On the final day of the Consumer Electronics Show last week, I was walking through the crowded Las Vegas Convention Center when I saw the usual gaggle of techies blocking an aisle. Cameras drawn, they were watching a robot that looked more like a giant metallic crab. A moment later, a man walked up to it, and I realized there was a ping pong table between man and machine.
They were about to play a match.
The robot, Forpheus, started hitting the tiny ball back and forth with the stranger, tilting its mechanical arm slightly from side to side in what appeared to be more of a casual exchange of volleys than a competitive match. I walked closer, and after a few minutes of watching others play, someone asked if I wanted to give it a go. (Of course I want to give it a go.)
Stepping into the ring in front of an audience of a couple of dozen onlookers, I took my paddle and waited for Forpheus to serve. Using artificial intelligence, facial recognition and eye tracking, my competitor was able to scan both the ball and me, gauging how tough to play based on how well I was doing. As we hit a few, the robotic voice offered words of encouragement while the digital display on the net showed the score.
Deep Blue this was not. I won.
Forpheus, a product of the Japanese company Omron, has been playing ping pong for a few years as a way of helping the company showcase its capabilities in industries such as automotive, health care and smartphones. For example, in factory automation, it can pick up objects, place them and sort them. For cars, it can use eye tracking to understand when a driver is getting drowsy in order to predict when someone might fall asleep. Meanwhile, 500 million devices have Omron’s facial recognition technology, according to Keith Kersten, marketing manager for Omron in the Americas. (He wouldn’t disclose which phones use Omron but said it’s in a number of popular ones.)
So why ping pong?
While robots were all over CES, seeing them in some parts of the convention center at times felt as common as seeing a squirrel in the woods. Merely rolling along the floor or dancing in place are no longer enough to draw much attention, if any. And while Forpheus made its U.S. debut at CES, it’s not its first time at the table, though it did add skills such as serving and talking as well as better AI tracking this year.
“We were looking for something that would first of all be a challenge and that would really use all of this technology to track in real time and three dimensions a ping pong ball and also to analyze a player,” Kersten said.