Japan's 'Unbeatable' Air Hockey Robot Built to Study Human Interaction

By Wesley Fenlon

The air hockey robot's true purpose: to study how robots can use high-speed cameras to analyze human behavior, respond, and adapt. Side effect: Crushing us at air hockey.

There's a certain shame in losing a game of air hockey. The mallets are so big, the goals so small--it should be so easy to prevent that disc from slipping past. Of course, it's not so easy, but imagine that shame of loss being compounded by your opponent's complete lack of a pulse. It doesn't even have a head, really, just a cube with some orange circles for eyes and a flat red line for a mouth. Imagine losing a game of air hockey to a robot.

You can, if you go to Japan. But you'd also have a slim shot at victory--the robot created at Chiba University's Namiki Lab isn't designed to totally dominate its opponents. Instead, it judges their play styles and reacts accordingly, playing aggressively against an aggressive opponent or defensive against a defensive one. It makes players adapt their strategies, which makes for an interesting game, at the very least. The sting of defeat is still a real possibility.

To read its human opponents, the robot pulls data from a pair of high speed cameras shooting at 500 frames per second. Those cameras feed video to a PC, which uses the data to analyze speed and positioning and control the four-axis robotic arm. The robot then creates a Motion Pattern Histogram to analyze whether a player is acting defensively or offensively, based on the positioning, speed, and angle of how they hit the puck.

That's the true goal of the robot--not to embarrass human opponents over their air hockey skills, but to delve into the challenges and potential of high-speed human-robot interaction. We'd like to see how it fares against the world champion of air hockey.