Engineers designed a team of opponents that mimic the actions of “blockers” — players that jump close to the net with their arms aloft to prevent an attacker’s powerful shot from coming over to their side of the court.
The setup, as reported by the New Scientist, consists of three pairs of robotic arms that move left and right along a track at a speed slightly faster than that of a human player.
Smashing the ball across the net is one of the most common ways for a team to win points in volleyball, but the players have to be able to outwit the opposing team’s blockers who are waiting to slam the ball immediately down to the ground for their own point.
The unique blocking machine was created by researchers at the University of Tsukuba in partnership with the Japanese Volleyball Association and lets an operator choose the robots’ playing style using computer software.
It’s even possible to program the robots with team-specific tactics or styles of play similar to those of the opponents that the Japanese team is about to face, allowing for more effective pre-game preparation and training.
As you can see from the video above, the robots move swiftly and succeed in blocking many of the shots. But at the moment the robots can only shift into predetermined positions and don’t react to a player’s specific actions. That should change soon, though, as the developers are working to incorporate motion sensors for an even more realistic experience.
Japanese players who went up against the robots complimented the designers of the technology, saying it felt pretty much the same as playing human opponents.
Of course, this isn’t the first time robots have entered the world of sports. There’s the annual RoboCup soccer tournament, for example, and who can forget this rather bizarre “robot crowd” employed by a South Korean baseball team to replace absent fans.