How a soft ‘robo-glove’ can help stroke patients relearn to play music

30 Jun 2023

Image: © Xandra/

A lightweight ‘robo-glove’ that functions as an exoskeleton for the hand has been programmed to help people play music and provide haptic feedback.

Scientists come up with solutions to all kinds of problems and one of the latest they have looked at is how to help stroke patients regain the dexterity of their fingers for doing things like playing music.

Researchers from the US devised a prototype of a soft robotic glove ­that acts as a kind of exoskeleton for people recovering from conditions like stroke that cause them to lose movement in their hands. For the purposes of the research, the scientists focused on stroke patients working on relearning how to play music, but the prototype can potentially be applied to other use cases too.

Even for stroke patients that do not ordinarily play music, doing the plucking motions with guitar strings can be an effective rehabilitation exercise alongside other occupational therapies. But the robotic glove can really help those musicians who find the dexterity in their hands is compromised after suffering a stroke.

Dr Maohua Lin, adjunct professor at the Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering of Florida Atlantic University is the lead author of the research. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.

Nursery rhymes for science

Lin explained that he and his team used machine learning to train the glove to ‘feel’ whether the user was playing the correct version or incorrect version of a beginner-level song on the piano. The sample song they used was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, which requires four fingers to play.

“Here we show that our smart exoskeleton glove, with its integrated tactile sensors, soft actuators and artificial intelligence, can effectively aid in the relearning of manual tasks after neurotrauma,” said Lin.

He said he envisaged patients eventually wearing a pair of the lightweight, 3D-printed gloves to play music and complete other tasks. The glove prototype was eventually able to operate autonomously without human input thanks to the scientists’ training.

The glove can be programme further to give the user feedback on their instrument playing through haptic feedback, visual or sound cues. Haptic feedback refers to the use of touch as a means of communication, such as when mobile phones vibrate to indicate a notification. Irish start-up Field of Vision uses haptic feedback tech in their handheld device that helps people feel the energy of sports matches.

Room for improvement

According to Lin, the science around the robo-glove can be improved upon. “Several challenges in this field need to be overcome. These include improving the accuracy and reliability of tactile sensing, enhancing the adaptability and dexterity of the exoskeleton design and refining the machine learning algorithms to better interpret and respond to user input.”

He added that any efforts to adapt the present prototype to other rehab tasks beyond playing music would require customisation to individual needs. “This can be facilitated through 3D-scanning technology or CT scans to ensure a personalised fit and functionality for each user.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.