Robots set to rule world of table football

Human pride, based on the notion that man is the planet’s alpha animal, was dealt a crushing blow seven years ago when the computer Deep Blue humiliated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

Be afraid, be very afraid, for another towering bastion of human achievement—table football—is about to fall to machines.

Beavering away in a lab in Germany’s Black Forest, researchers have developed a robot that they claim will grab the world title in table soccer by the end of the decade, New Scientist says in next Saturday’s issue.

Played in bars, clubs and youth hostels around the world, table football is a game in which players twist metal rods on a table, manipulating a miniature footballer in metal or plastic so that it kicks a ball into their opponent’s goal.

The University of Freiburg researchers connected the rods on one side of a football table to high-powered motors and an electronic control system.

The bottom of the table is made of green see-through glass.

Underneath is a camera which scans the position of the ball 50 times a second and sends the data to a computer which is preprogrammed with knowledge about the dynamics of the ball and which calculates whether the ball can be blocked in some directions by opposing players.

The computer then orders the appropriate rod to go into action.

It is not allowed to cheat by spinning the rod more than 360 degrees, and its programming strategy requires it to always try to get the ball as close to the opposite goal as possible.

The robot has notched up an 85% success against a random sample of casual players, but—for the time being—is no match for an expert, lead researcher Bernhard Nebel told the British weekly.

A good player from the German league for table football, which is known locally as foosball, whipped the robot 10 games to one.

“But in three to five years’ time, the robot should be able to beat the world champion,” Nebel claims confidently.

Freiburg University has licensed the technology to a gaming company that hopes to manufacture a robust version, priced at 20 000 euros ($24 000), that will be commercialised from next year. - Sapa-AFP

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