Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg has worked on musical robots for years, but after drummer Jason Barnes asked him to create a prosthetic that would help him perform again, Weinberg began experimenting with new technology.
Six years ago Weinberg received an email from Atlanta Institute of Music instructor Eric Sanders, who introduced Weinberg to Barnes. Sanders and Barnes were searching for someone who had experience with musical robots, and, after viewing videos of Shimon, a musical robot Weinberg developed using algorithms, Barnes and Sanders knew they had found the right person.
Weinberg had only developed robots that were separate entities, meaning the machines were not attached to or embedded on human bodies. But after meeting Barnes, Weinberg began experimenting with new forms of human augmentation.
Barnes was burned in an electrical accident, and his right arm was amputated below the elbow. The drummer made a makeshift prosthetic.
But he felt that the prosthetic lacked proficiency, and he sought some kind of robotic control that would enhance his muscles, replicate movements his wrist used to make and produce more expressions.
Weinberg agreed to the challenge but encouraged Barnes to follow him one step further to incorporate two sticks instead of one.
While one stick would allow Barnes to replicate music, the second would allow him to improvise or use artificial intelligence.
“It’s called a stick with a mind of its own,” Weinberg said.
Barnes agreed, and Weinberg installed an application that enables a second stick to emerge as soon as Barnes lifts his arm.
Initially, Weinberg used EMG, or electromyography, which sends electric signals from Barnes’ muscles to the robotic arm. Depending on whether his muscle contracts or relaxes, Barnes can generate a hit from the stick and change how tightly or loosely the stick plays.
Yet the prosthetic was not able to provide more accuracy or replicate the finger-by-finger control that drummers use with both hands. Weinberg tried to achieve greater precision by using needles similar to acupuncture, but he didn’t know exactly where to place them until he used an ultrasound machine to trace the muscles.
“That was a eureka moment for us,” Weinberg said. “We noticed a direct correlation between where the muscle moved and the different fingers.”
As a result, Weinberg could just examine the ultrasound signals to determine which muscle correlated to which phantom finger as opposed to using needles, a process that Weinberg said was a bit invasive anyway.
Weinberg has multiple patents on the ultrasound technology, which he describes as revolutionary. He said, “All of the prosthetics in the market use EMG, but we created something that allows for more ambidextrous control, which can change the life of amputees in a way that is new and exciting.”
Each of the sticks on the prosthetic, Weinberg said, can play 20 hertz. With Barnes’ other arm, the stick can hit 40 hertz. Barnes also has the capability to play with one arm, which Weinberg calls “polyrhythm.” While one stick plays 20 hertz, another plays 18, creating different polyrhythms.
In addition to the sticks, Weinberg developed a system that allows Barnes to play the piano. Barnes can move his muscles as if he is moving fingers, and a signal then transfers from his brain to the muscles and the prosthetic to carry out the performance.
But Georgia Tech, where the prosthetic was developed, does not allow Barnes to travel with the prosthetic or own it. As a result, Weinberg started a Kickstarter campaign that aims to raise $70,000 to create the prosthetic and an additional $20,000 to create products from the music.
A large portion of the money, Weinberg said, will be used to create a prosthetic that Barnes can own and use to become the musician he always wanted to be.
Donors will receive tickets to Barnes’ shows, merchandise and downloadable music and videos from his performances.
“The arm has not only given me back my ability to play, but also made me more creative in the way that I play,” Barnes said. “It’s opened opportunities that I never thought were possible. So glad to have met Gil and his team, and I look forward to working with them much longer.”