May 27, 2020, 3:30 AM CDT
By Grace Moon
SEOUL, South Korea — When you approach the sleek silver counter of Lounge X, a cafe in one of southern Seoul's corporate hubs, a masked and aproned barista takes your order. Motioning toward the chip reader, he completes the order and walks over to pick out a glass cup. He presses a few buttons, then hands it off to Baris, the robot barista.
The automaton dances in dainty circles to the rhythm of a drip algorithm as hot water trickles into the filter. Mimicking the movements of a human being, Baris huffs and puffs, its body subtly lurching up and down a few times — an indicator of fatigue.
The robotics cafe, founded almost a year ago, finds itself in the middle of South Korea's "untact" paradigm, the word being a portmanteau of the negative prefix "un" and "contact" that alludes to what a contactless society in the post-coronavirus era will look like.
Schools are back in session and hordes of masked commuters squeeze into cars. Daily life has resumed — but with the tacit acknowledgment that human interaction may never be the same.
"Things people didn't consider to be risky are now perceived as potential dangers," said Kim Kyeonghoon, who leads the Korea Trend Research Institute. "Merely breathing the same air as a stranger is a sensitive thing now."
The term "untact" has gained new prominence in South Korea during the coronavirus era. But the phenomenon had been gaining momentum for several years.
Two years ago, 85.6 percent of South Koreans said they expected an increase in contactless operations, according to a survey by the marketing research company Macromill Embrain.