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Bionic Extender Gloves allow pianist to play again

João Carlos Martins
Andre Penner/AP
Brazilian pianist Joao Carlos Martins poses for pictures wearing bionic gloves at his home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins had not played with 10 fingers since he lost the use of his hands due to injury and chronic disease.

Acclaimed Brazilian pianist and conductor João Carlos Martins, known for his extraordinary interpretations of the work of Bach, had not played with 10 fingers since he lost the use of his right hand in a 1995 mugging in Bulgaria. But in October 2020, at age 80, all that changed, as he has returned to play his favorite Bach sonatas thanks to “bionic gloves” invented by Brazilian industrial designer Ubiratan Bizarro. “To be able to use all ten fingers again more than 20 years later is a miracle for me,” he said.

Martins had performed with leading orchestras in the United States and Europe and recorded Bach's complete keyboard works, but his career was troubled with injuries, accidents and chronic diseases which compromised his ability to play the piano. For many years he played with one hand and a thumb, but eventually lost the use of the left hand as well due to focal dystonia, a neurological condition affecting the muscles. Martins underwent 24 surgeries to try to maintain his abilities to play, but with no success, causing him to retire from performing altogether in 2019.

Ubiratan Bizarro
Brazilian industrial designer Ubiratan Bizarro

Bizarro, who had seen Martins perform, was immediately inspired to take up the challenge to help his countryman. Bizarro, who spends most of his time designing products for the automotive industry, spent less than $100 to make the first prototype for Martins, which he described as being “suitable for boxing, at best." But Martins saw the sincere interest Bizarro had to help him, and the two of them began to work together to improve his prototype. After six months, the sixth prototype proved to be successful and got the approval of both Martins and his medical team.

The black neoprene gloves made by 3D printer, have flexible rods that extend from the back of the hand to each finger, making the fingers spring back up to their original position after they depress the keys, allowing the pianist to continue playing. These miracle gloves enabled Martins to do something that he hadn't been able to do in 22 years - to play with both hands.

Currently, Bizarro researches and develops products in the area of mobility and inclusive design for people with physical challenges and compact electric vehicles for urban mobility. All of his products are designed to be practical, make life easier, and affordable especially for people with disabilities. His gloves are now exported under the brand name Bionic Extender Gloves.