Life, Interrupted: The Man Who Created a Robot Drummer

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Why you should care

Because machine love is also ageless and evergreen.

Robots are all around us, controlling our computers, cars, chessboards and even our music — techno and electronica rely upon machines. But at least rock and its musical derivations are safe, right? Those steady beats will forever be safe from the robot class … until they’re not.

Twenty years ago at the Electric Lounge, a live music bar just off the beaten path in Austin, Texas, lights danced across the venue as two co-workers flirted shamelessly. Quentin Oliver, a bartender/punk-rock musician, was infatuated with Hilary Thomas, a talented violist. They had a six-week fling, which ended when Oliver moved back to Indiana, his home state. After parting without exchanging phone numbers, Thomas assumed she’d never see him again.

Lights started blinking in sync with the music. Pencils turned into big sticks, and an idea turned into a full-fledged robot drummer.

Then came the so-called robot dating app Facebook. Twelve years after their romance ended, Thomas found herself sitting at her desk with time to kill. The next thing she knew, she was typing Oliver’s name into the little blue search. Would he remember her? Then, one word: “Wow.” That was the message Oliver sent Thomas after accepting her friend request.

After reconnecting, Oliver returned to Austin for an unofficial gig at the South by Southwest festival. The gig was a 30-minute improv, a challenge unfamiliar to Oliver. While banging an empty beer bottle on a glockenspiel, he thought, “I could totally build a machine to do this.”

He’d already started tinkering with the concept of building machines, but the show made things clear just how he was going to do it. He got a programmable Arduino chip and started to make robot things happen. At first, it was just a matter of lights blinking. Then, lights started blinking in sync with the music. Pencils turned into big sticks, and an idea turned into a full-fledged robot drummer, the third member of the now married couple’s band, Ponytrap.

And the takeover is almost complete. But because seeing is believing? Watch on.

OZYTrue Story

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