If there’s one thing we know about Shane Wighton it’s that he’ll use his formidable engineering skills to gain a competitive advantage in almost any sport. That includes building a ball-tracking never-miss basketball hoop, and now a robotic cue that will turn even novice players into a seasoned pool shark.
Although Wighton has created some truly sophisticated upgrades to sporting equipment over the past few years (there’s little chance Major League Baseball will approve his explosive baseball bat and the PGA definitely won’t allow his auto-adjusting golf club on the tour) this automatic pool cue and smart table represent another level of engineering prowess and troubleshooting stress.
Upgrading the pool cue involved cutting off the end and replacing it with a miniaturized Stewart platform: a mechanism that uses six moving arms to adjust the angle of a platform in three dimensions. They normally rely on hydraulic pistons (they’re most often used to create the rocking base of a flight simulator) but to keep things small Wighton instead using moving linkages controlled by tension cables running the entire length of the cue. To actually transfer energy to the cue ball, a pneumatic-powered piston was added to the tip with a pressurizing chamber on the other end to vary the shot power. The results aren’t going to fool anyone—it’s a pool stick with some serious upgrades, but getting it to work was far from the end of this project.
The upgraded pool cue was smarter, but it had no idea what was happening on the pool table, and Wighton wanted this hack to be as foolproof as possible. To that end, he mounted a video camera to the ceiling looking down on the pool table that could recognize the location of all the balls as well as the pool cue and where its tip was pointing. That, combined with a lot of custom code including tools that would remove distortions added by the camera’s lens, allowed the system to automatically calculate the angle and power needed to make a shot.
In order for the player to properly aim their cue (the self-adjusting tip only has a limited range of movement), he then mounted a video projector next to the camera on the ceiling which would overlay the surface of the pool table with alignment guides and predicted trajectories. The results definitely look like a hack assembled in someone’s workroom, but the robot is a surprisingly capable pool player in the end. Unfortunately, Wighton isn’t going to be able to walk into a pool hall and hustle the regulars with his newfound billiards skills, but even while letting the robot do all the work he’s bound to pick up a few hints and tricks for the next time he picks up a regular cue stick.