I played ping-pong with an AI-powered robot and now I want to be its friend
With all the recent talk of AI posing existential risks to humanity and our privacy, global tech company Omron is taking a softer, more innocuous approach. Specifically, with its table tennis robot Forpheus, which strives to pursue “harmony of humans and machines” by patiently teaching us how to play ping-pong.
Although ping-pong ball-pitching machines like TrainerBot exist, Forpheus can actually live up to the feeling of playing against a real opponent. First introduced in 2014, the fourth generation of Forpheus (easier to remember than “Future Omron Robotics technology for Exploring Possibility of Harmonized aUtomation with Sinic theoretics” as stated on its website, but spells out FOREPHUS) was displayed at the CEATEC trade show last October. The updated machine adds a companion arm that can serve up balls in the air, and better predict smashes through improved AI.
Forpheus uses a robotic arm that is controlled by the AI through a 5-axis motor system to swing the paddle. The motion controller, or the “brain,” tells the machine how to hit the ball, advising it on timing and direction within a 1,000th of a second. If you’re as bad at ping-pong as I am, you know that angling the paddle in the slightest way can send the ball careening wildly off to a dusty corner of the room. Knowing this, Forpheus’ paddle grip, ball hit location, and arm position are “all controlled to within 0.1mm.”
Two cameras are mounted on each side of the robot to help it identify the ping-pong balls, which is identical to the way a human would see an object in a 3D space. Omron claims the machine can detect the ball’s speed and rotation up to 80 times per second, which allows it to predict the ball’s trajectory. There’s another camera in the middle, which tracks the player’s movements to evaluate their skill level. Analyzing the trajectory of the ball in relation to the player using machine learning, the AI can judge its opponent’s abilities and adjust its own playing level to match it.
All the tech aside, as we all know from popular sports dramas and films, great coaches do more than just teach you how to play the game. Great coaches inspire. That’s why Forpheus flashes encouraging messages on an LED screen on the table net, which earned it the Guinness World Record title of being the “first robot table tennis tutor.”
As if Forpheus wasn’t heartwarming enough, Omron has created an entire scenario imagining how the ping-pong robot teacher can fit into our lives to improve human relationships. Watch the video below of a father trying to connect with his daughter by bonding with her over table tennis, and try not to be inspired.