Legs dangling from a swivel chair, with the tip of his toes barely grazing the ground, a seven-year-old boy waved excitedly to his favorite football players, naming each and shouting out their stats as they passed by.
Strapped to his head was a Samsung Gear VR, and playing on the screen was a cinematic virtual reality experience that the NFL and Jaunt VR(where I worked) put together for Super Bowl 50. As the boy watched, his parents looked on with excitement and delight in his reaction. When the three of them finished the demo, I overheard the boy asking mom and dad how he could get one of those headsets so he could watch the clip again, and the parents discussing how excited they were for virtual reality to become a real part of our everyday lives.
If you’re not yet familiar with virtual or augmented reality experiences like the one above, you will be soon. Virtual reality uses 360 degree imagery (either computer generated or filmed) to immerse a viewer in a completely virtual world by way of a VR headset like the Oculus Rift or the Samsung Gear VR that are rapidly moving from prototype in a lab to being used in everyday life. Augmented reality overlays virtual elements on top of the physical world (think holograms like Tupac’s “appearance” at Coachella) to enhance physical experiences with technology. Some AR and VR platforms also incorporate other equipment, such as gloves with sensors that respond to movement, which help further immerse the viewer into the overall experience.
With moments like these happening more and more frequently, it comes as no surprise that there is a constant buzz around the latest technological advances and what they can do for society. Advances in AR/VR, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and a host of other technologies have made a slew of important innovations possible in a wide variety of industries. Beyond their practical implications, technological innovations are also inherently exciting — whether it’s the possibility of interacting with your childhood heroes in virtual reality or commuting to work in a self-driving car, the opportunity to have a fantasy-like experience in real life will always hold great appeal.
But with all the talk about technology, people often forget about the arts and humanities and how these disciplines fit into the bigger picture.
In fact, people generally lament that they are slowly “dying,” that they need to be “saved “ — implying that they have little to no role at all in our increasingly technological world. And, on the surface, it can be hard to see the connection between art and technology.
As both a former product manager at a tech company in Silicon Valley and a classical musician, I see both sides of the coin. What I see is that the arts are essential to successful technological advances for two main reasons: hiring people with artistic backgrounds makes for more diversity and innovation in the workplace, and incorporating an artistic perspective into the development of new technology is what ultimately determines what role that technology will play in the world around us.
Arts and Innovation
Engaging with the arts has a huge positive effect on our brains. The effects of music in particular have been well documented, and as a musician these are the benefits I am most familiar with. Studies have found that simply listening to music can alter mood, increase attention span, and help our brains synthesize information.
Playing music has even stronger effects; as Anita Collins’ TED-Ed video explains, playing music serves as a “full body workout” for the brain.
The tie between the arts and innovation is not a new discovery. Many of the great innovators of the past few centuries are famous for talking about the connection between their scientific discoveries and the arts. Walter Isaacson summarizes in the introduction to “The Innovators”:
“…this idea that innovation resides where art and science connect is not new. Leonardo da Vinci was the exemplar of the creativity that flourishes when the humanities and sciences interact. When Einstein was stymied while working out General Relativity, he would pull out his violin and play Mozart until he could reconnect to what he called the harmony of the spheres.”
And that self-expression, creativity, and emotional focus that’s found with music isn’t just nice to have for individual creatives, it’s a must for large companies too, as evidenced by the success of firms like Disney / Pixar …
“Anybody can make films that dazzle you with technical wizardry or crack you up with biting humor. But that’s not enough for [Chief Creative Officer John] Lasseter. More than anything, the world’s most emotional executive wants to make movies that you connect with, movies that make you feel.”
As both Collins and Isaacson describe, a deep connection to the arts fosters creativity and innovation in all aspects of life. People with an artistic background often possess the ability to rapidly synthesize information and to find creative solutions to difficult problems, both of which are incredibly important to innovation, as the National Science Foundation found recently when examining the relationship between children with arts and STEM education. Hiring people with artistic backgrounds brings these skills into the workplace and makes it possible for a work environment to become a mixing bed for art and technology, which is a major catalyst for innovation.
The Bigger Picture
The arts aren’t just about encouraging creativity on the individual level; they have a broader role in technology, too. The New York Times recently pointed at how virtual reality companies are looking to science fiction literature to figure out what to build next, taking inspiration from sci-fi novels and movies to shape their products’ futures. The article explains why:
“[tech companies] are still figuring out how to make virtual reality the kind of technology that people cannot live without….And that is where science fiction comes in. Science fiction is shaping the language companies are using to market the technology, influencing the types of experiences made for the headsets and even defining long-term goals for developers.”
While this may be surprising at first, it actually makes a lot of sense. Breakthroughs in technology solve the problem of how to build something, but people must also answer the question of what to do with the new technological innovations. As outlined in the NYT article, in the case of virtual reality, engineers have made some incredible breakthroughs in the how, and now science fiction writers and others with an arts and humanities background are helping determine the what and the why.
In industries driven by technological innovation, a dose of the arts can go a long way in influencing how people ultimately interact with new technologies.
Because of the unique effect of the arts on the human brain, the arts will continue to play an essential role in our increasingly technological lives. On an individual level, engaging with the arts helps people synthesize information and solve problems, often leading to innovative breakthroughs in science and technology. On a global level, the arts define the way in which technological advances shape the world around us. While it may be easy to forget about the somewhat intangible benefits of the arts amidst the very visible effects of major technological innovations, the arts will continue to be a necessary component of our technology-driven lives as they quietly drive technological innovation forward.