FORPHEUS: The Amazing Ping-Pong Playing Robot

Omron, known for their health care technology is using ping-pong to showcase the latest in their industrial automation evolution … and we couldn’t be more excited about this fun way to introduce advanced technology. The company began with blood pressure monitors and now, they are on the cutting edge with their latest artificial intelligence (AI) innovation. If you ever thought that robots were going to take over, this could be the epicenter of the invasion. This global tech company has created a robot that plays with balls —ping-pong balls to be precise!

It uses deep learning, a foundation for AI, which is enabling robots to learn much faster and effectively, performing tasks without human interaction and finding their way around unknown environments. You can watch it play ping-pong here…

Omron is not intending to market the ping-pong robot, but rather, their technology for industrial uses. “We made the ping-pong robot for the purpose of demonstration, so visitors could actually see the fruits of our challenge of this technological evolution aimed at the construction of new relationships between people and machines, through adjustment by the machine to the human partner,” says Yoshihito Yamada, Omron President and CEO.

Inside the Robot

In 2014, the first iteration of the paddle wielding artificially intelligent athlete emerged. Its name, FORPHEUS, is an acronym for “Future Omron Robotics technology for Exploring Possibility of Harmonized Automation with Sinic Theoretics” as stated on its website. In 2017, Omron worked on many facets of their shiny new creation, such as better player detection, the ability to predict a smash, improved serving skills, and so much more. It really dug deep into the sensing and the thinking ability of the robot. This has only made the game more realistic and challenging for human opponents.The newest version, however, is on an entirely new level. Think “Skynet,” with a sneaker sponsorship. It sees the ping-pong balls using two cameras that are mounted on each side. The two cameras give it depth perception. And then there are more cameras dedicated to the opposing player and another for the paddle. According to Omron, a ball’s speed and rotation can be detected up to 80 times per second, predicting the ball’s trajectory. Through an AI-assisted motion controller, the machine receives instructions on precisely how and where the ball should be hit. Even the robot’s playing style and approach automatically adjusts to the opponent’s skill level and technique.

Between all this advanced technology and innovation, one can almost forget they aren’t playing a human. But, before we spell out the end of humanity as we know it, let’s talk about the sport itself.

Before the Robot

Not unlike other sports, table tennis evolved from parlor games. Lawn tennis players took the game indoors during winter months. The famous “Ping-Pong” name was coined before the turn of the 19th century by J. Jaques and Son, a company in England. But it wasn’t until Parker Brothers trademarked the name in the early 1900s, that things really took off.

Competition tournaments began to pop up having as many as 300 participants. With the game’s growing popularity, an official organization emerged which later became known as The Table Tennis Association. In 1902, a university professor took the game back to his home country of Japan where he introduced it to curious students. Meantime, on another front, Vienna and Budapest were introduced to the game by a British salesman named Edward Shires. From there the game went global spreading like wildfire.

Daniel Schwen, via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Ping-Pong timeline:

1901 – first table tennis tournaments
1922 – an All England Club was formed
1927 – the English Table Tennis Association was born and the first world championships were held in Budapest
In the 1950s – the invention of the sponge or sandwich rubber, a new material for paddles
1988 – joined the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea
Today – …robots!

Tennis Elbow-Proof Arm

FORPHEUS’ ball-bouncing “mind” controls a metallic arm using a 5-point motor system which swings the paddle. The processor (or mind!) tells the arm the best way to hit the ball. The message moves from its processor to the arm in 1,000th of a second, controlling it to within 0.1mm.

“Under the belly, there’s a new multi-axis robotic arm that can better mimic a human elbow and wrist, which turned out to be a major advantage for FORPHEUS: It’s no longer afraid of spins,” says Richard Lai from Engadget. “But not only that, the bot can even hit back with its own top spins and backspins. The faster servo controllers obviously help a lot, too.” He actually played against it and let humanity down, in a way.

The Robot Said What?

And to add some insult to injury … FORPHEUS gave Lai tips afterwards! Near the net, there is a LED screen facing the player that shows motivational messages and tips. In fact, it made the Guinness World Record. The infamous record book considers it the first ever robotic ping-pong tutor. We should note that it always starts that way — from being the tutor to being tutelaged! Us pesky humans always seem to get in the way. Nevertheless, if a flesh and blood player keeps up the grueling practice with this innovative machine for any long period of time, they will definitely be ready to put on a real challenge when facing other humans.

This robot isn’t a ping-pong player for the sake of ping-pong playing. Omron is striving to add sensing and control to our society’s tech devices to add harmony between people and machines. They realized the need of a “thinking” function in order to be compatible as partners to people. And that’s the birth of FORPHEUS — just another day and another evolution of mankind sparked by the mind of a genius baby boomer!

You can learn more about FORPHEUS at the Omron website.