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Man and Machine
A pingpong-playing robot helps Omron Corp. attract more than 100 press visits and amass 3.8 billion earned media impressions during the Japanese company's North American debut at the International Consumer Electronics Show. By Ben Barclay
Product Demo
Exhibitor: Omron Corp. Creative/Production: Exhibit Concepts Inc., Vandalia, OH, 800-324-5063, www.exhibitconcepts.com
Show: International Consumer Electronics Show, 2018
Budget: $750,000 – $999,000
• Attract 25 members of the media to the booth.
• Accrue 200 million earned media impressions.
• Lured 111 members of the media to the booth.
• Amassed 3.8 billion earned media impressions.
How does an international tech company with little brand recognition in the United States begin its quest toward becoming a household name while at the same time softening the image of artificial intelligence? With a pingpong-playing robot, of course. At least that was the key tactic in a multipronged strategy for Omron Corp.'s demonstration-packed exhibit at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Even though the Japan-based tech company's technologies are found in such commonplace objects as ATMs, traffic lights, blood pressure monitors, digital cameras, and more, many North American consumers are entirely unfamiliar with the multibillion-dollar brand. Omron wants to change that. It recently expanded U.S. operations with a new research and development facility in San Ramon, CA, and decided to couple the expansion with a debut at CES to increase brand awareness in North America, recruit talented engineers for its new base, and develop relationships with potential partners. The best way to accomplish that list of goals at the massive international event, Omron decided, was to generate some media buzz.

However, while CES provides an incredible opportunity for the unknown to become known, exhibiting there poses some fundamental challenges. "The hardest thing about marketing and exhibiting at CES is the large stage," says Keith Kersten, marketing group manager at Omron. It's easy for even the largest booths to get lost in the sea of 4,400 exhibitors spread across 2.7 million square feet and drowned out by the cacophony of lights, sounds, and eye-candy gadgetry all vying for the attention of more than 182,000 showgoers. In addition to the challenges shared by all exhibitors, Omron found its 50-by-50-foot island booth tucked away near the rear of the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall – not exactly center court at Wimbledon. Despite these challenges, Omron set aggressive goals of attracting 25 mass-media and industry-media outlets to its exhibit in hopes of generating 200 million earned media impressions at its CES debut in Las Vegas.

More Than Meets the Eye
To achieve these objectives, Omron's strategy was to provide a demonstration so captivating that it would serve as a tractor beam, compelling journalists and attendees to make the long journey to the company's booth. A demonstration with this sort of magnetism would require an international megastar, and Omron had only one ambassador of that caliber: Forpheus, the company's pingpong-playing robot, which had already been successfully showcased at a number of trade shows in Europe and Asia.

While Forpheus may be able to volley with the pingpong elite, it is no late iteration of Deep Blue seeking global domination of the table-tennis ranks. Rather, the robot is a tutor and a companion, more Autobot than Decepticon. And lest you're picturing some clunky, 1980s tin-can Johnny 5, Forpheus is a sleek, 10-foot-tall, silver, three-legged robot with a trio of arms descending from its core that converge to hold a pingpong paddle.

As impressive as Forpheus looks, though, it's the robot's capabilities that are truly remarkable. By collecting data 80 times per second through its 3-D cameras, Forpheus can track a traveling ball while its robotic arms adjust to return the volley. In its fourth generation, Forpheus can now verbally communicate with its human player, toss and serve a ball, and even react quick enough to defend a smash. And using AI, the robot is constantly learning from its mistakes. As a tutor, Forpheus gauges the ability levels of human players and adjusts its play to serve volleys that they are more likely to return. It even reads facial expressions and offers vocal encouragement when it senses an opponent's frustration.

Omron promotes its AI technologies as striving for harmony between humans and machines, and Forpheus demonstrates that softer side of AI, countering the more menacing characterizations that form the central plot of most Hollywood depictions. "Forpheus is far more than just a pingpong-playing robot," says Deron Jackson, chief technical officer of Omron Adept Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Omron. "He is the embodiment of Omron integrated technologies and an exciting illustration of how intelligent machines can help develop and support human potential."

