I once played ping pong against the CEO of a robotics company in the Bay Area. He wasn't very good, so the game progressed awkwardly. I would ask a question and serve, he would send the ball flying back, missing the table by a few yards, I would go and get it, the question would have to be repeated.
A couple bright engineers figured it was worth applying some technology to the problem of poor ping pong performance (or PPP, in the medical literature). Enter Trainerbot, the smart ping pong robot with a wicked serve.
The device, which looks a bit like a souped-up plumbing project, is actually a pretty impressive melding of robotics and mobile technology, a product of the HAX Accelerator, a hardware accelerator based in Shenzhen.
Like any project worth its salt, it arose as the result of a sibling rivalry. Co-Founders Alexander Chen and Harrison Chen are brothers with a longstanding ping pong grudge. When they found themselves at different universities in Toronto and California, they started scheming about ways to improve their skills in isolation (liberal arts students join fraternities, engineers build robots). Alex spent a lot of time watching tutorial videos on YouTube and famous ping pong matches, and he wondered if he could emulate the shots from those matches. Harrison started working on a ping pong robot made from a household garbage can.
Robots are being developed to train athletes in a variety of sports. At Dartmouth, smart robotic tackling dummies designed by students at the school teach players to tackle moving targets safely, reducing injury on the field. Puma has developed a racing robot to push runners, with the idea that competing against an opponent helps improve athletes' performance.
Ping pong, which Trainerbot's creators say is making a comeback, is well-suited to a robotic trainer because of the small physical scale of the game. The device, which sets up in under five minutes, has five motors that enable it to shoot anywhere on the ping pong table. The bot adds spin, as well as multiple access trajectory controls. For a totally customizable game, users can control the motors via a mobile app. The table is divided into nine sections, and users program where they want the balls to go.
The robot, which fits into a gym bag, holds 30 ping pong balls (evidently the optimal number of shots in a fun, competitive game), which load from the top of the machine. The coolest feature is that it can emulate shots from professional matches. You know--those crazy televised bouts where the ball looks like a white streak. The Trainerbot app allows users to connect with friends in order to share custom games.
Like all quirky startup tech these days, Trainerbot is raising funds via a Kickstarter campaign, which launched yesterday. The early bird price for the basic device is $349. If that Bay Area CEO is listening, I'd suggest picking one up before our next interview.