This clip is a screen capture from “Visual Jukebox,” an interactive visualization for aural electroacoustic compositions. This visualization was created by Ivica Ico Bukvic, associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts and fellow with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, for listening rooms used by participants at the 2015 national conference of the Society of Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS).



Graduates Inventing the Future...

In 2010, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs famously mused that technology alone isn’t enough, proclaiming “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

A strong foundation in the arts inspires alternative viewpoints, the ability to assess situations from multiple perspectives and shape new solutions. At the same time, technology instills fresh energy and heightened possibilities into traditionally “creative” disciplines.

At Virginia Tech, an intellectually rigorous environment embraces the synergy of arts and technology, preparing students to become well-rounded leaders in our increasingly innovative technological world.

Crafting their own course of study, many students blend curricula in technology-based disciplines, such as computer science and engineering, with more arts-focused areas, such as music, cinema, theatre, design, creative writing, and digital and studio art. Some may specialize in one area, but collaborate with others through interdisciplinary research and coursework. This melding of disciplines equips graduates for successful careers at, as Jobs described it, “the intersection of technology and liberal arts.”

Rendering of pool project concept

From napkin to reality

The art of creativity and the process of design opened the world’s boundaries for two Virginia Tech graduates, Jeffrey Franklin and Archie Lee Coates IV, daring them to dream of anything and everything—that could be sketched on a napkin. The two met as undergraduates in the architecture program, and though Coates eventually transferred into the School of Visual Arts to study graphic design, they remained best friends.

“We bonded quickly,” Coates recalled during his 2014 College of Architecture and Urban Studies commencement address, “and during intense times at the studio, we’d head to Bollo’s downtown, take an absurdly large stack of napkins, fill them with the most ridiculous ideas we could think of, and wouldn’t leave until we’d drawn on all of them.”

“This became a regular thing; napkin after napkin, we drew heaping mounds of ideas, always trying to imagine things that weren’t things that existed before we drew them. Some made sense, and most of them didn’t, but it didn’t really matter because there in a tiny coffee shop in Blacksburg, Virginia, we could make whatever we wanted, and no one could tell us we couldn’t,” he said.

With their design studio PlayLab now based in New York City, Coates and Franklin continue to dream without limits, partnering with professionals from a wide range of disciplines.

“On a super-hot summer day in 2010, Jeff and I sat down for coffee with an architect and friend named Dong in front of a pile of napkins and drew an idea that would change the course of our adventure forever,” Coates said. “It started with an extremely simple realization that no one swims in the rivers that surround New York.”

And so was born one of PlayLab’s best-known—and high-tech—projects: a floating, water-filtering pool named +POOL.

The team spent six months proving the feasibility of an innovative concept for a filtration system and launched an initial 30-day Kickstarter campaign to help fund the project.

By August 2011, PlayLab had partnered with Columbia University and was conducting water-quality tests in a rented shipping-container lab in Brooklyn Bridge Park on the banks of the East River.

Concept art for pool design
The PlayLab team takes the plunge to test the water in the “Float Lab” in the Hudson River.

The PlayLab team takes the plunge to test the water in the “Float Lab” in the Hudson River.

The next year, Coates and Franklin collaborated with an engineering firm to design the proposed filtration system. When the system needed to be tested in real river conditions—which required $250,000, money they didn’t have—they approached the challenge like any other design problem they had learned to solve in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

“We broke the pool down to its most common element, a 4-by-12-inch tile, and gave [people] the opportunity to put their name on the pool. We realized that if people bought every single one of the 70,000 tiles that would make up the deck, walls, and floor of +POOL, the entire construction budget would be funded ... making it the largest civic, crowd-funded architecture project of all time,” said Coates.

Their plan worked. In 30 days, 3,175 people had purchased $273,000 worth of tiles.

And now, a seemingly impossible dream conceived on a napkin is becoming reality. After working to perfect the filtering technology, the team reduced the river water’s bacterial counts to zero without using chemicals—an amazing feat since the regular bacterial count in the Hudson can reach frighteningly high levels. As the project enters its next phase, the team anticipates that the +POOL will be construction-ready in a year.

