At nearly seven feet tall and weighing 240 pounds, CUE has biometrics very similar to the average basketball player. But CUE isn’t a sports star in the conventional sense: it’s an AI-powered robot that shoots hoops.
At the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, he wowed spectators with a shot without a net from half court.
“At that time, I felt like I was watching a fantastic movie (rather than) something I had been a part of,” says Tomohiro Nomi, head of the development team behind CUE and other projects. of Toyota humanoid robots.
CUE, which uses a sensor in its chest to calculate the angle and power required for each shot, was born out of an amateur robotics project in 2017, and it achieved the “impossible” by appearing in a show at the halftime at the Olympics, says Nomi.
However, after landing more than 2,000 consecutive shots in a world record attempt, shooting hoops just got too easy for this sports droid.
To spice things up, the team is teaching the robot to dribble – and hopes future iterations will have “the same range of motion and flexibility as humans,” says Nomi.
The Toyota team behind CUE hatched the idea at an AI-themed event at a volunteer organization called the Toyota Engineering Society. Inspired by a line from a 1990s basketball manga series called “Slam Dunk” – “Will 20,000 practice shots be enough?” – the team set out to create a robotic reader capable of 100% accuracy.
Just 11 months later, the first version of the robot made its debut in a game featuring Alvark Tokyo, a team from Japan’s top division basketball league, the B.League. He shot nine of 10 from the free throw line. After this result, Toyota asked the nine-person development team to pursue it as an official project.
In the second version, the team removed the robot’s stand and made it stand on two legs, which increased its firing range to seven meters (23 ft). For the third iteration, the robot could now fire from the center circle, 12 meters (39 ft) from the basket. It was this model, CUE3, that was offered the chance to attempt the Guinness World Record for the title “Most Consecutive Free Throws in Basketball by a Humanoid Robot (Assisted)” in April 2019.
The team had to reduce the time it took to throw their next shot, from three minutes to just a few seconds for the shots to be considered consecutive. The robot set the record at 2,020 consecutive shots – a number that was chosen to celebrate the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – over six hours and 35 minutes. This still doesn’t beat the human record of 5,221 free throws set in 1996, but the CUE development team notes that they deliberately cut the attempt short due to time constraints, as record officials cannot take break, swap or leave.
As the robot evolved, its size and weight also increased. it’s now 9 inches longer than its shortest iteration and nearly twice as heavy as its lightest. The extra weight is a downside, Nomi says, and the team would like to make it lighter – however, he adds that they have “prioritized functional evolution in the limited time available”, over a more nimble body.
The latest version of the robot, CUE5, was unveiled at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the request of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Although the halftime show did not air on television, many videos of it circulated on social media.
With new cameras and sensors installed in his feet and new movements in his hands, CUE can now sense the distance between his palms and the ball, allowing him to dribble and take shots from multiple positions on the pitch. , including from the half court.
“We would like to try shooting from even greater distances in the future – for example, from the 3-point line on the opposite court or from the free-throw line,” says Nomi.
The team is still honing CUE’s dribbling ability – but this new skill presents a world of possibilities.
Their next goal is to secure a spot for CUE6 in the 2023 B.League All-Star Game Skills Challenge, which tests players’ speed and accuracy in dribbling, shooting, passing and obstacle navigation. The team aims for the droid to complete the test in one minute, which is the average time of top athletes.
However, this new mission brings “a mountain of challenges” according to Takayoshi Tsujimoto, the team’s development manager, who said in a statement that “while a shot essentially flies in a parabolic arc, a pass must follow a trajectory more direct”.
The team now needs to double the speed at which the current version of CUE runs, determine if one-handed or two-handed throws work better, as well as add zigzag running motions and obstacle sensors, Tsujimoto adds. And the team doesn’t have long: CUE6 is set to debut at an Alvark Tokyo home game on Dec. 24, 2022, Nomi says.
While robots cannot yet mimic human movement, Nomi anticipates technological advancements that will bring them closer to this goal. The team has yet to look at specific industrial applications for the technology, but Nomi thinks the type of control system CUE uses could be useful in the field of robotics.
Whenever the team faces challenges, he comes back to the idea of taking 20,000 practice shots to succeed – and believes it contains an important reminder for innovators.
“That number would normally freak someone out, but it’s like saying, ‘Is that all I have to do?’ It sends a strong message – to never use being an amateur as an excuse, and that hard work pays off,” he says.
“These messages keep us going.”