Since it's appearance (or reappearance) a year or so ago, the SmartPong robot has generated quite a bit of interest. The demo video available on the web shows a brief glimpse of its potential, and the accompanying advertising make it sound like the ideal robot. The SmartPong first made an appearance in 2004 under the Stiga brand as the Stiga Robot Trainer, but quickly disappeared off the market for no apparent reason before many units could be sold (and no reviews made).
As it turns out, the original manufacturer that provided the robots to Stiga ran into patent difficulties and had to withdraw the SmartPong from the market. The patent issues have apparently been resolved, and the original designer of the robot is now bringing the robot back into the market.
AppearanceIt is very difficult to avoid comparisons to the Newgy 2040, since the Smartpong looks physically like a souped-up Newgy. It shares many design features and mechanisms (if not the exact same parts) as a Newgy 2040.
The ball recycling net/system looks and operates just like the Newgy 2040. Upon closer inspection, there are 2 differences in the net, however. First, the SmartPong side nets are not part of the main net assembly. They need to be clamped onto the table separately, using the 2 sets of clamps provided. Also, the SmartPong uses strips of material hanging from the main net to kill the momentum of incoming balls, instead of using a secondary net like the Newgy does.
The SmartPong ball return tray is also slightly different. The SmartPong uses a small ball "agitator" that stirs the balls around so that they fall into an opening slightly larger than a 40-mm ball that leads to the robot's ball feeder. A Newgy uses a larger opening and depends on gravity. However, the ball feeder itself looks to be the same as a Newgy.
The main unit contains the electronics, motors, and gears used to control and throw the balls. Despite many people's hopes/wishes, the SmartPong is a single-wheeled robot. As a matter of fact, the ball delivery mechanism looks just like a Newgy's, with the same wheel, friction block, and tension spring design. The main unit is ventilated, with 2 fans inside used to cool the micro-controller and other electronic components.
There are no cable connections, except for the power cord, since the robot uses an infrared remote control.
Setup/BreakdownAs you would expect, setup and breakdown/storage of the SmartPong main unit matches the incredible ease of the Newgy 2040. However, I find using the side-nets to be somewhat of a hassle in comparison, since they need to be clamped on to the table. As a matter of fact, I don’t use the side nets at all at this time.
ManualThe manual is written in English with illustrations. The manual covers only the basics of operation. There is no User's Guide to help learn what settings to use to generate some basic shot types. I think that every robot manual should include a section that gives the user some settings to start with. There is a section on troubleshooting that covers the most common simple problems, but any complicated problem sends you to consult your local distributor. This manual is available on the web.
Remote ControlThis robot is the first unit that uses a wireless remote control. The remote uses infrared signals and is powered by 3 AAA batteries. All settings are controlled from this remote, so if the remote ever dies, the robot itself is not useable. The remote controls ball speed, type of spin, the ball feed rate, throwing head angle, amount of oscillation, and starts/stops the ball feeder. In addition, memory settings and programming is controlled from the remote. All settings are controlled by incrementing or decrementing the value using a "+" or "-" control, instead of directly inputting a number via a number pad.
Spin/Speed/TrajectoryThe SmartPong throwing head rotates from 0-359 degrees, so any type of spin is possible. There is a sticker on the head that indicates which spin the head is set to generate. On the remote the setting ranges from 1-60. For pure topspin, the remote is set to 1, while pure underspin is 31. Since this corresponds to how a minute hand on a clock reads, it's easy to remember what setting generates what kind of spin.
Spin and speed are proportional to each other on this robot. The faster the ball is thrown; the more spin is placed on the ball. No-spin balls are not possible, outside of short serve. Since trajectory is a function of speed and spin in this robot, shot trajectory is not independently controllable.
The ball feed rate ranges from 30 balls/min to 90 balls/min, and the range seems wide enough for almost all practice sequences.
OscillationThe table is divided into 9 zones, and oscillation can be controlled to occur between any of the 9 zones, where 1 is the far left side of the table, and 9 is the far right side.
ProgrammabilityOne frequently asked question about the SmartPong is "Can it really feed one ball with a certain spin/location on one shot and then a ball with a totally different spin/location on the next?" The answer is: YES. You can program up to 9 different shots to make one routine. When run, the robot will step through each programmed shot, and then repeat the sequence. The spin type, speed, and location, as well as ball feed rate can be set for each shot. However, you may be limited by the fact that spin and spin are proportional, though I haven't found that to be a liability at this time.
There are 9 pre-programmed routines in the robot. For some reason, they are not documented in the manual. And due to laziness, I have not taken the time to document them myself! These pre-programmed routines cannot be changed, but the ball feed rate can be changed. The 9 routines do vary placement and spin type and have varying degrees of difficulty.
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