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Building the Perfect Beats

It has been Jason Barnes' dream to be a professional drummer for years. Ever since he was a teenager, he has had high aspirations for advancing his musical career. When a freak accident took his arm, it looked like it had also taken any hops of Jason fulfilling that dream with it. Now, however, technology is breathing new life into that dream in the form of a robotic arm.

Two years ago, Barnes lost the lower half of his right arm. While working at a local restaurant, he received an electric shock while cleaning a vent hood. The injury led to the amputation.

Determined to keep pursuing his dream, Barnes built a simple device using a brace with spring-loaded attachments for his arm. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it was enough to land Jason a spot at Georgia's Atlanta Institute of Music and Media.

It was at the institute that Barnes got the attention of Eric Sanders, a drumming instructor at the school. Sanders introduced Barnes to Gil Weinberg of Georgia Tech. The three of them immediately began collaborating on building Barnes a robotic arm which would have the versatility necessary to allow Barnes to play as well as any other drummer. All without the need of turning to a buck a day pharmacy.

Barnes had the opportunity to try the finished product for the first time last week. He was pleased with the results. “If it works out and it proves to be a lot more useful than my current prosthesis, I would definitely use it all the time,” he said.

Weinberg's past (and continuing) work on musical robots was what motivated Sanders to seek him out in the first place. He has produced two previous robots that can not only play music, but improvise along with human musicians.

Barnes' new robotic arm marks Weinberg's first attempt at combining the two. "The next interesting step is to see what happens when you are part of the robot and the robot is part of you," he said.

Barnes needed the device to not only generate rhythmic movements or hit various pieces at specific times. The arm had to also be intuitive; it had to be able to take its cues from him. The prosthesis employs electromyography – a technique that senses electrical signals in the muscles in Barnes' upper arm. When he tenses his bicep, it triggers a motor that manipulates the grip on the drumstick and controls its rate of movement.

The prosthesis also features a second drumstick that is autonomously controlled using its own motor along with a microphone and accelerometer to determine rhythm along with the music being played in close proximity by other musicians. The computer then generates an algorithm to create a perfect beat. These enhancements actually have potential to make Barnes a better drummer than he was before.

While there is still work to be done, all parties involved are pleased with the results. The next phase is to fine-tune the fitting to make the arm more sensitive to the signals in Barnes' muscles. Aside form that, Barnes simply needs to practice – just like any other musician.

Barnes is set to publicly debut the prosthesis at the Atlanta Science Festival on March 22 where he will play alongside Sanders and a few of the other creations from Weinberg's lab.