We’ve been writing about robots from the Ishikawa Watanabe Laboratory at the University of Tokyo for years. They’ve always had very cool demos, like robots throwing balls, robots tracking balls, robots catching balls, robots hitting balls, and robots running really really fast.
I’d just sort of figured that these demos were simply fun and interesting ways of highlighting the capabilities of high-speed actuators and vision systems.
Evidently, I don’t know anything, because it’s now totally obvious that they’re working on a humanoid robot that plays baseball.
Here’s what the researchers say:
We have been developing robotic systems that individually achieve fundamental actions of baseball, such as throwing, tracking of the ball, batting, running, and catching. We achieved these tasks by controlling high-speed robots based on real-time visual feedback from high-speed cameras. Before integrating these abilities into one robot, we here summarize the technical elements of each task.
“Before integrating these abilities into one robot.” I can’t even put into words how awesome that’s going to be, and putting awesome things into words is (supposedly) my full-time job.
In terms of the sport of baseball, the video above illustrates how much better a robot could be (potentially, of course) than a human. A robot pitcher could throw strikes (or anything else) with pinpoint, repeatable precision. But the advantage would almost certainly go to the robot batter, which will use its high-speed vision to detect spin and track the trajectory of the ball such that it can target the resulting hit anywhere it likes.
I’ll admit to being more of a fan of soccer than of baseball, but it seems that baseball (and sports in general) rely to some extent on randomness and chance to be exciting. When humans play baseball, they don’t have perfect control over where pitches or hits go. If they did, it wouldn’t be much of a game. So the question is, if robots like these start playing baseball, is that going to make the game more interesting, or less?
Either way, we’re incredibly excited to see how this project progresses. The Ishikawa Watanabe Laboratory makes some amazing systems, and putting them all together into a baseball-playing android is going to be the most amazing thing yet.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.