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Robotic Arm Turns Musician into Cyborg Drummer

Mar 07, 2014 11:17 PM EST
Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg has built a robotic prosthesis that not only restores much of Barnes' musical ability, but basically gives him a third arm.
(Photo : Rob Felt/Georgia Tech, Flickr)

A robotic drumming prosthesis  created for drummer, Jason Barnes,  essentially transforms him into a drumming cyborg.

Built by professor Gil Weinberg, of the Georgia Tech Lab, the robot has a motor which powers two drumsticks, and can be attached to humans. The first stick is controlled by the musicians' arms and electronically uses electromyography muscle sensors (EMG). The second stick basically "listens" to the tune being played and improvises.

The prosthesis was created for Barnes, who lost his right arm below the elbow, after being electrocuted. The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media student created his own prosthetic device shortly after the accident, however, it wasn't very malleable. He could perform simple tasks like banging drums by moving his elbow up and down, but could not regulate the speed or bounce of the drumsticks.

The new prosthetic responds to Barnes' bicep muscles.

"Now I can flex and send signals to a computer that tightens or loosens the stick and controls the rebound," said Barnes.

Weinberg then added a second stick which responds to the first stick's beat. Since an attached chip can control the speed of the drumsticks, the prosthesis can be encoded to play the sticks at a different rhythm or move the sticks faster than humanly possible.

"Music is very time sensitive. You can hear the difference between two strokes, even if they are a few milliseconds apart," said Weinberg. "If we are able to use machine learning from Jason's muscles (and in future steps, from his brain activity) to determine when he intends to drum and have the stick hit at that moment, both arms can be synchronized."'

Weinberg has already created a robotic percussionist and marimba player that use computer algorithms to improvise with performers, and plans on using a National Science Foundation grant to expand the technology.

Robotic synchronization technology has the possibility of being used in the future by fully functional and able humans, to control an inserted third arm during time-sensitive processes. For example, astronauts or surgeons could efficiently execute critical and complex physical tasks in harmony with a robotic device.

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