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A Robot Music Instructor

A clever flute-playing robot can teach beginners and play in a band.

One of the more whimsical robots presented at BioRob 2008 in Arizona last week, was the latest version of the Waseda Flutist Robot, a robot musician first created in the 1990s. Jorge Solis, a researcher at Waseda University, in Japan, has been working on the robot since 2003, and he and other researchers recently made some important improvements, including adding more than 40 degrees of freedom to its body to make its flute playing more lifelike, and giving it the ability to recognize and interact with other human players. It’s given several performances already.

The video above shows the robot offering an impressive rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee. Its “lungs” consist of a bellow that moves air in and out, and its “tongue” can block air in two places to transition between notes. Its “vocal cords” are a vibrato device that can change vibrations according to the air flow, and it even has elastic “lips” that can control its airstream, changing in width, thickness, and angle as it plays.

But the robot is more than just a musical gimmick: it’s being used at Waseda to study robot-human interaction. Klaus Petersen, a PhD student at the university, has developed software to allow the robot’s two CCD cameras to track and map a human musician’s hands as they play, to help the robot better play along. Based on the human player’s gestures, the robot modifies its playing, such as its speed, to match.

At BioRob 2008, Solis also presented work showing that the robot can successfully teach human beginners. “The robot is able to evaluate the performance of flutist beginners, as well as provide feedback to the student, in order to improve the performance,” he told me.

It’s a challenge to get human musicians to accept a robot player, especially since it takes time to set it up. But Petersensuggests that bands or orchestras made up of deft robotic players could provide entertainment. Petersen, who plays the saxophone himself, says that the robot may even eventually play with his own Berlin-based band. I can’t wait to hear their first single.

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