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January 12, 2018

I played ping pong against a giant robot, and it was awesome

by John_A

In a lot of ways, CES 2018 was the year of the unexpected. Nobody expected the torrential downpour that flooded the convention center. Nobody expected the power outage that left thousands of attendees in the dark. And personally, I never expected to check “play ping pong against a robot” off my bucket list — but that’s exactly what happened at CES this year.

The robot, which was created by an industrial automation company called Omron, was designed to showcase the company’s robotics and artificial intelligence technology. Here’s how it works: After you serve the ball, the robot (known as Forpheus) uses cameras and machine vision algorithms to track the ball and predict its trajectory. The robot then uses its robotic arms to swing the paddle and hit the ball back to you. This all happens in real time.

When I finally got my chance to square off against the bot, I was ready for an epic “man-vs-machine” battle royale — but much to my surprise, that’s not actually what it’s designed for. Forpheus is intended to be cooperative rather than adversarial, so instead of spiking the ball back at you and racking up points, it tries to keep a volley going.

Drew Prindle/Digital Trends

Omron describes it as a coach of sorts. The system automatically adjusts to your skill level, and then gradually scales up the difficulty as you play — thereby pushing you to improve. It can even read your facial expressions. If you’re struggling and getting discouraged, the system will give you words of encouragement and try to keep you from giving up.

Still, despite Forpheus’s cooperative play style, I couldn’t resist the urge to score on it. After a couple friendly volleys, I kicked things up a notch and started hitting harder, lower-angle shots. Forpheus returned them with ease, so I turned up the heat a little more and threw him a short lob. It didn’t even faze him.

The robot seemed infallible, and I was beginning to lose hope, but I had one more trick up my sleeve. On the next volley, I fired off a high-velocity spin shot, and ol’ Forphy had no idea what hit him. The ball curved through the air and cut hard after the bounce — something that the system just wasn’t prepared for.

Turns out robotic arms and A.I. are no match for my five years of ping pong practice in the DT breakroom.

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