From prosthetic limbs powered by thought, to a paperclip-sized brain implant that could remotely control exoskeletons, there seems to have been a huge uptick lately in technologies that augment humans with futuristic technology. The latest addition to this growing collection comes from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who have built a wearable robotic limb that allows a drummer to play with three arms.
This 0.6-meter-long (two-foot) arm is able to listen to the beat and rhythm of the percussion of its human partner and improvise its own in-time drumming, speeding up or slowing down as necessary. Sitting on one side of the wearer, it’s able to work out where each individual drum is located based on built-in accelerometers, which also make sure that the drumstick is always aligned parallel to the drum surfaces.
Capable of pivoting, turning, and twisting in hundreds of different ways, it can move to different parts of the drum kit at any point during the human-robot performance. The researchers spent time recording the action of drummers using motion capture technology before programming the robot arm to behave in a similarly natural, intuitive way.
“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 Gil Weinberg, a professor at Georgia Tech and the overseer of the project, said in a statement. “The machine learns how your body moves and can augment and complement your activity.”
Its ability to improvise on the fly stems from a series of complex computer algorithms that the team has spent several years developing. Remarkably, the robot can work out what drum types would best accompany the music that the person is playing. For example, when it hears the high hat cymbal being used, it moves to the ride cymbal.
This “smart” arm developed out of a previous project masterminded by the same research team, wherein they gave a musician who lost his right arm below the elbow a drumming prosthetic limb. It holds two sticks, one that is manipulated by the electrical signals coming from the man’s muscles, and one that listens to the music being played and reacts by drumming independently.
Both projects essentially make the drummers cyborg musicians. Although this concept in itself is pretty cool, Weinberg’s ultimate aim is to push the limits of what humans can do using robotic implementations. “The idea is that machines are not separate from humans, but are becoming a part of humans,” he said in a video by Georgia Tech.
“Imagine if doctors could use a third arm to bring them tools, supplies or even participate in surgeries. Technicians could use an extra hand to help with repairs and experiments,” he added.
This drumming robot may be the perfect complement to a somewhat similar project funded by the U.S. military’s technology wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA): They’re currently trying to get robots to understand and play jazz music.