Bring it humans: This robot will school you in beer pong

With grippers like these, who needs fingers? Photo: Empire Robotics

If you’re prepping for a house party this New Year’s Eve, you might already have picked up your Solo cups, champagne, and beer. But chances are that you won’t have the life of the party on hand, because this Boston-based beer pong playing robot is headed to the Consumer Electronics Show next week in Las Vegas, where it will take on humanity in a tournament of champions.

Throwing for the humans be the winner of the World Series of Beer Pong Championship, an all star event that will crown its champion the weekend after New Year’s.

The bot is built by Empire Robotics, and it has been training to win.

The VersaBall fingerless gripper — a.k.a. the robot’s “hand” — was first developed at Cornell University. The spongy robotic appendage is modeled on a balloon filled with coffee beans. Co-founder John Amend, who helped develop the gripper at Cornell, set up Empire Robotics in the Innovation District in 2013.

What the VersaBall lacks in digits it makes up for in versatility. Like a bag of beans, it can change shape to surround any object — maybe a glass of juice, a cue ball, an electric light bulb. It then hardens, holding the object firmly but gently. An injection of air into the VersaBall makes it spongy again, releasing its grip.

Empire Robotics engineers realized a rapid injection of air into the VersaBall chamber sent the object it was holding flying. When the bot is gripping a ping-pong ball, the speed at which the air is injected determines very precisely how far the ball will travel, John Amend, co-founder and chief executive of Empire Robotics explained.

With this air-injection programming in place, all that remained was to find the best starting position for the VersaBall’s arm, so it would sink its target each time. As you can see in the video, it changes its orientation ever so slightly to reach every cup.

 “We take the same exact shot but we move the position we shoot from,” Amend said.

Starting Tuesday, Amend said that visitors to CES will be able to challenge the robot to a round of beer pong any day during the conference next week. No word on who will chug the beer if the robot misses a shot.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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