The Universal 360: A Cinesphere Spectacular

Creating epic experiences

Kelly Ryner was first drawn to Virginia Tech because of its theatre program—and the fact that Blacksburg enjoys four seasons, which she craved after high school in Panama City and a childhood in Central and South America and the Caribbean.


Universal 360: A Cinesphere Spectacular takes guests on an emotional journey like no other at Universal Studios Florida. This end-of-day show is a magical mix of high-definition projections, eye-popping pyrotechnics, lasers, a custom orchestral musical score, and more than 100 clips from some of the most popular films ever made, projected inside innovative 30-foot floating spheres. Plus, Thinkwell added a new dimension to nighttime spectaculars through one of the earliest uses of digital architectural projection mapping, magically transforming Universal Studios Florida’s backlot façades into burning destruction, targets of a B-movie sci-fi attack, vistas of giant dinosaurs, and more.

Sealing the deal, however, was the theatre program’s approach to challenging students and preparing them for career success. “[Virginia Tech was] the only school that told me what I could do, instead of what I couldn’t do,” Ryner said.

Even as a teenager, Ryner knew exactly the career she wanted. Unlike the majority of her classmates in the theatre program who studied acting, she hoped to work on epic children’s films, period films, and fantasy films.

“It was very specific,” Ryner said. “I wanted to be a scenic artist and art director for children’s films. I wanted to work for Steven Spielberg. I wanted to do the next big Peter Pan movie, the big, immersive fantasy film. That was my plan.”

To guide her pursuit of those goals, the program’s faculty helped Ryner shape her curriculum. “There must have been three courses that were created because I wanted them. It certainly taught me that you have to take control of your destiny and what you need.”

And while she isn’t working in epic films, per se, as the president of Thinkwell Asia, Ryner is creating epic experiences worldwide, including the recent Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter, which takes visitors behind the scenes of the popular movies. In many ways, this project and others like it are the culmination of Ryner’s goals. Thinkwell weaves technology and the arts seamlessly in the attractions and experiences designed for theme parks and resorts, museums and exhibits, and live performances and special events around the world.

“Arts and technology blend together, making each other stronger—yin and yang—the two things can’t be more hand-in-hand. When put together just right, magic happens,” said Ryner. “Every day at Virginia Tech, we were leveraging technology to tell the story. We do that at Thinkwell—just on a much bigger stage.”

Kelly Ryner
Puzzle play is one of more than 100 educational activities in the immersive NatureQuest exhibit Thinkwell created for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.

Puzzle play is one of more than 100 educational activities in the immersive NatureQuest exhibit Thinkwell created for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.

Attached to the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, Ski Dubai is the first of its kind in the world: a 25-story, full-service indoor ski resort featuring an awe-inspiring array of ski slopes, snow play areas, and state-of-the art resort facilities.

Attached to the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, Ski Dubai is the first of its kind in the world: a 25-story, full-service indoor ski resort featuring an awe-inspiring array of ski slopes, snow play areas, and state-of-the art resort facilities.

Mastermind of magic

Although visitors are often mesmerized by the immersive environments at a Disney theme park, few stop to consider how these experiences are created and by whom. But for Adam Ressa, the dream of becoming a Disney Imagineer—the people behind the magic—led him to Virginia Tech.

Ressa, a set decorator for Walt Disney Imagineering in Orlando, Florida, graduated in 2010 with bachelor’s degrees in theatre design and technology, and industrial and systems engineering, majors chosen specifically to prepare him for his career.

“It was good to know the technical aspects of engineering, as well as the design and immersive environment—that’s where theatre came in,” Ressa said. “Engineering taught me the what, who, how of problems. Theatre covered the why. Theatre taught me to pick a story and deconstruct it.”

Disney’s career website describes the Imagineering team members as “the dreamers, the doers, the masterminds of magic.” They research and create elements that make the parks’ themed attractions both realistic and immersive.

