Last year, Gizmag reported on Empire Robotics’ Versaball Gripper, which looks like an executive stress ball, but is, in fact, an industrial robotic gripper designed to safely handle a wide variety of objects. To show that all work and no play makes Jack a dull robot, Versaball will take on pong champions from and attendees at CES 2015, which will be held in Las Vegas From January 6 to 9.

When Versaball was introduced last year, it's purpose was to create a precision handling effector for robots that was simple, versatile, inexpensive, and safe to use around humans, yet was also precise, able to handle a wide variety of objects without retooling or reprogramming, and used a simple on/off actuator command. In this case, drawing air out of the effector to make it grip, and letting air back in to make it let go. Unlike mechanical grippers based on hands, the design of the bag-like effector provides the gripping qualities.

In the YouTube video below, Empire Robotics demonstrates that Versaball can not only pick up ping pong balls, but can also fire them into designated cups with great precision. It works a bit like an air cannon. In order to grip objects, the Versaball sucks air out of the ball's polymer casing, causing the sand-like particles inside to form around the object being grasped and locked tight like coffee grounds in those vacuum packs that feel like bricks until they're opened. To let go, Versaball blows air into the ball, the particles fall apart, and the object is released.

The clever bit is that if the air is forced into the ball with a bit more pressure, the object gets shot out like a ping pong ball out of a pop gun. With proper control of the pressure, and a bit of aiming, this allows Versaball attached to a UR arm to fire a pong ball seven feet (2.1 m) into a small plastic cup with considerable precision.

Versaball will take on any attendee at CES 2015 in a game of beer pong, building up to a match between the robot and the winners of Bpong's World Series of Beer Pong in a "man vs machine" round at 3:00 pm PST on January 6.

Empire Robotics says that the purpose of the game is more than a way of giving CES goers a laugh. It's also meant to demonstrate Versaball's ability to pick up and handle delicate objects, its ability to grip consistently, and to shoot a ball where it wants to with predictability. It also shows how Versaball can work safely in cooperation with humans because the bean bag-like gripper is unlikely to hurt trapped fingers.

The Versaball is available as a research kit from Empire Robotics and comes in a variety of sizes and shapes.

The video below shows Versaball playing a round of beer pong.

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