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Robotic table takes on foosball fans

By Julie Clothier for CNN

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The table is now commerically available, and costs $32,500.
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(CNN) -- For football fans with a spare €25,000 ($32,500), German scientists have created the ultimate tech-toy -- a robotic foosball machine.

The scientists have been working on the 350-kilogram (770-pound) table, which requires just one player instead of the standard two, since 2001.

Now the table, called StarKick, is for sale, but it comes with a hefty price tag.

Foosball, also called table football, traditionally involves two players, who twist, push and pull rotating metal rods attached to figurines of soccer players, which "kick" a ball into the opponent's goal.

Scientists at the University of Freiburg in Germany have connected the rods on one side of a foosball table to high-torque motors and an electronic control system, enabling humans to play against the machine.

Professor Bernhard Nebel, who led the research into the concept of the robotic table, told CNN the table could play at an advanced level, and beat its human competitors in 80 percent of games played during testing.

The base of the table is made of tinted glass, under which a camera photographs the ball 50 times per second. It then sends the data to a computer in the table, which tracks where the ball is.

Nebel said the reason the table worked so well was because it could react much quicker than a human player, which would react just 10 frames per second.

The table's downside was it could only kick the ball forward -- it could not stop the ball, dribble it or pass it.

"If it sees the ball, it kicks it. A human sees things differently. It can dribble, stop it, wait for the opponent to drop its defense and then take a shot."

He said it was the next best thing to a robotic team capable of playing humans.

The level of play can be adjusted, a bit like electronic chess games, and Nebel said there was still some research to get the table to world champion foosball level. He hopes to make these developments within four years.

The scientists have licensed the robot technology to a gaming company, which has produced the table.

The RoboCup World Football Championship, a league where robots play football against each other, is already popular throughout the world.

Those involved in the international research and education initiative hope to build a team of human-sized robots that can take on the human World Cup football champions under the sport's official regulations by 2050.

RoboCup 2005 will be held in Osaka, Japan in July.


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