The 30th Anniversary of The World's First Robot Table Tennis Tournament - 1986


Zillian won the world's first robot table tennis competition held in London in 1986. This was recorded by Thames television, and first prize was a trip to San Francisco to demonstrate its prowess against all comers at the California robotics exhibition. The robot was also awarded a medal from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London. At this stage, control was semi-analogue, with feedback for the arm position derived from slider potentiometers.

Admittedly these matches were against rather easy competition - but Zillian also went on to win in 1987, thereby laying claim to the world title for two years running. That same year, it was invited to a demonstration match at Lund University (Sweden) where the electronics department of the university were keen to develop research programmes into robotic vision and control.

Computer power for Zillian's arm was now provided by an Apple II, while a converted Sinclair ZX81 handled the camera input. At that first robot table-tennis match in the San Francisco robotics exhibition of 1986, there were no competitors, so Zillian could only perform in demonstration, visually following an approaching ball, with the bat triggered by a beam-breaker across its front.

Robotics made rapid strides over those early years, with whole departments at universities devoting themselves to building new robots, and Zillian was left behind, slow, outdated, and unable to compete. But the prestige of being first, and holding the world title for two consecutive years, will always remain.


Ping-pong prodigy (From The Guardian, 29th August 1986)


Next month John Marr and Zillian set off to play the field in California. He tells the story of the automaton who learnt to keep a straight bat

Competition in any field is the ultimate test of a person's abilities; likewise there can be no better test of a robot's visual system or its speed of response than to play against another robot in a game such as table tennis. I first read about this last year in Practical Robotics magazine and I decided to take up the challenge.

The game is played on a special table with a narrow playing area, 50cm wide, so the robot arm need not be too big. The ball is served from the centre to one robot which has to track and then return it over the net to its opponent. The table and playing area are painted black to help the visual system spot the ball.

My children named the robot Zillian at an early stage. It is a simple jointed arm, able to move in two directions only (X and Y) and mounted on a wooden base: The motive power is two old 12 volt DC windscreen wiper motors, and the arm itself is a beautiful piece of polished aluminium tube, which first saw life as an Addis mop handle. A camera, tape recorders, and a typewriter supplied other components, whilst the electronics are built round a brain scanner discarded by a local hospital. The idea and enthusiasm for Zillian spread as it grew, and countless friends contributed or constructed parts for it. The total cost for new electronic parts was about £45.

There is nothing like a dose of stiff competition to iron the corners off pet theories, and I took the beast to London in the boot of my car to participate in the first-ever world ping-pong finals on July 1. This event was recorded by Thames Television and screened on Database. The scoring system was somewhat complicated, with one point for a touch and five points for a return over the net. Zillian's eye did not work properly and I had to move the arm with a joystick; yet even at this crude level - and to my great surprise - Zillian won easily. The robot which came second did not score a touch, and a robot which came fourth could not even move.

On the morning of the competition, the first prize had been a book on robots. By lunchtime, £100 had been offered for the winner to attend the European finals in Brussels; then as the final match started, a new prize of $pound;500 towards travelling to the International Robotics Conference in San Francisco was announced. Suddenly I was asked how I felt to be going to the States to represent England - and I had told my wife I would only be two days in London!

The next stage is to link Zillian into my home micro, and P & P Micros provided a superb analogue-to-digital interface card to tell the computer just where the arm is in space; Micro Robotics of Cambridge have given a SNAP EV-l digital camera which uses a light-sensitive RAM chip to provide ready-processed images enabling much faster and more precise tracking of the ball (This camera incidentally is available for the Commodore and BBC Micros, complete with Pentax lens and incredible shape-recognition software for only £129, and must be the best value hardware going at present - but that's another story. Even Apple UK offered to phone their parent company in America to provide an Apple for the San Francisco show. Only cash for the trip is still lacking.

This competition highlighted the deficiencies of current robot systems. If any group of schoolchildren had attended with a robot arm which vaguely moved a bat above the table, they would have ensured third or fourth place; and though I hope for a higher standard next year, there will certainly be plenty of room for entries from schools and colleges even without a working visual system.

It has been asked, "what use such a machine might have?" The joy of designing and building something nobody else has succeeded in doing is one reward; but other uses will inevitably follow. For example, by replacing the bat with a felt tip pen, the robot could draw the outline of an object in its visual field; or fixing a cutter there could enable a variety of materials to be cut directly from a line drawing perceived visually. Substitution of a gripper produces a simple type of remote arm as used in nuclear installations: under manual control initially, but eventually under automatic visual control as the sophistication develops. Robot Table-Tennis is a new event on the sporting calendar, but one which is likely to become a regular event, limited only by the mechanisms of the robots and the imaginations of their builders.