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Robotic pool shark wants to school you at billiards — and you can build one

Like most of us, engineer Ben Varvil has modest goals in life: A good job to keep his mind active, and an awesome robot buddy to play billiards against. An ongoing project called “Judith” helps with both of those ambitions — and especially the latter.

“Judith is a pool-playing robot project I enjoy developing in my spare time,” Varvil told Digital Trends. “I teach high school engineering classes, so having a side project like this keeps me sharp and able to contribute relevant programming, making and problem-solving content to my students. I believe anyone who has ever played pool has had the moment of thought, ‘This is just geometry.’ When I had that moment, my mind went immediately to, ‘If this is just geometry, then machine control should be able to make quick work of the game and have no problem beating a human.’ This thinking inspired me to begin the project.”

Judith stop motion

Thus far Judith is a miniature-scale mockup, showing off the radically different, servo-assisted take Varvil has imagined on a traditional pool table. Because of the challenge of moving a wheeled or tracked robot around the base of a regular table, he designed a legless pedestal table the robot can be attached to and swing around in a giant circle to take its shots. The robot even tucks away neatly under the table when it is not in use.

Varvil is also working on an algorithm that will allow the pool-shooting robot to compete against human players. He already developed a system for determining pool ball identity and location data through an Arduino serial terminal. The goal next is to utilize code which finds all the possible shots and then selects the best one to attempt.

All limbs have motion!! Not yet coordinated... but moving.

“The super fantasy dream is to make a reliable shooting system that can execute shot commands and to then educate anyone interested in the ways of controlling the robot,” he continued. “From there, those people can write and then test strategic pool playing algorithms to complete with humans. Where as [IBM] Watson took a team of engineers to win Jeopardy, and Deep Blue took who-knows-what to beat humans in chess, Judith feels like a way for the everyday person to join the human versus robot game.”

While the project is currently unfinished, Varvil has made the construction details for building the miniature table available on the website Instructables. Now he ha applied for the role of “Artist in Residence” at the maker studio, which will give him the opportunity to build a life-size model to take it to the next level.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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