wants to move into more high-traffic (and more revenue generating) locations like airports and office buildings, having a robot that behaves like a human sacrifices the speed you get with automation. Will people want to wait for a robot to make their latte like a human would? Perhaps, if the coffee is good enough. But people in those situations are typically more about speed than precision drink crafting.
Adding to the pressure, the robot coffee space hasn’t exactly worked out so far for some of the early startups. Briggo was quietly sold off to Costa Coffee with nary a whisper, and Cafe X shut down all of its locations last year (though it re-opening some and shipping machines off to Asia).
Will Blue Hill’s computer vision and premium cup of coffee be enough to bring in repeat customers? We’ll have to wait and see for ourselves.