By Matthew Abshire
Adjust font size:
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A professor of musical technology at Georgia Tech, Gil Weinberg, enlisted the support of graduate student Scott Driscoll to create Haile -- the first truly robotic musician. In this way, he became a sort of Geppetto creating his musical Pinocchio.
"Computers have been playing music for 50 years," Driscoll said. "But we wanted to create something that didn't just play back what it heard, but play off it, too."
Think of Haile (pronounced Hi-lee) as a robotic partner in the percussion form of dueling banjos. Although it has numerous musical algorithms programmed into it, Haile's basic function is to "listen" to what musicians are playing and play along with them. (Watch as Haile keeps the beat -- 5:11)
If the musicians change the beat or rhythm, Haile is right there with them.
"With Haile there are two levels of musical knowledge .... The basic level is to teach it to learn to identify music, to imitate," Weinberg said.
"The higher level is stability of rhythm, to be able to distinguish between similar rhythms. In essence, Haile has the ability to recognize if a rhythm is more chaotic or stable, and can adjust its playing accordingly."
This isn't Weinberg's first foray into music technology. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he developed electronic software that allowed anyone to manipulate musical forms quickly and easily.
Haile is the next, complicated step in Weinberg's path.
"I ultimately wanted to explore acoustics," he said as he explained why he felt constrained by his earlier creations. "None of my previous work had the physical or visual cues of the acoustic world. This led me towards the creation of Haile."
There have been technological creations of various instruments, including Web sites lemurbots.org and ensemblerobot.org that boast several robotic creations that play programmed pieces.
However, attempts to develop a machine that could produce music independent of programmable pieces hadn't been realized. Either the machine was too predictable, or its sound was too electronic.
Weinberg believes Haile is the solution to these problems.
The robotic drummer is not only programmed with specific pieces but also with an understanding of countless pitches, rhythms and patterns, which are used during performances. Like a concert drum solo, Haile never quite plays the same thing twice, but plays off the creations of those performing around it.
"We created Haile as a sort of perceptual accompaniment for a player," Weinberg said.
Heather Elliott-Famularo, who helped organize SIGGRAPH 2006, where Haile performed in front of a Boston, Massachusetts, audience, marvels at the experience Haile brings to the musical world.
"Knowing that Haile is 'hearing' the music and responding to the tone, pitch and amplitude of the beat when creating its own drum response is quite moving," she said.
But before audiences notice Haile's talents, they'll first see its sleek design. At first glance, people may assume the creature from the film "Alien" turned into wood and found a rhythm. But this design is not by accident. Weinberg and Driscoll coordinated with various computer and architectural departments to engineer a memorable robot.
"One of the things that is wonderful about the piece is that Haile, the robot, is visually beautiful, made from layered, polished hardwood," Elliott-Famularo said. "It doesn't have the metallic robot feel."
The inventors said they didn't necessarily want the robot to look like a human, but wanted it to look humanoid. They decided it would have a head, a body, arms and legs and would be able to move in a way that simulated human qualities -- all for the purpose of simulating a connection and relationship between Haile and other performers.
"The first version of Haile had only one hand and nothing else," Weinberg said with a chuckle. "There was no connection between the player and the robot. It felt like you were just playing with a device."
When Weinberg and Driscoll talk, it sounds almost as if they are talking about a new musician they discovered in obscurity, instead of one they created out of wood and metal. But it takes only a brief performance to see why they insist on its "humanness."
After a few seconds of professor and graduate student tapping out rhythms on their drums, Haile jumps in. It's a beatbox paradise -- and surely a device every DJ would want -- as rhythms are repeated, revised and reversed.
But Weinberg and his graduate students aren't the only ones who appreciate Haile's talents. The robot has its own world tour, premiering in Israel and conducting shows in Germany, Paris and Boston. There are even videos of the robot online at user-posted video sites.
Despite the fame, Haile's creators feel they have more to accomplish with the robot, going so far as to tweak and modify it between every performance.
When questions arise over the possibility of two Hailes playing off one another, Weinberg just laughs.
"We have only focused on human/robot interaction, and we feel the area has not yet fully been explored," he said. "But it would be interesting to see how two robots inspire each other in music."