Watch a Fleshy Robot Pianist That Could Perform at Your Holiday Party

Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart changed the piano game forever. But the next keyboard revolution might come from the wiggly hands of a soft robot.

Josie Hughes and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge 3D-printed a rubbery robot hand capable of playing “Jingle Bells” on the piano and published their results this month in the journal Science Robotics. Unlike many of its counterparts, this robot’s hand isn’t able to individually move each finger. But Hughes tells Inverse that a simple flick of the wrist is all it needed to become a holiday jingle virtuoso.

“By varying the wrist movements and how we interact with the piano we can vary how the style and playing of the hand,” she explained in an email. “This shows how the mechanics and use of soft ligaments and hard bone structures enable the hand to perform really complex actions such as piano playing.”

The hand has both squish and stiff qualities, just like a human hand. Its bones are made of hard plastic and softer, rubber-like plastic is used for the ligaments. Hughes described this as a “low-tech” approach to solve complex problems in robotics and prosthetics.

A video of 3-D-printing the hand. The skeleton hand is entirely 3-D printed.

This combination allows it to hammer down on keys for a loud song or gently press down on notes for a peaceful melody. In each case, it’s the wrist doing all of the heavy liftings and the appendage passively dancing across the keyboard without the need of individual movers.

Only having to move its wrist makes the hand energy-efficient and capable of nuanced human movements. It was able to pull off “thumb abduction,” meaning it played a key with its thumb and played another by crossing its index finger over it. Rigid robot fingers can play keys more accurately, but couldn’t achieve this level of finesse. Hughes to try and implement these promising results outside of the music world.

robot hand playing the piano
What is a robot pianist today, could help doctors identify tumors in years to come.

“We can use such hand structures to develop robotics which can perform medical palpation, where doctors press on their patients to explore and detect for tumors,” she said. “In this role, doctors are using the mechanics of the hand to perform some ‘processing’ of the environment.”

Hughes’ research has the potential to benefit the medical and prosthetics fields. But she said her need needs to improve the durability and quality of the materials they used to create the hand before that becomes a reality.

This robotic pianist could one day help doctors identify tumors, but for now, we’ll have to settle with it playing tunes at the office holiday party.

Media via Josie Hughes