“Working for Disney,” said Ressa, “has been interesting [for me] to see how we make sure the guests are immersed. … We want to tell a story, and we want them to be completely involved in the story. We hide technologies everywhere to make the stories feel real.” While Ressa can’t reveal exactly what technologies are used (some mysteries are best kept secret), the dazzling immersive experiences require a seamless blend of research, creativity, and artistry with imaginative technologies.

And the intersection of these ingredients is magical.

Adam Ressa
Ressa and other Disney set decorators design all of the themed tangible elements that create realistic atmospheres.

Ressa and other Disney set decorators design all of the themed tangible elements that create realistic atmospheres.

Group photo of the Virginia Tech Linux Laptop Orchestra

Technology in harmony

When Michael Matthews was 6 years old, his parents enrolled him in piano lessons, which he loved. At 15, he taught himself to play guitar and was soon intrigued by how electronic technology and music interact.


A founding member of the Virginia Tech Linux Laptop Orchestra—L2Ork—directed by Ivica Ico Bukvic, Michael Matthews (second from left) has toured with the orchestra. Matthews also served as the instructor and composer for the laptop orchestra of the Boys and Girls Club of Southwest Virginia, a satellite project of L2Ork demonstrating the potential of the laptop orchestra in K-12 education.

Those interests led Matthews to Virginia Tech to study both computer science in the College of Engineering and music technology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“When I started at Tech, I was really much more interested in computer science,” Matthews said. “And I didn’t really understand what music technology was or what it could be or do until my junior year.”

After taking a yearlong course on creating music on the computer, Matthews became one of the first members of Virginia Tech’s Linux Laptop Orchestra, L2ORK. Over the summer, he assembled the various elements for the group, including speakers made from salad bowls. The next year, he served as the orchestra’s technician, setting up the machines and ensuring they performed properly. Also a member of a research team from computer sciences and visual arts, Matthews helped design the music and sounds for a drumming video game.

Following graduation from Virginia Tech and the completion of an M.F.A. in integrated composition at the University of California, Irvine, Matthews worked as a music production assistant for film composer John Powell.

Sound wave visualization

Not only did Matthews program a number of software sampling instruments for use in composing the soundtracks for the movies “Rio 2” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” he assisted in developing software tools to enhance composition and recording at Powell’s studio. One such project, a highlight of Matthews’ career to date, was the development of an active acoustic system for the main recording room that transformed the sound of the room as if it were a larger, more reverberant space.

“The active acoustic room system was very cool—to go through that whole process and hear it come to life, to actually be able to sit in the room and change things and hear the difference,” Matthews said. “It’s much more immediate to me than pretty much any of the work I’ve done.”

Matthews now works in Burbank, California, for the design firm TechMD Inc., which collaborates with Disney, BRC Imagination Arts, the Hettema Group, and other creative companies to develop audio/visual systems for their attractions and venues.

In addition, he is an electronic and computer musician and composer whose work features acoustic instruments and electronic elements. Among his compositions is the original score he performed for the theatre production of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Saddleback College. To create the music for the play, Matthews employed sampler instruments on a keyboard and recorded and mixed the score on a computer. He claimed that technology was his best option in the absence of an entire orchestra.

In actuality, his skills as a musician and technologist bring his compositions to life.

Christina Lidwin holding a phone running her app, Data Atlas

Design code

Recent graduate Christina Lidwin is embarking on a career at Google, which is not entirely uncharted territory since she completed several internships there during college. Even so, Lidwin has traveled a path of self-discovery.


For her master’s thesis “Visual Imprints,” Christina Lidwin developed an Android application called Data Atlas that provides new visual ways to understand location-based information. The application is based on the growing trends in wearable technologies, such as FitBits and Apple Watches, that are creating new ways for people to discover and record personal data.

Recent graduate Christina Lidwin is embarking on a career at Google, which is not entirely uncharted territory since she completed several internships there during college. Even so, Lidwin has traveled a path of self-discovery.

