MCLEAN VIRGINIA — McLEAN, Va. -- On one end of the table tennis table is robot R4PC, delivering scorching serves, wicked topspin shots, lobs and slices -- two balls per second. On the other end isSean O'Neill, grunting like Monica Seles, returning shots with deft precision.
His footwork is so sweet. There are times you wonder which one is really the machine.
"We're always hearing how the Japanese are ahead of us in technology," says a sweaty O'Neill, 24, who has been playing against the robot for only three weeks. "Well, wait till they see this."
R4PC is the latest space-age robot created by Simplicity Tool Corporation of Portland, Ore., to help the U.S. Olympic table tennis team narrow its gap against international competition. O'Neill is the best player in the United States and a computer whiz.
A medal in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.
"We have beaten the best in the world, but we have not beatethem consistently. This robot can bring us three to four points closer to the international level," said O'Neill. "If you looked at the Olympic track and field trials, the difference between first and second in the 100 meters was -- what? -- one-tenth of a second. Those points could be the difference in earning a medal."
The United States is ranked 15th in the world in table tennis, and both of its male Olympians, O'Neill of McLean and Jim Butler, 22, of Iowa City, Iowa, are rated in the top 100.
But O'Neill, who has been playing for 14 years, wants to move into the upper echelon. In trying to do so, he has become one of the sport's top ambassadors, speaking at fund-raisers and appearing at instructional camps.
It's not for amateurs
He takes this game very seriously.
"Table tennis is not pingpong," said O'Neill. "Amateurs play pingpong for fun. We play table tennis competitively. A missed point could cost me a thousand dollars."
During the past two years, O'Neill has worked as consultant with Simplicity Tool, along with software designer Waquidi Falicoff, on R4PC. It wasn't until December, though, that the project became a reality when the U.S. Olympic Committee provided partial funding with an $18,000 research grant.
Simplicity Tool added matching funds, and R4PC -- no relation to the "Star Wars" R2D2 -- was born. It's a more complex version of the one invented and sold internationally by the company for the past 15 years. That model could only "throw" the ball from a fixed position on the table.
R4PC has wheels and is built on a 6-foot aluminum beam. It has a 6-foot suction hose, and looks like a vacuum cleaner/tennis-ball feeder built inside a batting cage.
It can provide different speeds and different spins on a ball. It can serve like 1988 gold medalist Nam Kyu Yoo of South Korea, or simulate drills and special shots used by the Chinese. It can place a ball anywhere on the table, and it recycles every ball that is hit.
The only thing it can't do is volley.
But get this: The robot is so sophisticated it can study the effect of altitude, temperature and barometric pressure on ball flight. Falicoff said the system is even capable of predicting the flight of a table tennis ball on Mars.
A substitute for travel
"It's the ideal training partner. It doesn't get mad. It doesn't get tired. I can see the day coming when we'll be able to program the sequence of great players, like what type of shots they take 70 to 80 percent of the time after a returned serve or off a backspin," said O'Neill. "One minor problem, though, is that we have to move the robot manually to different positions on the table."
"Because of limited financial resources, it is virtually impossible for the top U.S. players to travel to Sweden, Germany or China, where the best leagues occur," said Dan See- miller, U.S. Table Tennis Association president and five-time national champion. "This robot creates the opportunity to play the best -- it's like a surrogate champion."
O'Neill is a natural. His father, Patrick, played competitively, and introduced O'Neill to the game when he was 10. A year later, O'Neill was playing against the best men from Thailand at a tournament in Minnesota. Four years later, he was off to Sweden, beginning the first of seven straight annual trips to that country to play in club competition.
"Table tennis is taken very seriously in just about every country except this one," said O'Neill, who trains in a church hall. "A good player in Sweden or Belgium can make a half or 1 million dollars a year."
"I was an 11-year-old on a plane by myself with my name taped on the back of my shirt the first year I went to Sweden," said O'Neill. "I was just hoping the right people saw me when I got there. I doubt if the travel affected me adversely, but I think it helped me to become responsible."
And a better player.
O'Neill was the U.S. national junior champion from 1981 through 1985, and became a five-time U.S. national champion from 1985 till 1991. He has won 18 Olympic Festival gold medals.