Melding arts and technology

by Charles W. Steger '69

As I pass the reins of leadership to Tim Sands later this year, reflecting on the many accomplishments we laid out in our 2001 strategic plan will be gratifying.

While there is much to feel good about across the university landscape [Editor's note: See the campus growth outlined in the fall 2013 edition of Virginia Tech Magazine], I am particularly satisfied to see new directions for the arts, arts education, and arts in research. Far from being peripheral, the arts are infused throughout the curriculum and campus experiences. Here, the nexus of art and technology imparts a flavor unique to our institutional character.

The new high-tech Moss Arts Center and its living labs devoted to the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology are but the most visible physical symbols. Beneath the surface, the campus teems with unusual collaborations among the science, engineering, arts, and design (SEAD) disciplines. Indeed, we're 'SEADing' the future here.

Tech made national headlines several years ago when our Linux "Laptop" orchestra, L2Ork, conducted a unique orchestral performance with only computers on the stage. Using computer game controllers, musicians played their digital instruments, integrating technology for teaching and learning in ways not seen before.

Working under the direction of our music educators, K-12 students wrote, built sets for, and performed an entire virtual opera using Minecraft, an online game. The final performance was synched to live singers—real Virginia Tech students—and presented the opera to fascinated audiences not only in the Moss Arts Center's Cube, but also around the world through live streaming that went viral.

Along the musical scale, few technology applications resonate louder than the Tweet-Seat Master Classes, an experiment by the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech's professional presenting program. At the risk of breaching performance hall etiquette, we actually invited a group of educators and students to engage in spirited 140-character conversations during recent concerts.

The educators reviewed the repertoire beforehand, identifying important aspects of the performance and conducting lessons via Twitter throughout the concerts. "For their part, the students contributed interesting comments and questions of their own," one of the professors observed in her blog, "about different string techniques, how a conductor-less ensemble puts pieces together, the process of rehearsing, and reasons behind various ways of positioning the musicians on stage. Their enthusiasm for the ensemble, the repertoire, and the composers was tangible."

While I suspect—ahem—that we will not tweet each concert, the fact that our educators have found a way to incorporate Twitter into a performance's educational experience highlights the melding of art and technology.

Elsewhere, a professor in the School of Visual Arts is using his expertise in 3-D scanning to gather canine skeletal data. He's working with Tech veterinary professors to understand socialization and physical capabilities in order to identify the best working animals and to detect injuries in dogs.

Another art professor adapted his digital sculpting and computer animation tools to help researchers study the ultrasonic structure and behavior of bats. Yet another art professor is building a kinetic sculpture out of 256 Raspberry Pi mini computers to demonstrate the complexities of parallel computing, and to make otherwise hidden processes visible.

From my own experiences, I know that the arts help us "see" new relationships, whether they be between physical objects, spatial or aural experiences, or abstract ideas. In a world where visual information is increasingly important, such "sense" data help us to sort the world around us.

Frankly, all of this work is much more fun when you see it. Go to for a digital look into our world of art and technology.

One never knows how this blend of art and technology will manifest. During the recent Super Bowl advertising extravaganza, Doritos aired the finalists of a national amateur ad competition promoting its product. The winner? A Virginia Tech computer science graduate.

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