This Squishy Robot Will Crush You At Beer Pong–And Then Change How We Make Prosthetics

A re-rack isn’t going to help you now, silly humans.

We already know that robots can beat humans at chess and jeopardy and table tennis. Now robots are another step closer to world domination: Though the matches were close, a robot managed to defeat one of the world’s best beer pong professionals at the Consumer Electronics Show this week. (Yes, there are professional beer pong players).


Here’s the robot in action, in a demo video that shows it precisely lobbing ping pong balls into cups of beer:

What’s most interesting about the beer pong playing robot, called Versaball, is how it might be able to help humans, not just make them drunk. Unlike typical robots, Versaball doesn’t try to awkwardly imitate human hands. Instead, it picks up objects with a squishy, expandable balloon that can easily stretch around different shapes and sizes. Suddenly, it’s possible for one robot to do hundreds of tasks that might have each required different robots in the past.

“The first and biggest advantage is the versatility of the gripper–it can pick up many object shapes in many orientations and without knowledge of those orientations and shapes,” says John Dean, product manager for the robot’s designer, Empire Robotics.

In an assembly line, this may help make products cheaper, because robots don’t have to be redesigned for every task. It also means they could replace humans for the most tedious kinds of factory work.

The robot can also handle delicate objects that more clumsy grippers might break or scratch. Though Empire Robotics is focused on industrial applications at the moment, it’s easy to imagine this technology in consumer applications, such as helping Parkinson’s patients who struggle to pick things up or someone who needs prosthetics. Versaball can pick up a ping pong ball, but it can also open a pill bottle and change a lightbulb, say its creators.

Empire Robotics has been working with several manufacturers to create a product that can work production lines and expects to roll out the final robot in the next few months.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.