Technology First Look

Meet FORPHEUS, the Guinness record-breaking ping pong robot

A robot created by the Japanese electronics company Omron has been certified by Guinness World Records as the world's 'first robot table tennis tutor.'

The ping pong-playing robot FORPHEUS is an engineering marvel. The only thing it doesn’t know how to do is let you win.

A new video from Guinness World Records is highlighting the Japanese-designed robot, which the world-record certifier deemed in September the world’s “first robot table tennis tutor” for its remarkable artificial intelligence and educative capabilities.

First unveiled by the Omron Corporation in 2015, the robot has a sensor that can monitor the position of its opponent and the movement of the ball – some 80 times per second – to predict its trajectory and return the shot. And the array of cameras provide human students with a projected image of where the return shot will land. Scientist aficionados of the sport have been aiming for such an innovation for decades.

The main hurdle for Taku Oya, the project’s lead developer, was equipping the robot with the algorithms to evaluate its pupils’ level of ability, according to the world certifier’s website. That may underscore the advances in robotics made since the early days of mechanical gaming.

Back in 1984, The Christian Science Monitor profiled the ambitions of English electrical engineer John Billingsley, who was organizing a robots-only ping pong tournament designed to spur incipient innovations in the field:

What the good professor has in mind is something much more modest than arming ''Star Wars''-like robots with table-tennis paddles and turning them loose to serve and volley on an official-size ping-pong table. Such a feat is well beyond the state of the art. Instead, the game will be tailored to the more limited abilities of current machines.

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From a robotics point of view, one of the most difficult problems the game poses is that of vision: acquiring, tracking, and analyzing the optical image of the ping-pong ball. The mechanics of sticking a paddle in the ball's way is relatively straightforward.

To reduce these visual problems from prohibitive to just difficult, high lobs are outlawed: The ball must pass no more than 20 inches above the 10-inch net so the competitor does not loose sight of it. The tiny sphere will be put into play each rally from a specific spot at the center of the table so the contestants can start with their ''eyes'' firmly on the ball. And the net will be transparent so the robots never lose sight of their bouncing target.

The robot tutor’s name is an acronym of "Future Omron Robotics technology for exploring Possibility of HarmonizEd aUtomation with Sinic theoretics,” and also stands for “For Orpheus,” as in the prophet and poet of Greek mythology. Creativity, one of Orpheus's legendary traits, is embedded in Omron’s guiding ethos: the company describes its mission as developing technologies that create harmony between humans and machines and help humans live more creative lives. 

“At the moment it is a human who teaches a robot how to behave or teach,” Mr. Taku told Guinness World Record’s site, “but in the next 20 years it may be possible that a robot teaches a robot or a robot develops a robot.” 

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