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Why this robotic hand playing Jingle Bells on the piano is a big deal

In a video posted just before Christmas, scientists at Cambridge University showed off a 3D-printed hand that can play simple music on the piano.

The goal of the project was to demonstrate the complexity of the movement the human hand is capable of, and show how difficult it is for a mechanical version to replicate it.

Their research ultimately intends to improve the manufacturing process and design of prosthetics.

There have been a number of recent attempts to create robots with human-like hands, including one prototype that can grab and squash a beer in mid-air. But this hand is a bit different from past technologies.

Aside from being able to deliver a heartfelt rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’, researchers used 3D printing to replicate the bones and ligaments of a human hand. They integrated polymers that range from soft to hard in order to mimic the different densities present in our fingers.

The fingers are unable to move independently and the functioning is only based on passive movements from the wrist down.

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“We can use passivity to achieve a wide range of movement in robots: walking, swimming or flying, for example,” explained Josie Hughes, one of the study’s authors from the Department of Engineering of the University of Cambridge.

“Smart mechanical design enables us to achieve the maximum range of movement with minimal control costs: we wanted to see just how much movement we could get with mechanics alone.”

Despite its limited range of movements, the robot is able to perform a number of short musical phrases with clipped (staccato) or smooth (legato) notes, achieved only by the movement of the wrist.

“It’s just the basics at this point, but even with this single movement, we can still get quite complex and nuanced behaviour,” said Hughes.

Their paper was published in the academic journal Science Robotics last week.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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