Hardware store robot gives customers high-tech help

It can be incredibly frustrating to navigate your way around large hardware stores, their aisles filled with countless number of screws, nails and hinges.

Now, one store in California is offering a little high-tech help.

San Jose's Orchard Supply Hardware, a subsidiary of Lowe's, has brought in the Oshbot robot. About the size of small refrigerator, the talking robot can guide you through the aisles to the item you want. It even uses its 3D camera to determine the make and model of that rusty hinge you brought from home.

"There's no way that every sales associate could know the exact number and location of every single item we sell," Kyle Nel, the executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, told CNET.com's Sumi Das. "The robot can do that."

The 5-foot-tall Linux robot, currently only at work in the San Jose store, runs on two computers. Speech recognition software enables the Oshbot to understand customers. The layout of the store and the inventory are written in the robot's memory, allowing it to show customers an item on its screen or guide them there.

"I think I'm here," the robot bleeps, as it arrives to its destination.

To keep up with any changes in store layout, the Oshbot works the overnight shift.

"It navigates by its own at night when no one is here to create a map, and that's the map it uses for next day," said Marco Mascorro, the co-founder and CEO of Fellow Robots which developed the robot in partnership with Lowe's. "In the morning, it knows where products are located. It knows where to go."

The introduction of the Oshbot at the San Jose store is part of a growing trend where customer service is becoming increasingly automated. Whether it be toll booths or checkout counters, computers are increasingly doing the job of humans. Even Amazon has turned to robots to make its warehouses more efficient.

However, there are still things the Oshbot can't do. It doesn't offer any advice (or small talk for that matter). And it isn't multilingual, though that may soon change since it is being programmed to understand Spanish.