Ulf Hoffmann's garage ping pong robot became a small YouTube sensation but turned out to be an elaborate fake shortly thereafter. Two weeks later, it appears the builder himself isn't real either.
About two weeks ago, a video of table tennis pro Timo Boll playing against an industrial robot went viral. The commercial quickly turned out to be staged: The robot did not react to Boll's blows in real time, it only performed pre-programmed movements.
In the wake of this professional campaign a similar video cropped up in several tech blogs: The Ulf Hoffmann Tischtennis Roboter (UHTTR-1), built in his spare time by Ulf Hoffmann, a mechanic from the town of Rodgau in Hesse. In blog entries dating back several months, Hoffman describes how he himself, his friends Bernhard and Jürgen, and his son Michael worked on the robot. It started with a sketch, then blueprints and first milled parts, emerging as a 3 minute video of a working machine. His Wordpress blog looks like every other maker's, rough and ready with blurry workbench pictures and a mention of the family's summer holiday.
Hoffmann's video shows a robot arm running on a track, perfectly capable of playing a medium speed ping pong game against a human being. This recording in a garage is nowhere near as polished as the Timo Boll ad. Instead it looks authentic, at least at first sight.
A few hours later the comments below the video filled with claims calling it a fake: Neither the movement of its cable, the sound of the servos or the robot's shadow seem to be spot on realistic.
Several blogs who earlier praised the video revised their articles and headlines. Hardware hacking mothership Hack a Day promised to check back with Hoffmann. Their message will likely go unheeded, as not only the robot is a fake: Ulf Hoffman does not exist either. The video, himself, the blog, his and his friends' Facebook profile, everything is bogus.
Not just the robot is a fake
The men behind the fake are Tobias Becker and Steffen Tron of the post-production outfit Tobi & Tron in Frankfurt/Main. Their team usually works on special effects and animations for commercials. Ulf Hoffmann and his robot were not created for a client, but rather for the studio itself. Planning to start an agency for viral campaigns this year, Becker and Tron made up Hoffmann as an experiment on how far they could go.
A campaign cannot rely on a single YouTube video, however funny or fascinating, so Becker and Tron also made up Ulf Hoffmann's backstory. The images and videos were recorded in Becker's parents' garage. "Ulf" regularly updated the status of his project on his blog and Facebook, reporting success and failures, like in August 2013: "Unfortunately, Bernhard lost his job and will not be able to help us with the project for some time."
In the original footage, animator Steffen Tron was standing on the opposite site of the ping pong table, returning the ball. On the computer, he erased his image and replaced it with the animation of the robot. The resulting flaws may not visible to a casual viewer, but are no match for an armada of nerds checking the video frame by frame. The experts were also right about the unreal servo noise: It's the sound of a Märklin model train engine from Becker's dad's collection, turned by hand.
"A bigger budget and more time could have convinced viewers", Tobias Becker says. A real campaign would have Ulf Hoffmann go into greater detail in his blog posts, describing real world components. To Becker, for a perfect illusion something needs to be feasible as well as meeting a desire for it to be real, similar to the commercial for the hoverboard from "Back to the Future II" which hit the web a few days earlier. Becker would have loved to do this video as well: "It should never be 100 percent certain that something is not possible. There always needs to be an uncertainty between 'This does not exist' and 'Who would go to such lengths for just a video?'"
Ulf's early demise
Ulf Hoffmann's virtual life was planned to last longer. The video of the finished ping pong robot was scheduled to go live only this summer, after two more intermediate stages of the imaginary construction. The announcement of the Timo Boll ad in February made Becker and Tron change their minds to try and divert some online attention to their project earlier.
They never planned to resolve the question of Ulf Hoffmann's existence or why he evidently did pretend to have build a robot. The campaign was just a means to convince future agency customers and would have remained a mystery to the public. Their future made-up characters will certainly not be friends with the agency on Facebook as "Hoffmann" was, a simple but definite clue.
Tobi & Tron will debut their next viral in April, aiming for more than a million views on YouTube. Of course, no one will know it was them.
PS: We almost fell for Ulf Hoffmann ourselves. This article started with the intention of inviting the maker and his robot to Maker Faire Hannover.
c't Hacks is a German language quarterly about all things DIY, hacking and making. Our big sister is c't magazin, Germany's most subscribed IT magazine, published since 1983. We also host the only German Maker Faire.