But the company wanted to use the robot as a springboard, not a finishing line, for attendees to explore its vast breadth of technology. That would require numerous demonstrations happening simultaneously throughout the exhibit, both to hold visitors' attention and position Omron as an AI leader, rather than a pingpong-playing robotics company. "While we knew Forpheus would attract many visitors, we wanted to introduce our audience to Omron and the many solutions we offer," Kersten says. To this end, the company deployed a robotic entourage to accompany Forpheus to Las Vegas.

"We needed to develop a consistent look and communicate a story that tied together all of Omron's business segments within one booth."
Wanting to ensure that Forpheus and his robotic kith received a proper reception at their North American debut, Omron partnered with Exhibit Concepts Inc. to design and fabricate the booth. ECI knew its design had to spotlight Forpheus while also accommodating the additional array of demos and robots Omron wanted to include. "We needed to develop a consistent look and communicate a story that tied together all of Omron's business segments within one booth," says Stephanie Matlock, account executive at ECI. The creative team settled on a symmetrical, open-concept island containing four demonstration stages to achieve the right effect. "This project was much more than designing architecture – it was about activating the architecture as a means to tell Omron's story," Matlock says.

Ace Serve
On opening day, the expected crush of industry professionals and consumer technophiles descended on CES. As the tech-crazed hoards penetrated deep into the hall, they couldn't miss the commanding geometry of Omron's exhibit. Four thin aluminum pillars with a powder-coated white finish rose from each corner of the booth and were bridged by beams along the perimeter bearing the company's name. Masonite flooring with a high-gloss, white, rolled-vinyl finish and white tensioned-fabric ceiling canopies completed the island's structure, lending it the appearance of an unwalled cube. A broad, V-shaped tower occupied the center of the booth, helping clearly define each length of the footprint as a different demonstration platform. The ceiling canopies sloped from the outer walls downward to the tower, and wing walls attached to each pillar extended a few feet inward at 45-degree angles toward the tower as well.

Collapsing sight lines, with the aid of theatrical lighting, drew visitors' eyes to the technology displayed along that length of the island. "Our intent was to ensure high visibility of logos and digital content in a robust physical definition of the space," Matlock says. "The design visually bridges openings so that each 50-foot side feels like a full presentation experience with the center tower, ceilings, and floor elements working together to convey an idea of expansion."

Omron Corp.'s in-booth pingpong matches between attendees and its Forpheus robot drew slews of onlookers whose tweets and posts helped the company amass more than 3.8 billion social-media impressions at the 2018 International Consumer Electronic Show.
Forpheus' stage featured a custom canopy with swooping designs and a waist-high enclosure of clear acrylic panels visibly marking the robot as the star of the booth. About three times an hour, professional presenter Jennifer Wyman emceed demonstrations of Forpheus' tutoring skills. Beginning several minutes prior to each demo, three professional crowd gatherers solicited passersby with the promise of an amazing spectacle. Two minutes before the start, all 14 of the booth's LED video walls and monitors began a synchronized countdown, alerting visitors of the impending action. When the countdown finished, a light show centered on Forpheus launched the event, and a short video played on the screens emphasizing Omron's message about creating harmony between man and machine.

Following the video, Wyman began Forpheus' 10-minute live showcase while a video wall mounted on the central tower behind her augmented the presentation with graphics illustrating the robot's, ergo the company's, technologies. After introducing Forpheus as the "world's first certified robot table tennis tutor," Wyman explained that Forpheus was a fun example of how "Omron's many sensing, control, and AI innovations can be leveraged to solve specific challenges" – in this case, making someone a better pingpong player. An Omron employee joined Wyman onstage to play table tennis with Forpheus, showing how the robot uses the company's sensing technology to collaborate with players and improve their skill levels. Following rallies, Forpheus offered the player simple verbal encouragement and coaching. Onlookers were visibly enthralled, taking photos and videos and sharing them on social media.

"The media demonstrations were a fun way not only to showcase Omron's cutting-edge technology, but also to spread the message that AI is not something to be afraid of."

