The "Bionic Gloves" Helping a Renowned Pianist to Play Again

Created using acclaimed Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins as inspiration, the Bionic Extender Gloves help impaired fingers engage in smooth, controlled movements, allowing the pianist to play with all 10 fingers for the first time in over 20 years.

12.11.2020 | by Reve Fisher
Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash
Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

João Carlos Martins was Brazil’s most acclaimed pianist for decades. The 2017 movie “João, o Maestro” follows his life from a child prodigy to the trials and tribulations as one of the world’s most renowned classical musicians. He often played in the world’s top orchestras and recorded Bach’s complete works in a 20 CD collection—the most extensive series of Bach keyboard recordings by a single pianist.

After a mugging incident in Bulgaria in 1995, Martins lost the use of his right arm. For several years, he performed with his left hand and right thumb, including a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall in 1996.

Eventually, Martins received a diagnosis of focal dystonia, a degenerative neurological condition of the muscles. This restricted the range of movement in his left hand, forcing him to retire from playing. Despite these limitations, he went on to become a conductor and has led hundreds of performances around the world.

After 24 surgeries to limit the pains from his injuries and conditions, Martins retired in March 2019. Or so he thought.

Using Martins as inspiration, industrial designer Ubiratan Bizarro Costa drafted a set of “bionic gloves” to give life to the conductor’s frail hands, helping him to play piano again. According to The Associated Press, Martins has received over 100 devices throughout his career to help his hands, from a football accident in the 1960s to his degenerative muscular condition. Nothing before Bizarro Costa’s innovation worked well enough or long enough.

“After I lost my tools, my hands, and couldn’t play the piano, it was as if there was a corpse inside my chest,” Martins told The Associated Press. “To be able to use all ten fingers again more than 20 years later is a miracle for me at the age of 80.”

As an automotive industrial designer, Bizarro Costa said he got the idea for the gloves from Formula 1 motor racing technology, according to Reuters. While the first version of the gloves was inadequate, Martins saw the potential.

“I did the first models based on images of his hands, but those were far from ideal,” Bizarro Costa said. “I approached the maestro at the end of a concert in my city of Sumaré, in the Sao Paulo countryside. He quickly noticed they wouldn’t work, but then he invited me to his house to develop the project.”

After several iterations, the end product has now given Martins the ability to play again. The Bionic Extender Gloves only cost Bizarro Costa about 500 Brazilians reals ($125) to create. Covered with neoprene and held together by a carbon fibre board, the bionic gloves are designed to push Martins’ fingers upward after they press the keys, allowing the renowned musician to continue playing. Martins explained that he can even tune the gloves by rearranging the internal pads to play faster or slower.

The Bionic Extender Gloves are now sold to help people with neurological, motor or other issues that affect their hands. The gloves help the user open their hands and maintain stable, controlled actions, using their own strength and manual movements. Since the gloves operate from above, users can perform everyday activities, as the fingers and palm of the hand are not obstructed.

“I just created this as a gift to him,” Bizarro Costa told CGTN America. “It’s not really part of my main line of work. It was something for him to have fun with… I wasn’t expecting all this interest.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Martins used the gloves to prepare for a major goal—a performance at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his first appearance there. While the pandemic has halted that performance, the musician’s desire to play has been reignited.

“It’s a kind of hope I can give to people who think maybe they can’t do anything more after 80 or so,” he told CGTN. “At the age of 80, I think I can have a beginning again.”

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