A ping pong robot at CES 2019 made me wonder: Could I go pro?

Commentary: CNET's Katie Collins gets a glimpse of the elite sporting career she might have had.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

Just your friendly arachnid ping pong robot.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I finally realized I could've been a professional ping pong player. But tragically, it's too late for me now.

I have good reason to believe in my ping pong skills, thanks to Forpheus, a robot I met this week at  CES  in Las Vegas. Made by Omron, Forpheus first appeared at CES last year to show off its ping pong prowess. It's back this year with an expanded range of movement and enhanced prediction skills.

When I tell people I played ping pong with a robot this week, the first thing they ask is: "Did you win?" I tell them that winning isn't really the point. Though if we'd kept score, I probably did.

The whole aim of Forpheus is to coach you on improving your game. The robot uses sensors on your bat (aka paddle) and five cameras to work out where you are and how you're moving. It plays using a multi-axis robotic arm that can mimic human tactics such as topspin. Feedback arrives via voice and on a screen, which offers tips about posture, positioning and swing. After just a five-minute session, I was wondering where Forpheus had been all my life.

That's because following our tutorial, Forpheus told me that skill-wise I was 48 percent similar to an elite professional player. I know what you're thinking -- 48 percent isn't that similar. But bear in mind that I'm in the worst shape of my life and extremely out of practice. Imagine if I'd had this kind of feedback 15 years ago when I was in my ping pong prime.

Table tennis was a low-key obsession for me as a young teen in Manchester, England. I didn't have much to do other than smack a ball around day after day, all summer long. I was pretty damn good and had a killer serve that threw off many an opponent.  

Watch this: Human vs. robot: I challenged Forpheus to a game of ping-pong

Back then, I'm sure I would've been well over 50 percent similar to an elite pro, thanks to my higher fitness level and better eyesight. And if Forpheus had existed back then, I would've had a constant competitor/coach to bump that percentage up higher and higher. 

Even in the few minutes we had together this week, Forpheus gave me tips on how to improve my form and picked up that I struggle more with my forehand. (My backhand is much stronger.)

Admittedly, Forpheus isn't house friendly, and it isn't even for sale. It's more of a demonstration of robotics and sensor technology. It also lurks over the ping pong table like a giant mechanical tarantula, but that seems like a small price to pay for success on the sporting world stage.

Back in 2002, I watched table tennis champs compete in the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. I was mesmerized by the skill and speed of the game. It was a level of sportsmanship that would be nearly impossible for me to achieve now. 

But thanks to Forpheus and other robot coaches of the future, maybe some other lucky kid out there will be able to turn pro.

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