Robotic device turns drummer into three-armed cyborg

Jason Barnes is using a robotic drumming device invented by Professor Gil Weinberg. (Courtesy Georgia Tech)

WASHINGTON — A robotic drumming prothesis is offering new hope – and improved skills – to musicians without use of both arms.

Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg has created a robotic device that attaches to the arm of Jason Barnes, a drummer who suffered an electric shock two years ago and lost his right arm below the elbow.

Barnes had invented his own rudimentary device, which allowed him to bang the drums by moving his arm up and down, but didn’t give him the nuanced control drummers need.

Weinberg, the founding director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, took the prosthetic to a higher level.

Weinberg’s device powers two sticks – one that Barnes controls, and another that “listens” to what’s being played, and plays along.

“It’s a robotic entity that actually has a mind of its own, and takes some signals from you, but also improvises and brings some of its own musical character,” says Weinberg.

While Barnes holds a standard stick in his left hand, the robotic device attached to his right elbow holds two parallel sticks.

“One has a chip and a computer that analyzes the music, analyzes music from other musicians, analyzes bio-signals from him, and acceleration from his arm and then ornaments and enhances and creates back and forth interactions with Jason,” says Weinberg.

How does the robot know what to play?

Weinberg says the embedded chip can control the speed of the drumsticks, or be programmed to play two sticks at a different rhythm.

In most cases, Weinberg says, the drummer and the robotic device are in sync.

“The stick, or the brain of the second stick, is looking at musical elements that he controls,” says Weinberg.

“There’s a lot of freedom for the stick to do different things. The hope is Jason will respond to, be sometimes surprised by (it), maybe even be inspired to play different music,” says Weinberg.

This is not Weinberg’s first experimentation with musical robots – he’s built a robotic percussionist and marimba player.

“Usually all of my robots were separate entities,” says Weinberg. “This is the first time the robot is part of your body.”

Weinberg predicts that the device could eventually assist surgeons or astronauts performing complex tasks. Still, don’t expect to be able to purchase similar devices any time soon.

“I think we still far from that,” says Weinberg. “We still have some issues – it’s a little heavy.”

Currently, Weinberg’s device is teamed with a desktop computer, through a single cable connected to his device.

Weinberg expects to improve on Jason’s current prosthesis, using a National Science Foundation grant.

“In this next step, we hope to not only get information from his muscles, but also from his brain,” says Weinberg. “We’ll do some EEG work, and try to anticipate what he wants to play based on signals from the brain.”

See how the robotic drumming device works:

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