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Custom prosthetic arm turns student into a bionic drummer


March 7, 2014

Jason Barnes and Professor Gil Weinberg demonstrate the robotic prosthesis

Jason Barnes and Professor Gil Weinberg demonstrate the robotic prosthesis

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In 2012, Jason Barnes lost the lower part of his right arm after being electrocuted. Though he could have pursued his dream of becoming a professional drummer using only his remaining limb (like Def Leppard's Rick Allen, for example), he decided to build his own stick-wielding prosthesis. The attachment certainly allowed him to make some noise, but it wasn't flexible enough to give the speed or bounce control he was looking for. Now, thanks to the work of Georgia Tech's Professor Gil Weinberg, Barnes is preparing for a gig later this month where a novel robot drumming prosthetic arm will help him pound out precision rhythms with a live band.

According to Promised Hand, Barnes received a jolt of more than 22,000-volts while cleaning out a restaurant exhaust duct on January 9, 2012. Doctors at the time said he was lucky to be alive, though he did have to endure five weeks of pain in the burn center of the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, followed by numerous operations on his right arm, including skin grafts and ultimately amputation.

After recovering from his ordeal, the now Atlanta Institute of Music and Media student modified a prosthetic arm with a spring-loaded drum stick that allowed him to continue playing. But, as you can see at the end of this video, it wasn't ideal. Professor Weinberg, the founding director of the Center for Music Technology, which has already created a number of instrument-playing robots capable of improvising to music in real-time, including a marimba player called Shimon and the Haile percussionist, then got involved.

Weinberg initially developed a single-stick device that sensed the musician's biceps via EMG (electromyography), using player-controlled motors for supple wrist-like action. He then added an autonomous second stick to the setup that's capable of responding to live music with improvised, complementary rhythms.

"The drummer essentially becomes a cyborg," said Weinberg. "It's interesting to see him playing and improvising with part of his arm that he doesn’t totally control."

Barnes is able to pull back from the drum to play with just one stick, or can bring the second stick into the groove for some pretty impressive, super-fast paradiddling action. The brain inside the device can also be programmed to play a different rhythm with each stick.

"I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now," quipped Barnes. "Speed is good. Faster is always better."

The research project continues, with Weinberg looking into getting the system to predict when the player intends to hit the drum and activate the stick to allow for better synchronization between the prosthetic and human playing arms. Barnes, meanwhile, is due to make his first public performance on March 22 at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center as part of the Atlanta Science Festival.

The video below shows the prosthesis, and Barnes, in action.

Source: Georgia Tech

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag. All articles by Paul Ridden
1 Comment

Good wishes to him! Keeping faith with a dream after an accident like that is wonderful. May his career kick ass for many years!

The Skud
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