Robots Gain a Seat at the (Ping Pong) Table

China has long been a leader in competitive table tennis, dominating the game since its introduction in the Summer Olympics in 1988. Now, scientists there have unveiled humanoid, table-tennis-playing robots that can mimic the movement and responses of human players. The robots — Wu and Kong — made their debut at Zhejian University in Eastern China, playing table tennis against each other and “real” players.

Wu and Kong engage in a friendly game of robot table tennis. Image credit: Zhejiang University.

Wu and Kong are 1.6 meters tall and weigh 55 kg each, and include 30 joints and motors that allow them to make backhand and forehand movements. They track the ping pong balls using eye-mounted cameras that allow them to predict the movement of the balls and respond accordingly. The cameras capture 120 images per second, and it takes just 50 to 100 milliseconds for the robots to respond after calculating the ball’s position, speed, landing position and path. It takes a lot of engineering technology to build a ping pong ‘bot.

University scientists, working under the aegis of China’s State High-Tech Development Plan, spent four years developing the robots. Although they can’t match a human player’s ability to slice or curve, the robots are able to predict the ball’s path with a margin of error of 2.5 cm.

The robots’ record against human players is currently 144 strokes. Vietnamese scientists unveiled their own table tennis robot (Topio) in 2009. You can see a brief video of their Terminator-style model here.

You can watch a video of Wu and Kong in action below:

Source: Zhejian University

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