Stephen Wilkes Gets a Look at the Future
In 2012, Amazon purchased Kiva Systems for the better part of a billion dollars. The titanic company that has completely changed the landscape of online shopping had plans for the robotics company that would change everything once again. Less than two years later, Amazon has opened its first fulfillment center with Kiva robots at the heart, and director Stephen Wilkes got a glimpse inside to show us what it’s like.
In fact, “glimpse” isn’t the right word to describe gazing upon the 1.2 million square foot warehouse. When Stephen finally got his first look inside the fulfillment center to shoot the video with TIME Magazine, just a day before they started filming, they scouted for an hour and a half, covering distances of more than ten miles. All inside. To make sense of this gigantic space, and complex robotic system making it all possible, Amazon, TIME, and Stephen wanted to split the difference between vastness and human touch. “They really wanted to capture the epic aspect of this facility, but at the same time they wanted it humanized. And so the question came about: ‘How do we tell the story of the journey through this facility, and do it in a way that there’s a certain humanity about it?’” The answer was simple: a teddy bear.
Following the journey of “Teddy,” through his eyes, we watch the bear arrive at the warehouse, get filed away, and then sent off to a new home. The idea is simple, but with the incredible volume that Amazon handles, it’s a delicate dance that needs to be dynamically altered and subtly shifted at every moment. It’s more than a human can handle. That’s why the Kiva robots are so important. Acting as a sort of hive mind, each robot is aware of where every other robot is in real time, carting products from receiveing, to storage, and back out to shipment when they need to be sent along. “The Kivas will decide, based on their traffic patterns, if they can change route,” says Stephen. “Any one of them can change route on their own at their own discretion. They’ll go where the operator tells them to, but it’s their discretion how they get there.” For the most part, this behavior is preferable. It ensures that the entire process is seamless and efficient. But when trying to shoot a film, it can be a little counterproductive.
Stephen had set up a shot with Teddy on a Kiva, with a camera on another Kiva directly behind Teddy. But then the robot hive mind took over for efficiency's sake and bungled the shot. Stephen tells it: “We had this great shot set up, Teddy’s going down the aisle, and then all the sudden… ‘Oh! Jeez! One of them just peeled off!’ Teddy just left on his own. He was going down another aisle.” They eventually caught Teddy, and programed the Kivas to let Stephen and his crew be a little inefficient to better tell the story of Teddy’s journey. The robots were cooperative from that point forward, but left an impression on Stephen. “I’m convinced they can learn,” he said with a laugh.