Two years ago, drummer Jason Barnes was electrocuted and lost his right arm below the elbow. The tragedy could have ended his career, but instead, it led Gil Weinberg, founder of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, to turn him into a three-armed power-drumming cyborg.
Barnes, a student at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media, tried building his own prosthetic device after the accident, but it was inflexible–he could bang a drum by moving his elbow, but lacked the stick control provided by fingers and wrists. When Weinberg heard of Barnes’s condition, he came to the rescue by building a robotic prosthesis that can control two drumsticks, not just one. It not only lets amputee drummers return to their former skin-hitting abilities, but allows for a high degree of dexterity.
The first stick is controlled by bicep muscles using electromyography sensors, while the second plays in sync automatically. Installed with what Weinberg calls a “robotic brain,” it “listens” to Barnes, monitoring his timing and improvising. “The second drumstick has a mind of its own,” said Weinberg in a press release. “The drummer essentially becomes a cyborg. It’s interesting to see him playing and improvising with part of his arm that he doesn’t totally control.”
If he does want to be fully in control, Barnes can pull the automated stick away from the drum. But he can also choose to let it jam out on its own, drawing inspiration from its tech-enhanced rhythm. “I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now,” Barnes said of his new superhuman chops. “Speed is good. Faster is always better.”
It’s not Weinberg’s first foray into rhythmic robots: in 2012, he built a robotic percussionist and marimba player that use computer algorithms to improvise with human musicians. Weinberg’s invention, which is being expanded with help from a National Science Foundation grant, has potential beyond the field of music. In the future, it could help even non-amputee surgeons and astronauts handle time-sensitive, complex tasks.
Barnes will perform with his robot arm for the first time on March 22nd at the Robotic Musicianship Demonstration and Concert at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center.