March 11, 2014      

The much-hyped table tennis match between Timo Boll, the No. 8 player in the world, and RBR 50 company KUKA’s Agilus robot tells us more about how not to market your robot to the public than it does about the capabilities of today’s highly-effective industrial robot arms.

Video of the match (first video below) has produced what can best be described as mixed reactions among viewers and commentators.

“Everybody loses in ping pong match between robot and man,” declared The Verge writer Rich McCormick, adding that “the match appears rigged.”

Ping Pong Robots Still Looking For Their Deep Blue-Kasparov Moment,” wrote Doug Aamoth for Time. “While the KUKA robot looks impressively limber for a robot, I’m not convinced it’d be able to best an above-average human player.”

The general consensus — and we won’t even go near the YouTube comments, which seem to naturally tend towards the negative — is that the video doesn’t show a true match between a human and a robot, but is, in fact, little more than a glorified advertisement.

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So, it seems KUKA’s marketing department made two main mistakes:

First Problem: KUKA underestimated the thirst for knowledge — and cynicism — of today’s audiences. Bright lights and slick production values won’t compensate for unanswered questions, which there are plenty of after watching the highly-edited video. The central narrative of the video — that Boll digs deep to fight back from the brink of potential humiliation only to triumph on the final two points of the match — is fatally undermined by these gaps.

Less editing might have made for a less aesthetically appealing (and much longer) video, but it would have left audiences with a more honest picture of this sporting tussle between human and machine. The video closes with “Not the best in table tennis. But probably the best in robotics.” But that self-effacement is also undermined by the same slick, selective editing.

Second Problem: stick to your core competencies. Sure, advertisers take liberties with common sense all the time — the latest automobile won’t necessarily make you attractive to the opposite sex — but ping-pong against professional table tennis is probably very, very low on potential customers’ wish lists.

No publicity is bad publicity, the old adage goes, and certainly no great harm has been done to the KUKA brand for the simple reason that the people who will buy an industrial robotic arm probably doesn’t overlap much with a general audience that just wants to watch robots doing cool stuff.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt many viewers will remember Boll vs. the robot as a missed opportunity.

A pair of pole-dancing robots turned heads at the CeBIT Expo. U.K. artist Giles Walker designed the robots, which first appeared in 2012. They were fashioned from spare motor parts and cost around $40,000 to rent. Perhaps a dance-off is on the cards?

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