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LAS VEGAS — I’m always on the lookout for the next great ping-pong playing machine. I just didn’t think that player would actually be a machine.

With the GeekWire Bash — our annual geeky anniversary extravaganza — coming up on March 15, I took time out at CES this week to take on Forpheus, a robot designed by Japanese robotics company Omron. As the video shows above, Forpheus could very well be the type of player to make a run in the Bash’s expert ping-pong bracket.

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Now, I grew up playing ping pong pretty regularly on a table in the basement of the home I was raised in. In Seattle, I put a table in my garage and continued the tradition.

Over the years I’ve played some pretty robotic friends — people who could return just about everything while barely pausing to take a breath or sip a beer during competitive matches. But I’ve never played an actual robot.

Robot ping pong
GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser plays against Forpheus, a ping-pong playing robot from Omron, at CES in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)
robot ping pong
(GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Omron specializes in electronic components and factory automation systems and brought this particularly compelling piece of technology to its booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center. First created in 2014, Forpheus is ever-evolving, and was designed to showcase the artificial intelligence, robotics, sensing and control technologies that Omron specializes in.

It also drives home the company’s philosophy that there can be harmony between people and machines.

“Forpheus is actually not just a ping-pong playing robot, but it’s a ping-pong playing tutor,” said Keith Kersten, a Chicago-based marketing manager with Omron. “So it’s not meant to be something that you play against, but something that will help someone play better.”

robot ping pong
(GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)
robot ping pong
(GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

But I wasn’t really interested in being taught how to play better, especially in front of hundreds of CES attendees taking video of me on their phones. I was interested in winning. For mankind.

Forpheus loomed above her end of the table. She stood about 10 feet tall, and her legs and large head made it seem like I was playing against a giant, robotic praying mantis. Her center arm swung quickly from side to side and forward and backward — much like the Omron technology just steps away in a display showing off a robotic arm sorting candy on conveyor belts.

Forpheus relied on three eyes to track the movements of me and the ball. Her brain was learning about my playing style and reacting to it, as she rarely missed any of my return shots, and her shots back at me almost never missed the table or hit the net.

But as Kersten said, she wasn’t really trying to beat me. She was just helping me learn to be better. So when I had a strong rally or got a shot past her, I was basically beating myself — or the skills of my prior self before they improved … thanks to Forpheus.

robot
A factory floor robot draws some attention at CES. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
robotics
A sorting machine from Omron moves much the same way as Forpheus does on the ping pong table. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Away from the ping pong table, Omron reps mingled with robots roaming the floor around the booth — a common site for quite a few companies at CES. Other machines labored as if they were on the factory floor and no one was watching.

But each time a ball hit the table under the bright lights of the ping pong “court,” a large crowd gathered. All-seeing Forpheus probably knew that she was being watched.

And in the end, man didn’t really meet his machine match, or manage to best her. But the two did learn plenty more about each other.

robot ping pong
(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
robot ping pong
After the match, an Omron machine showed off the company’s laser etching capabilities — with a special ping pong ball. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
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