Near the end of each demonstration, Wyman introduced the crowd to the other elements in the exhibit and offered intrigued onlookers the opportunity to take a five-minute tour of the booth with any one of the three crowd gatherers, who also served as brand ambassadors. Attendees who toured the stand encountered an array of Omron's offerings using the same technologies in Forpheus to address different challenges. Working clockwise around the booth, visitors could test drive a driver-seat simulator that showed how AI could improve automotive safety with facial-recognition cameras that monitor head movement and eyeblink to detect drowsiness and alert drivers a full minute or two before they are conscious of their own weariness.

Along the next length of the exhibit, the company showcased its solutions for optimizing residential solar energy, using the stand itself as a model. In real time, 24 cameras outfitted with facial-recognition technology and mounted throughout the booth reported the number and gender of exhibit visitors. In practice, the system could be used to adjust the light level or temperature of a room based on the presence and preferences of its occupants. And in the final length of the booth, a pick-and-place machine used robotic arms with motion-sensing technology to grab packets of irregularly placed Ice Breakers mints from one rolling conveyor belt and put them onto an opposite-moving conveyor belt before another arm set them in a waiting light-duty mobile robot (LD), demonstrating how the company's technology can assist with mass production in factories. The LD, one of three in the exhibit, delivered the mints to a staffer who distributed them to guests.

A second LD, dubbed the résumé robot, roamed the booth in search of prospective employees. The mobile robot approached visitors, asked if they were interested in employment at Omron, and then aided those who were in submitting their contact information for post-show follow-up with a company representative. The third LD wandered the space offering visitors bottles of water. Other than just being cute 3-foot-tall droids, the LDs proved how Omron's line of robots can self-navigate dynamic environments by autonomously avoiding obstacles, including visitors, while performing a range of tasks.

Mass Media
Hoping to lure 25 members of the media to its exhibit, Omron Corp. ultimately netted 111 visits from bloggers, journalists, and other press representatives.
Finally, attendees were given a small token to help them remember their visit: a personalized pingpong ball. Guests could scan their badges at the company's laser engraver, which, in roughly 10 seconds, laser etched a recipient's name onto each ball, providing a personalized and branded pingpong keepsake. As a human element, several staffers were available throughout the exhibit to offer specific details about demonstrations, answer questions about Omron, and develop partnerships with attendees.

One last tactic ensured that Omron's brand would be pushed beyond the halls of CES. Select journalists, broadcasters, and celebrities were invited to test their pingpong prowess with Forpheus. Since Omron's key measure of success was media coverage, press and celebrity demonstrations were a priority. By the end of the show, more than 100 media demonstrations had been given to journalists from outlets such as CNN, Mashable, and Tech Crunch. "The media demonstrations were a fun way not only to showcase Omron's cutting-edge technology, but also to spread the message that AI is not something to be afraid of," said one Sizzle Awards judge. Additionally, five professional football players and two professional table tennis stars dropped in to play with Forpheus, helping drive earned media impressions. In fact, Tech Crunch's video tweet of its reporter playing with Forpheus racked up 40,200 views, 798 likes, and 425 retweets, illustrating the effectiveness of the VIP press treatment in spreading company awareness.

Match Point
From the opening serve, it was clear the Forpheus phenomenon was helping develop Omron's brand recognition. The pingpong demonstrations attracted so many onlookers that they often clogged the aisles. And the resulting pics, posts, and videos spread Omron's name far beyond the show floor. In total, the company reaped more than 3.8 billion earned media impressions, smashing its goal by 1,800 percent.

"Every first time at a convention should deliver results like these," quipped one judge. Meanwhile, brand ambassadors conducted 271 booth tours, and the company distributed more than 5,000 branded pingpong balls during the four-day show.

Perhaps most importantly, Omron's demo-packed booth garnered significant coverage from industry and mass-media outlets. In addition to the Tech Crunch tweet, CNN's coverage of the booth was one of the most watched CES news segments. Other mentions came from outlets such as Gizmodo, The Verge, and Bloomberg. Instead of the 25 media visits Omron had hoped for, it amassed 111 during CES, beating its goal by 344 percent.

Attracted by the table-tennis tutor's irresistible allure, the swarms of visitors provided Omron with center-court attention and allowed it the platform to demonstrate the breadth of its technologies. And there's no doubt that Forpheus and his robot pals helped Omron serve up an ace exhibit. E

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