After completing a B.S. in computer science in the College of Engineering, including an interdisciplinary study-abroad program at Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, and work with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, Lidwin realized that she was interested in a more interdisciplinary, creative approach to working with computers. “I wanted to do computer science, and I came in and enjoyed what I was doing, but I didn’t love what I was doing. I realized through my internships and coursework that I wanted something more front-end, more interface user, something people directly interact with,” Lidwin said.

Lidwin enrolled in the School of Visual Arts’ M.F.A. in Creative Technologies Program, which offers a synthesis of technology and arts and allows students to tailor their course of study based on their interests. Lidwin opted to explore the more user-focused area of interface design.

“From a computer science perspective, I learned what not to do, and I got into the question of what computer science is teaching about graphics that is causing friction, and thought creative technologies may be the way to go,” Lidwin said. “I thought about the users first and then the function—and computer science is function.”

“Seeing technology from a visual perspective is very valuable,” said Lidwin, the only student with a computer science background in her cohort. “It was cool to see art students get excited about the technology, and the engineers get excited about the art. Bringing those types of people together is awesome because everyone is doing something different, so they bring a different perspective and critiques to your work, and you can provide something different for them.”

Her courses, interdisciplinary work with students and faculty, and thesis project—developing an Android application, from the coding to the user-interface design—helped Lidwin determine that her place is in the realm between the technical and creative worlds. As a software engineer at Google, she hopes to be part of an interdisciplinary team that brings together coders and designers.

Christina Lidwin showing a phone running Data Atlas
Whiteboard sketches of the Data Atlas app

Experiments in Poetry

Katherine Sullivan, professionally known as KMA Sullivan, entered the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program with a focus on fiction, but soon discovered her love of poetry.

While in the graduate program, Sullivan founded the online magazine Vinyl Poetry in 2010, serving as editor-in-chief, and YesYes Books in 2011. Her time at Virginia Tech introduced her to the technology she uses both in the collaborative process with her team of editors across the country and in the experimental projects she regularly undertakes for YesYes Books.

“One of the things I learned at Tech is working collaboratively across digital platforms. And as a result, I’ve been able to build a press with editors all over the country,” Sullivan said. “The quality of professional work that we are able to produce without being in the same physical space is really astonishing.”

YesYes Books also collaborates virtually with the poets and artists it publishes, allowing the press not only to be competitive with much larger and longer-established university presses, but also to garner national accolades.

“I think what we’re seeing is a flattening of the playing field in publishing—certainly for poetry. I can run a press that has some fairly substantial impacts in the world of poetry. ... Our books are right up against the university presses in terms of recognition and accolades. And technology is what is facilitating that.”

YesYes Books is also committed to experimental projects combining poetry, prose, visual art, and music, along with digital formats, including “webBooks” that take advantage of HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript to unite poetry and art.

Katherine Sullivan
Book cover

“When you are bringing together art and technology, you’ve got to work within both landscapes,” Sullivan said. “So it’s been an interesting challenge to figure out how to accomplish artistically what we’re trying to do in this digital landscape.”

Sullivan and her team have made great progress in overcoming barriers to digitally publishing poetry, including the issue of forced line breaks, which are critically important in poems.

She has discovered, however, that poets tend to be more conservative than she had anticipated. As a result, readers have been slow to fully accept digital publications.

“One example would be our digital chapbooks called ‘Poetry Shots’ [that] combine poetry and visual art. Each of them is essentially its own website, but it feels like an e-book. So what’s interesting is that they turned out better than I’d even hoped … but they have not sold much at all,” she said.

“That’s a great example of technology and art coming together, producing really cool things, and not getting much traction,” Sullivan said. “And maybe this is the case in art in general. You just don’t know what people are going to respond to, so you just have to keep doing. … You keep experimenting. You keep doing the work that you believe in. And hopefully, at some point, something will hit.”

Along with its digital efforts, YesYes Books will continue publishing hard-copy books because Sullivan sees value in both formats and feels that publishing needn’t be an either-or situation. And she will continue to seek new experiments and push traditional boundaries.

“It’s an adventure,” Sullivan said. “It’s an experiment, and that’s what art is for. And the fact that the digital world can facilitate new experiments is just fantastic.”

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