Monday, June 19, 2006

CSIRO Air Hockey Table a Hit

Airhockey Over a Distance. CSIRO Photo.
About a year ago I started bumping into people from the CSIRO ICT Centre asking about Air Hockey.

The centre needed a project to demonstrate their ICT abilities and had decided on a remote air hockey game. With this two people in separate locations could play. One would shoot a puck along their half of a real table. At the mid point the puck would disappear into cyberspace and reappear a moment later on the other half of the table thousands of kilometers away. CSIRO people wanted advice on how to do this. Some people asked me enthusiastically ("we have this great project..."), some apologetically ("it wasn't my idea, but ...").

Rather than use a real air hockey table, I suggested using the type of system used for aircraft cargo handling, with a floor made up of two sets of wheels at right angles . One of these systems was proposed for unloading high speed military transport ships and I suggested the air hockey table could result in a spinoff cargo system for vehicles and small aircraft (such as the advise new helicopters).

But the main thing I kept saying was what a silly idea building an air hockey table was. This would waste resources on a trivial application with little, if any, practical use. Even if the system worked, all it would do is give the impression the CSIRO had poor business judgment and was wasting government money on useless activities. Needless to say they stopped asking me for advice.

Months went past and when wandering through the CeBIT show in Sydney, I saw the completed air hockey table. CSIRO had come up with a better idea than mine for implementation. They put a cabinet over one half of two genuine air hockey tables. The front of the cabinet is a projection screen showing the other table and player. Inside the box is a special robot to catch the puck and relay its speed and direction to the other table. The other table's robot then fires a puck with that speed and direction.

The result is that the player sees their puck disappear into the box and then reappear on screen at the other end. The prototype is not perfect: there is a perceptible delay and the pucks tend to get stuck in the mechanism. But the system works well enough to create the illusion of one table with one game.

Like cats watching fish on a TV screen, the players kept looking behind the box to see where the pucks went. The most popular place to be wasn't playing, but in the box seeing how it all worked.

So I have to apologize to CSIRO people, for suggesting this was a useless activity. This was an outstanding PR success and promoted CSIRO's technical abilities. But it still was a waste of government money and showed a lack of judgment. Perhaps next time CSIRO will choose a project which is clever, but also of use, such as ICT systems to help with disaster relief.


Blogger Tom Worthington said...

I wrote:

"Inside the box is a special robot to catch the puck and relay its speed and direction to the other table. The other table's robot then fires a puck with that speed and direction. "

Correction: only the timing is coordinated. To simplify the design the speed and direction of the fired puck is unrelated to the one on the other table. Most users, including me, did not notice the difference.

July 20, 2006 2:27 PM  

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