Bionic Gloves Help Classical Musician Play Piano Again
Denrie Caila Perez posted on November 18, 2020 |
Exoskeleton tech serves to revive finger dexterity.
Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins uses bionic gloves to play the piano after not being able to play for two decades. (Images courtesy of Instagram/João Carlos Martins.)
Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins uses bionic gloves to play the piano after not being able to play for two decades. (Images courtesy of Instagram/João Carlos Martins.)

After more than 20 years, distinguished classical pianist João Carlos Martins has finally been reunited with his favorite Bach sonatas thanks to the help of bionic gloves developed by industrial designer Ubiratan Bizarro Costa.

The 80-year-old musician was forced to stop playing the piano professionally after a gruesome mugging in 1995 left him with severe nerve damage that rendered his right arm useless. Although Martins was able to switch to conducting in the early 2000s, he officially retired in March 2019 after 24 surgeries, the latest of which was performed on his left hand due to a degenerative disease.

Before the bionic gloves, Martins could play slowly with only his thumbs and, if it was not too painful, his index fingers. Costa, who believed the pianist’s retirement had come too early, took it upon to himself to design a special pair of bionic gloves that would help Martins regain his lost dexterity.

The gloves were made using exoskeleton technology commonly used for spinal injuries. They function by bumping Martins’ fingers upward after he presses down on the keys, allowing him play more fluidly. According to Costa, this process is inspired from Formula 1 motor racing technology. The gloves are also held together by a 3D-printed carbon fiber board. Costa shared that the first models were developed before he even met the pianist and were based primarily on images of Martins’ hands.

Martins recalls joking with the industrial designer when he first saw the gloves. “When he showed me the gloves, I joked that they were for boxing, not to play the piano,” he recalled.

Costa’s goal was to enable Martins to play at New York’s Carnegie Hall in celebration of the 60th anniversary of his first appearance at the venue.

The two worked on testing various prototypes over the course of the next few months. By December 2019, they arrived at the perfect fit. The final model cost only 500 Brazilian reals or approximately $125 to build. According to Martins, he now wears the gloves even to bed. Over the last 50 years, the pianist has received over 100 gadgets for his hands—however, they proved ineffective in the long run.

The “extender gloves,” as dubbed by Costa, allow Martins to tune the gloves as needed. The pianist can easily rearrange the gloves’ internal pads to play at faster or slower tempos. However, muscle atrophy often still gets in the way.

“I might not recover the speed of the past. I don’t know what result I will get. I’m starting over as though I were an eight-year-old learning,” said the pianist. “To be able to use all ten fingers again more than 20 years later is a miracle for me at the age of 80.”

Martins is currently practicing from morning to evening until he can once again interpret a Bach concert to perfection. Costa has recently begun exporting the extender gloves to Europe.

Watch the video of renowned Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins playing the piano after two decades using the bionic extender gloves in this Instagram post.

For more news and stories, check out how 3D printing a bionic eye could help improve vision for the blind here.

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