Omron ping pong robot won't unseat humanity

A table tennis playing machine can easily be beaten. For now.

Healthcare electronics maker Omron is showing off its sensing know-how with a huge ping pong-playing robot, but the robot is still easy to beat -- for now.

The 2.7-meter-tall, three-legged beast looked like something out of "The War of the Worlds" as it was taking on human opponents at the Ceatec tech expo outside Tokyo. When it came to actual tennis table chops, however, it was sometimes all thumbs.

Equipped with stereoscopic cameras and computer-vision algorithms to track the position and speed of human players as well as the ball, the machine is designed to be able to play sustained rallies with its ability to predict where the ball will go.

Powered by five servomotors, it grips the paddle with a four-axis manipulator commonly seen in pick-and-place industrial robots. A controller system can respond to serves in 1/1,000th of a second.

"It's been able to return the ball in rallies that have gone back and forth over 100 times," said lead researcher Takuya Tsuyuguchi of Omron's Technology Development Center.

While that was the case with Omron engineers who helped develop and test the machine, which weighs some 600 kg, the average Ceatec attendee seemed to only manage a few strokes that the robot could return.

Add a little power or spin to a return, and the tripod robot would miss. When it did return a serve, it would direct the ball to the easiest spot for a player to return it. Intimidating smashes are not in its program.

"This technology can be used in manufacturing processes where humans and machines can work together to make things," Tsuyuguchi said, adding that he hopes to improve the robot's accuracy.

Earlier this year, industrial robot maker Kuka showed off a lightning-quick industrial robot arm that seemed to defeat table tennis star Timo Boll in a YouTube video.

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