Tessa Lau

For giving robots that human touch.

Tessa Lau
Front Desk on Wheels: The SaviOne is revolutionizing hospitality.

It may look like a trash can with an iPad stuck to its head and be somewhat error-prone, but SaviOne, a wheeled robot that delivers towels and toothbrushes to guests in their hotel rooms, was never supposed to be perfect. “We want people to feel protective toward it rather than offended when it makes mistakes,” says Tessa Lau, a computer scientist whose job it was to make the robot (currently employed at two Aloft hotels in California) cute–even vulnerable. Here’s how she did it:


In Elevators . . .

When SaviOne rides an elevator with guests, it obeys social norms. It will get on and turn 180 degrees, so it’s facing the doors and staring awkwardly like everyone else.

In Hallways . . .

If SaviOne gets confused while it navigates the halls, it won’t simply hit the brakes, because people find that behavior disconcerting. Instead, it will slowly decelerate.

In Rooms . . .

When a guest answers the door to receive her towel, SaviOne beeps like R2D2 rather than speaking like C3PO, because while it’s intelligent enough to talk, it’s not smart enough to hold a conversation. After the towel is taken, the guest can rate the robot’s performance on its screen. If it gets a full five stars, it chirps and does what Lau calls a “happy dance.”


Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

I do a lot of crafty things unrelated to robotics, which involve a lot of creativity: knitting, cooking/baking, sewing, gardening, sketching. I love Pinterest for visual inspiration. I love the maker movement, like Maker Faire, because it’s a community full of people making stuff that solves their own needs. I definitely believe that necessity is the mother of invention!

Around the time we started Savioke, I was reading Mark Kistler’s book You Can Draw In 30 Days and teaching myself how to sketch. We were still deciding on a business model for our company, so I sketched out a few robot ideas. I find sketching really fascinating because it’s a different way to communicate!

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

Lately, I’ve been checking up on our robots to make sure they’ve all survived the night and are healthy and happy.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

I’m continually surprised at how many different skills are needed to design and build robots. Right now, I’m becoming an expert in Linux networking, because we want our robots to have multiple paths to the Internet in case they enter Wi-Fi deadzones. In the past, I’ve picked up screwdrivers to debug mechanical and electrical failures. I built the web software that defines the process the robot follows to complete a delivery. I’ve done user research and usability studies to inform the design of human-robot interfaces. I’ve designed robot behaviors for using elevators (don’t block the door, communicate where you’re heading, face forward, don’t dawdle). Roboticists today need to be generalists who are fluent in a wide range of different technologies.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

I don’t have as much time to follow Twitter as I’d like, but when I do, I’m a fan of: @worrydream (one of the leading thinkers on human-centric programming), @johnrobb (resilient communities), @SpaceX (because humankind needs a dream), @MichaelPollan (one of the fantastic writers who inspired me to become vegan), and the @DalaiLama (because he inspires me to be a better person).

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I love the outdoors: redwoods; snow; mountains; open water. I find that getting away from technology for a while, whether it’s backpacking or snowboarding or just a short hike, inspires me to come back and see old problems in a different light. Often, the things you thought were really important turn out not to be so important after all, and you can refocus your energies on the problems that really matter.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I had the honor of hearing Anousheh Ansari speak at the Anita Borg Women Of Vision awards ceremony in 2011. As a successful entrepreneur, immigrant, and the first Iranian in space, she inspires me to believe that women can do anything if they just believe in themselves. Her dream was to fly into space, and she made her dream come true.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach