The world's first rigger, patching around the spinal cord, and a 3d printed violin.

12 March 2015

In the tabletop RPG Shadowrun there is a character template that players either love or hate: The Rigger, characters who jack directly into vehicles or drones to pilot them as if they were their own bodies. As they are described, a rigger feels the engine of a vehicle as if it was their own pulse and respiration, sensors in a plane's aerodynamic surfaces replace the proprioceptive senses of their limbs, and sensor systems take the place of the senses of sight, sound, hearting, and taste. For all intents and purposes the rigger is the vehicle, android (let me tell you, anthroform drones don't get a whole lot of love in Shadowrun), or drone while they're jacked in. At the Future of War conference held in late February Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced that one Jan Scheuermann, who is a quadraplegic successfully piloted an F-35 Lightning flight simulator through implants in her motor cortex. DARPA recruited her because she is already a test subject at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where in 2012 she used that cortical interface to successfully manipulate a robotic arm under laboratory conditions. DARPA engineers developed an interface that intermediates the implants inside Scheuermann's skull and the flight simulator and, rather than using a joystick and user control surfaces she successfully piloted the virtual fighter plane as if it was her own body without the assistance of any other sort of vehicular user interface, or even training as a pilot.

Think about that for a minute.

In other DNI news clinical tests of Neurobridge, a cortical implant for quadraplegics which routes around permanent spinal cord injuries are showing great promise. At the Wexner Medical Center of Ohio State University 23 year old Ian Burkhart, paralyzed from the neck down due to a diving accident is the first test subject to use Neurobridge to move his hand in a laboratory setting. The downstream side of Neurobridge was connected to the muscles of his right forearm and thus he was able to move his hand of his own volition. Neurobridge is somewhat tricky as DNI goes because the signal processor that interprets activity in the motor cortex emits data which then has to be re-processed into a format that muscles can use as control signals. It seems a bit roundabout to me, but it's certainly worth taking as given that there is probably a good engineering reason for this design. The motor interface of Neurobridge is a plastic sleeve wrapped around the limb and does not appear to use an invasive electrode network. The upstream side of Neurobridge is as invasive as it gets, it's patched directly into the brain. The tricky bit is figuring out which signals and which electrodes need to be sequenced to make the right muscles move at the right time. Everybody's brain is wired differently even though brain anatomy is more or less the same from person to person so this required a certain amount of trial and error. In addition, Burkhart has been paralyzed for several years so months of work with the electrode sleeve was required to get his forearm muscles to the point where they would be even minimally useful for the experiment. There is a short video of the experiment that doesn't seem to do the work any justice; I highly recommend taking the two or three minutes to sit down and watch it.

If you've been around me for any length of time, chances are you've heard me wax poetic (and occasionally synaesthetic) about violin music. From the traditional four string wooden variety to the high-tech electric and MIDI variants, they never cease to bring tears to mine eyes. So, when some of my search agents discovered this beauty and threw it up in a browser window a couple of days ago it won't take many tries to guess what I binged on for a couple of hours.


The violin in question is a two meter long two stringed piezoelectric designed by Monad Studio and fabricated in a 3D printer as part of an art exhibit entitled Abyecto on display in New York City at the 3D Print Design Show. Looking like a hybrid of an organ you might find inside some benthic sea creature and something H.R. Giger might have glimpsed during one of his more peaceful nights beyond the gates of horn and ivory, the violin (which doesn't seem to have a piece name associated with it) is one of six which comprise the Abyecto exhibit. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any recordings of what the violin looks like or how it's actually played (the 'piezoelectric' bit makes me wonder if the instrument's body flexing isn't itself part of the process of playing), else this article would have a lot more instrument squee. If anybody has footage of the violin being played, please leave a comment. I'd very much like to hear it.