Wearable robot arm lets drummers play with three hands

18 February 2016
By Tereza Pultarova
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A cyborg drummer uses a smart robotic arm to enhance his drumming skills

A cyborg drummer uses a smart robotic arm to enhance his drumming skills [Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology]

A wearable robotic limb that can be worn by drummers to allow them to play with three hands has been developed by American engineers.

The smart arm, developed by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, can be attached to the drummer’s shoulder. It responds to human gestures and reacts to music. For example, when the musician moves to play the high hat cymbal, the robot reacts by taking over the ride cymbal and when the drummer switches to the snare, the third arm shifts to the tom.

"If you augment humans with smart, wearable robotics, they could interact with their environment in a much more sophisticated manner," said Gil Weinberg, director of the Centre for Music Technology at Georgia Tech. "The third arm provides a much richer and more creative experience, allowing the human to play many drums simultaneously with virtuosity and sophistication that are not otherwise possible.”

The robotic arm detects the music that is played and improvises based on the beat and rhythm. If the musician changes the tempo, the robotic arm adjusts. It also constantly monitors its position in relation to the various parts of the drum kit and the position of the drummer’s arms.

Fitted with built-in accelerometers, the robot arm approaches each instrument carefully and always makes sure the stick is parallel to the playing surface. As it was programmed using human motion capture technology, the arm’s movements are perfectly natural and intuitive.

"If you have a robotic device that is part of your body, it's a completely different feeling from working alongside a regular robot," said Weinberg. "The machine learns how your body moves and can augment and complement your activity. It becomes a part of you."

The researchers were originally inspired to look into the possibility of augmenting humans with robotic limbs by a story of a drummer from Atlanta who lost his arm in an accident. A prototype robotic arm created by the researchers enabled the man to continue his passion. It also made him the fastest drummer in the world. Using such a robotic arm in otherwise healthy musicians is the next step designed to push the boundaries in music another step further.

In future, the engineers would like to make the robotic arm mind-controlled. They are already experimenting with an EEG headband to detect drummers’ brain activity. The goal is to allow the drummer to control the robotic arm by simply thinking about changing an instrument or tempo.

Weinberg believes augmenting humans with robotic limbs and other organs could be the way forward in many other professions, not just in music.

"Imagine if doctors could use a third arm to bring them tools, supplies or even participate in surgeries,” Weinberg said.

“Technicians could use an extra hand to help with repairs and experiments. Music is based on very timely, precise movements. It's the perfect medium to try this concept of human augmentation and a third arm."

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