Robot Pingpong Coach Helps Players Up Their Table Tennis Game

A demonstrator shows how Omron's FORPHEUS robot can train players in table tennis. Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Robots and the artificial intelligence that drives them are already improving a wide variety of facets of life on Earth. They can perform detailed surgical procedures with precision, assist in dangerous search-and-rescue missions and even take care of pesky chores like doing the dishes. Sure, robots may also be taking our jobs and threatening to rise up and run down that Old West theme park the folks on HBO keep yammering on about. But they also at least have the capacity to do some good in this world — like teaching the hand-eye coordination necessary for playing pingpong.

FORPHEUS is the world's first robotic table tennis instructor. Its name is an acronym for a bunch of tech-sounding words that don't make a lot of sense to lay folks when strung together. (If you really want to know: "Future Omron Robotics technology for Exploring Possibility of Harmonized aUtomation with Sinic theoretics.") The important thing is that the robot uses sensors and cameras to track a player's ability and technique. It also keeps rallies going and shows players where the ball will land when returned, to help them better anticipate the next move. The robot then sends instructions and encouragement via a panel screen that runs across the table. Here's how the whole thing works:

Omron, the company behind FORPHEUS, even imagines the training robot strengthening not just pingpong skills, but also family bonds, as this video illustrates:

It turns out that FORPHEUS isn't the only robot table-tennis tutor in town. Trainerbot is a mechanical pingpong partner that helps users work on their games by shooting a regular stream of balls that can be tweaked for different speeds and spins. What the bot doesn't do is return the ball when you hit it back at the machine. Guess it's not ready to go toe to toe with FORPHEUS any time soon — or take over any of our human roles yet.