The focus of prosthetics these days is, understandably, restoring ability, function and form to those who have lost a limb. But the same technology can be used to augment a healthy body, allowing a person to perform tasks outside of our body’s limitations.
Yes you heard me right: prosthetics can give you the power you need to finally become a super-villain.
This robotic arm was originally designed to enable a drummer who had lost an arm to play again.
In 2012, Jason Barnes was cleaning an exhaust duct on the roof a restaurant when he was electrocuted by 22,000 volts of electricity from several high voltage lines. He lost his right hand, and while he was able to continue drumming with a simple prosthetic drumstick he designed and built himself, it wasn’t very precise or easy to use. With this barrier, it seemed like his dream of becoming a professional drummer might not be possible.
Cue Gil Weinberg, professor of musical technology at Georgia Tech who built the robotic arm you see in this video to allow Jason to truly play again.
Weinberg, who had already put together a robotic percussionist and marimba player, built something more than an arm for Jason. The limb he designed can either follow the drummer’s instructions, or play along independently, creating its own music.
“Jason can pull the robotic stick away from the drum when he wants to be fully in control,” says Weinberg. “Or he can allow it to play on its own and be surprised and inspired by his own arm responding to his drumming.”
The headband you see on the user here is an electroencephalograph which is meant to enable him to control the mechanical limb — sadly that part isn’t functional yet. Instead, the arm is drumming along merrily with some awareness of what that guy is doing — it listens and tries to play along, to the best of its binary abilities.
“The robotic arm is smart for a few reasons. First, it knows what to play by listening to the music in the room. It improvises based on the beat and rhythm. For instance, if the musician plays slowly, the arm slows the tempo. If the drummer speeds up, it plays faster,” Georgia Tech explains.
“Another aspect of its intelligence is knowing where it’s located at all times, where the drums are, and the direction and proximity of the human arms. When the robot approaches an instrument, it uses built-in accelerometers to sense the distance and proximity. On-board motors make sure the stick is always parallel to the playing surface, allowing it to rise, lower or twist to ensure solid contact with the drum or cymbal. The arm moves naturally with intuitive gestures because it was programmed using human motion capture technology.”
The robot arm will respond to human gestures — if the drummer reaches for the snare, the robot will shift over to the ride cymbal. If the drummer then decides to play the instrument, the arm with shift to the high hat cymbal, and so on.
Well, it seems that in this field your choices of villain repertoire are a bit limited right now, unless you plan to enslave humanity with drumming. But a big shout out to all the guys and gals over at Georgia Tech for reminding us that a prosthesis — something we’re used to associate with injury, loss, and suffering — can be light-hearted, fun, and awesome; and for showing us that we’re quickly reaching a point in time where not our bodies, but our imagination, will be our only limiting factor.