This is pretty amazing

Those who have played or watched table tennis at a high level know that it requires great skill, speed, coordination, and excellent reflexes. In the video below, we see a robot named KUKA play against Timo Boll, a German champion of the game. I particularly liked the way it did the open-palm serve one-handed. (Via Rob Beschizza.)


UPDATE: Beschizza has updated the earlier video, which used heavy editing to produce what seems like spectacular effects, with one that shows uncut exchanges with a different robot. This is still pretty impressive. Note that the video sensors are near the ceiling.


  1. Jean says

    Also, have a look at the video that is now at your link. That may not be a professional level playing robot but still quite impressive.. Actually more impressive (and interesting) than the kuka video.

  2. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Thanks for the link Jean. I was going to say that it seems suspicious. The shaky camera effect and quick cuts make it very hard to see how much action there really is. I’d like to see an unedited match filmed with a steady camera: the way real table tennis matches are filmed.

    No doubt the robotic arm is impressive in many ways, but probably not as much as the commercial makes it out to be.

  3. astrosmashley says

    What Overlapping said… If it’s totally real, a static camera would have been much much more interesting. You don’t even get to see one complete round of exchanges uncut.

  4. astrosmashley says

    And I’m really doubting it’s veracity. We are certainly at the point roboticswise where this is totally plausible

  5. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    Well, it is fakery in that the robot wasn’t actually playing a real, sentient, self-guided game. But the commercial never really says it was, it just really gives that impression. They would probably defend themselves by saying it was obviously over the top. So let’s look.

    First, everything can be faked. Second, there was a camera flying in and out of the game, which would have been impossible in a real game.

    There was nothing to the robot but the arm, was there? There was no vision system, there was no processing center. There was nothing to see but the arm.

    It is an industrial robot arm, designed to repeat motions, quickly and accurately. It needs directions, but the directing was never mentioned. Was there a giant supercomputer somewhere?

    What there was was a robot arm that could be programmed to make a few moves, quickly and precisely and completely blindly, with a ping-pong paddle. At the other end of the table was a very good ping-pong player who could hit that paddle with a ball.

    With good programming, luck and a few takes, there could even be a rally. There could also be enough consistency to allow a camera to move in through the action.

    So what we saw was a human bouncing balls off a robot arm. The arm was moving, and even moving in a very complex way, but it was not in any way aware of the ball. Nor could it move around the table, so the human had to hit to it.

    The arm was interesting, but the commercial was meant to be hype, for fun, as an advert for people who understand robot arms and their capabilities. The rest of us can be excused for being confused.

    Still, a fun vid, and for me, an interesting puzzle.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    In the beginning, where the robot is “winning,” Boll appears to be returning every shot to the current location of the paddle. He never goes cross-court on it.

  7. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Reginald Selkirk:

    Not true. He does go cross-court on the robot early on and it didn’t make that much difference (in the produced/edited version of the match). But still, he really shows his flexibility in moving his feet to slam down on the ball and send it over the robot at the end.

    I think it’s an incredibly fun video, regardless of its reflection of the capabilities of a self-contained robot (as others have said, the sensory and planning units weren’t necessarily shown, and might have been quite substantial).

  8. Menyambal says

    The other video, the garage robot in the update, is a lot more believable. It shows what appears to be a fixed camera doing the recording, from out of the way. It shows the vision system and the processor.

    But the processor is only a laptop, and there are only two cameras. The ball comes in slow, so that might be enough, especially as the arm has fewer axes than the Kuka one.

    But anything can be faked. It feels a bit wrong to have that kind of accomplishment running in garage. In an MIT lab, on a big processor, maybe.

    There are some GIFs from Reddit showing some CGI errors linked on the YouTube page. I can see the one with the bad masking in the vid. The one with the camera superimposed doesn’t bother me.

    The close-up shots of the end of the table look like a different table and rig, to me.

    I am going to call the garage vid a fake. It looks more believable, at first, but it was intended to. The mechanism is just not enough, and the video errors were intended to deceive.

  9. Menyambal says

    Okay, I see how I would have faked the garage vid. The door is the key.

    I’d set up the table and the recording camera in a fixed position. Then I would open the garage door so there was room for a human player, and record gentle volleys with the player keeping the paddle over the end of the table. Then I’d close the door, which gives the viewer the impression there is no room for a person.

    Then, I set up the arm, and looking through the video camera, make the arm move to match the player’s paddle. Record that vid, at any slower speed needed.

    Using the door frame and rails as crop lines, combine the two vids, matching speeds.

    All that is left to process is the ball itself, which is a white blur.

    Mask for the camera that would have been hidden by the open door, the one that looked funny in the GIF. The masking of the shot where the human moves the ball would have been harder, and it was messed up—that shot is now explained as to why it was included, and the fact the vision cameras would have barely seen it is explained … it didn’t really happen.

    The giant vision cameras were giant to draw the eye and distract from the fact they were not needed. The fixed recording cameras are explained by this scenario, I say, and the garage and door setting. Somebody did a very clever fake through video editing.

    They messed up on the angle of the paddle a few times, maybe. It looks like the ball goes higher off the robot paddle than it should, given angles and speeds. Otherwise, nice.

    A very good job.

  10. Marshall says

    What’s funny is that you can tell (in the second video) by the sound that they’re just using the ultra-cheap rubber-studded paddles. You’d think someone so invested in ping pong would buy a better paddle!

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