Meet the world’s first cyborg drummer

Bionic limbs, robots and other technological wonders on display at The International GeekPicNic festival.

Cyborg drummer Jason Barnes (photo credit: PR)
Cyborg drummer Jason Barnes
(photo credit: PR)
GeekPicNic, a new international technology festival, will take place at Jerusalem’s Sacher Park April 25 to April 27. The festival, which was inaugurated a couple of years ago in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and is coming to Israel for the first time is a futuristic feast for the entire family – robots, virtual reality, stunning shows and unimaginable wonders of technology. Yet, listening to the story of cyborg drummer Jason Barnes of Atlanta, Georgia, who will participate in the festival, one realizes it is still all about us.
In January 2012, at the age of 22, Barnes was electrocuted in a workplace accident and as a result lost his right arm. By this time he had already played drums for seven years.
“I was playing in several bands and this was what I planned to do with my life – to play music,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Atlanta. “Meanwhile, I was working some normal job and was in the process of becoming a student. I already had an interview with my school [lined up] when I lost my arm.”
Unwilling to give up on his dreams, Barnes, working together with Israel-born, US-based Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg, developed a wearable robot in 2013.
He was accepted into the Atlanta Institute of Music, where he studied drums and percussion.
“It [the robot] did work well... but it did not work exactly as I wanted it to. The robotic arm works like this: there are sensors which touch the muscles in my... arm, they pick up and send these signals to the computer and the computer is programmed to act accordingly. So essentially I’m just using the muscles that controlled my hand before I lost it. The prosthesis which I developed does not use electronics at all, it just works from my elbow.”
Barnes goes on: “I was thinking of a robotic arm, but I did not have money [or the] knowledge [necessary to develop] this type of technology until I met Gil Weinberg.
My teacher, Eric Sanders of the Atlanta Institute of Music, introduced me to him. Weinberg was extremely interested and for him this was a new challenge. He had built a musical robot [before, but the idea of] building a musical prosthesis was somewhat new to him. It took him about nine months to complete it.
He built some three prototypes before creating the final product – I used to come and try it – and we decided [together] what needed to be changed and improved.”
Barnes is the only musician in the world with a robotic arm.
“I am extremely proud to be the only cyborg musician in the world.
The technology is simply great and shows how far we humans have reached.”
And the robotic limb has not held him back – in fact, he says, he’s become a better drummer.
“But,” he says, “this is not because of the technology, which indeed is great. Before I lost my arm I did not have enough drive and inspiration, so when I lost my arm it pushed me a bit harder to get where I am now.
It’s not about technology, it’s about inspiration. Something horrible happened to me, but it gave me inspiration to do something great with my life.”
This is not the first time Barnes, together with Weinberg’s music robot, named Shimon, will be performing at GeekPicNic.
“I already appeared in Saint Petersburg and Moscow,” he says.
“This is a great festival. I liked the people so when they invited me to come to Israel I said yes!” Nowadays, in addition to performing music internationally and studying electronic music production, Barnes also works a DJ, acts in commercials and also does some modeling.
“These all are my passions,” he says with a smile, adding, “My entire idea now is to show people that with enough determination to not give up one can overcome it all. I am giving people hope – life is not over just because something horrible happened to you. There always is a way to get past it and do what you want.”
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