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Robotic arm plays beer pong with impressive accuracy

The Versaball can play beer pong with astonishing accuracy.

This could have been helpful in college.

Scientists in Massachusetts built a robot that can play beer pong with great — though not pinpoint — precision.

The arm-like structure, named Versaball, uses air to suck up and hold Ping-Pong balls before shooting them across the table to land inside cups — one after another.

Boston-based startup Empire Robotics will present a demo of this ability at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where visitors will get the chance to challenge Versaball.

“Challengers will be able to come and play a game against the robot,” the company’s project manager John Dean said in an interview with Yahoo News. “The robot is not perfect, so it’s possible for a human to win, but it’s pretty good, so you’d have to be pretty good at beer pong.”

Their booth will be set up in the Eureka Park section of the Sands Expo center from Jan. 6-9.

For the display, each cup has a sensor so the robot knows when it misses. Most of the aiming is done with the arm itself, after engineers calibrate it by aiming for the back-center cup about 10 times. Then they program different points from which the robot can successfully hit the remaining five.

“If you watch the video, you will see that the robot does not shoot from the same position each time. It moves according to which cup it’s aiming at,” Dean said.

The core principle behind the Versaball is the “jamming phase transition of granular materials,” according to the scientists.

To put this simply, the robot arm has a green ball that is filled with sand-like material, which can soften or harden.

When air is pumped in, the loose particles inside the ball get softer and easily conform around their target object — in this case, a table tennis ball.

When air is pulled out, the particles harden and allow the green ball to grab and lift pills, light bulbs, and bricks.

Though the beer pong trick is cool, the engineers hope the technology will help with manufacturing and packaging tasks.

“What we use it for is generally industrial automation,” Dean said.  “You’d see it in automotive factories, consumer electronics factories, and small mom-and-pop shops that are making little gizmos and gadgets.”

Empire Robotics says the thought of using granular materials for robotic grippers has been around since the 1970s, but it had never reached the point of practical use, until now.

Nearly two years ago, John Amend, co-founder of Empire Robotics, was able to make a robot throw darts and Ping-Pong balls with some accuracy, while studying for his PhD. Then he and his colleagues thought of the beer pong idea while brainstorming ways to share their technology with the world.