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January 02, 2015      

Looks like it’s going to be another year of long lines for cabs, shuttles and the Monorail at 2015 International CES in Las Vegas (January 6-9). There could be a lot more attendees than usual who need a lift.

Empire Robotics, creator of the Versaball robotic gripper, is hosting a man vs. machine beer pong contest at CES. Versaball will challenge any CES 2015 attendee, building up to a match between the robot and the winners of the World Series of Beer Pong at 3:00 pm PST on January 6.

And judging by the video at the top of this page, Versaball has put in plenty of practice time. The robot is what beer pong aficionados call a “hundo” or someone who shoots a perfect game. Good luck to the humans stepping up to the challenge! Not a chance anyone beats Versaball. Although, losing is kind of the point of playing beer pong, no?

The promotional video does raise a few major questions:

1. According to the official BPONG rules, “under no circumstances may a player shoot with any part of his or her body on (against is permitted) the table. Of course, if you have a beer gut that must rest on the table because there’s nothing else you can do with it; the “beer gut on the table” exception will apply.” Clearly the Versaball’s robot arm is mounted to the table. Advantage Versaball.

2. Is Versaball good at bounce shots? This is a deadly weapon if it’s in your arsenal. I’m leaning towards no on this one, but if Versaball pulls off the old “bounce-shot-when-your-opponent-isn’t-looking” trick, we as humans should concede all things beer pong to the robots.

3. Who chugs Versaball’s beer when an opponent makes a shot? When a team is running a table (winning match after match), their vision starts to get a little blurry. It’s just part of winning. I propose, after an opponent makes a shot, a designated Empire Robotics engineer chugs Versaball’s beer and has to re-calibrate the robot, attempting to replicate the impaired ability of Versaball’s opponents. If not – Advantage: Versaball.

4. Who’s driving Versaball home?

There are so many questions, but we’ll just have to wait for the games to begin in Empire’s booth (25183) during CES 2015.

So, what is Empire Robotics, a company that focuses on industrial automation, doing at the largest consumer robotics show in the world? Well, this contest will likely create a lot of buzz for the company, but it also says it’s also meant to demo Versaball’s ability to pick up and handle delicate objects, its ability to grip consistently, and how it can work safely in cooperation with humans.

Here’s how the Versaball gripper works. Using a process called “granular jamming,” air is quickly sucked out of the ball, which vacuum-packs the particles and hardens the gripper around the object to hold and lift it. The object releases when the ball is re-inflated. Pulling air out of the ball jams the sand like material together, causing the ball to harden. This transition from soft to hard creates the gripping forces.

The Versaball robotic gripper is available as a research kit from Empire Robotics and comes in a variety of sizes and shapes.