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Man plays piano with a bionic hand better than Skywalker slays with a lightsaber

Are you one of those folks, stuck in the past, who thinks that having no hands means that you’re not eligible for a career as a pianist? Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are here to send your judgmental ass back to the 20th century where you belong! They have developed a smart new prosthesis, driven by ultrasound, which allows amputees to tinkle the ivories with a bionic hand equipped with impressively agile prosthetic fingers. It was recently used by a musician who lost part of his right arm to play the piano for the first time since his accident five years ago.

“In a nutshell, our technology allows amputees to gain full control of their prosthetic hand in a dexterous and intuitive manner, including finger-by-finger control,” Gil Weinberg, the Georgia Tech College of Design professor who leads the project, told Digital Trends. “The accuracy and sensitivity of our novel ultrasonic sensor and machine learning algorithms allow amputees to perform sophisticated tasks such as playing the piano. For the first time, amputees can now control fine motor skills in their prosthetic hands in a manner that is not possible with current EMG technology.”

As you can see from the video below, the technology was loosely inspired by Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand as received following his battle with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. In this case, however, no movie-style illusions were needed to pull off the effect, however.

Georgia Tech's Luke Skywalker Hand

While amputees don’t have their physical hands, their nerves still communicate with their forearm muscles, which are mapped to operate their “phantom fingers” as if they still existed. When individuals attempt to move these phantom fingers, it is possible to sense the muscles that represent said movements using ultrasound. “Unlike myoelectric arms that use EMG to sense electric activity in the muscles, we actually look at the trajectory and speed of the muscle movements, which allows for finger-by-finger control,” Weinberg continued. “Such dexterous control can be used for intuitive fine motor skills gestures for a wide variety of operations — from bathing, grooming and feeding to the highly expressive activity of piano playing.”

Next, he says the team is working hard to miniaturize and improve power consumption for the ultrasound sensor so that it could become more easily wearable and possibly commercialized. Heck, if they work at lightspeed, they might even be able to work out some kind of tie-in to coincide with the next Star Wars movie.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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