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Friday, 20 June 2008 19:58

Linux powered robot can play clarinet

The University of New South Wales, in conjunction with NICTA, has won first place in an international technology competition. With a Linux powered robot that can play the clarinet. The team beat off stiff competition from a Dutch guitar playing robot and Finnish robot pianist to win the Artemis Orchestra competition.

Taking place in Athens, Greece, the Artemis Orchestra competition challenges contestants from higher education establishments and universities to build robotic devices that play real musical instruments. More to the point, it challenges them to play well.

The NICTA/UNSW Linux powered robot was the culmination of eight months effort by the winning team. It will now be used in order to help students at the UNSW School of Physics' Acoustics Lab to better understand human musician gesturing.

It won not only thanks to the complexity of the mouthpiece design, but also because it actually played competently. Perhaps not to professional human musician standards, and more of that later, but better than any robot I've ever heard.

Superficially it all looks rather simplistic, just a bunch of brass plungers with rubber feet that control the keys as you might expect.

However, look closer and you will realise that there is much more to this robotic prodigy than that. For a start, it is actually a complete embedded computer system that is connected to those plungers, actuators to be precise, courtesy of some complex and custom built electronics.
At the heart of all of this is an Arm processor running an Open Embedded Linux distro, responsible for processing the music and reacting to the series of events that triggers. A second, non-Linux, CPU powers the micro-controller.

Dr John Judge, head of the project from NICTA, insists that all the sensitive and essential musical timing is being done on the Linux side though. He told Computerworld "we're actually sending a stream of midi-events to the micro-controller and it just reacts to each event as a node-on/node-off type thing."

Well, that's that all cleared up then.

However, when the obvious question of whether it is better than a human being from a purely musical perspective is asked, the equally obvious answer if forthcoming. No.

"Its not as good as a human" Judge admits "there are tricky things a human can do with a clarinet that it cant do, yet." What it can do, and indeed did during the Artemis Orchestra competition, was play a rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee as well as Ravel's Bolero.

Truth be told, I can play neither on the clarinet nor any other musical instrument for that matter. I am a dab hand with Guitar Hero, but I doubt I would win any awards for that.

NICTA, a national organisation with labs in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, was established in 2002 with a simple objective: to become a world-class research institute and centre of excellence as far as science and innovation are concerned.

With the debut of this Linux powered musical robot, I think you can safely say it is living the dream...


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