Drummer Jason Barnes was electrocuted two years ago, which resulted in the amputation of his right arm below the elbow. To most, this would be the end of any dreams of drumming; but thanks to a robotic prosthetic he has achieved his lifelong goal with superhuman ability.
Initially making his own makeshift device to be able to still drum, Barnes soon partnered with professor Gil Weinberg of Georgia Institute of Technology, somebody well known in the area for building a band of robotic musicians. The result of this partnership is what is known as the ‘robotic drumming prosthesis.’
The drummer essentially becomes a cyborg.
So how does it work? The prosthetic consists of two drumsticks: one which is controlled by physical human movement and a process called electromyography to read his upper arm muscles. When Barnes tenses his muscles, a signal is sent to the small motor that holds the drumsticks.
The second drumstick is not directly controlled by Barnes, rather it listens to the music being played and improvises. Best put in a comment by Professor Weinberg, “the second drumstick has a mind of its own. 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.”
Of course, as is something you may have guessed from the headline, this robotic setup has given Barnes a slight advantage over normal human drummers. Using two sticks at once gives him a particular edge in key areas such as complex jazz beats. A chip embedded into the system allows the second stick to hear the music being played, and add a complimentary improvisation.
Beyond this, the synchronicity between robot and human found here has plenty of future uses. One example that Weinberg makes is using the anticipation algorithms in space to help astronauts complete complex tasks in synchronisation with robots.
But for right now, you can’t help but smile in fascination at the unlocking potential of helping someone achieve a dream taken away from them. “I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now,” Barnes said. “Speed is good. Faster is always better.”