Tech hosted its first ever TED talk this weekend, the only event where people could learn about the aerodynamics of flying snakes in the same hour as a discussion on why nuns don't have mid-life crises.
TED — which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design — started in 1984 and has been working under the motto "Ideas Worth Spreading" ever since.
Its two annual global conferences invite professionals from all over the world to attend, challenging them to give "the talk of their lives" in 18 minutes or fewer.
Because the global talks have become so popular, TED has encouraged "TEDx" talks, which focus on similar goals on a local scale.
TEDxVirginia Tech was held in the Holtzman Alumni Center Nov. 10, and featured 21 Tech students, faculty and alumni who each gave their own talk on the theme of “knowing.”
One of the first speakers was Steve Matuszak, a communication graduate student who spoke on how the lessons he learned through improv classes have changed his life.
Matuszak said that while planning is important for a lot of things in life, it can't cover everything.
"Sometimes life calls on us to plan and do immediately. That's improvisation," he says. "Human beings, we're not wired to think about what is. We are wired to think about what should be."
The speeches took place in a small room, packed with only 135 people. The lack of physical distance between the speaker and the audience contributed to a feeling of intimacy, enhancing the emotional honesty of each speech.
"What's possible when you start from nothing? Anything. Or everything,” Matuszak said. “That's what's so liberating and wonderful. But it can also be really, really intimidating.”
Because the venue was small, tickets sold out quickly. Many members of the audience were close friends and family of the speakers. But the audience wasn't limited to the room.
The event was recorded and live-streamed to nearly a dozen locations around campus. Most venues had 20 to 30 people in attendance.
Another speaker, Ben Knapp, the director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology, spoke about the relationship between technology, music and emotion.
Typically, the process of creating music starts with an emotion translated into sound through a physical gesture. Knapp hopes to remove the physicality from that process.
By using technology that reads biometrics like heart rate, sweat and breathing rate, Knapp invented a system that creates music from his emotional state.
During the talk, he played a pre-recorded video of him using the device. While Knapp calmly sat, the machine played soft, low static notes. As he stood, and his excitement raised, so did the music's pitch and volume.
This technology isn't only being applied for the performer, either. Knapp hopes to apply a simpler version of this technology to the crowd.
"I designed a circuit that fits on your fingertip that measures your pulse, temperature, and skin sweat, and plug that into a mobile phone,” Knapp said. “Before you come to an event like this, you can download an app, plug the device into your phone, and all that data will be sent to a machine that will process it."
With this technology, performers and analysts don't have to guess what the audience likes or doesn't like. They can look at the numbers.
According to Knapp, further development of this technology could turn anyone with a strong grasp of their emotions into a musical virtuoso. It could also lead to a Pandora station that decides your next song based on your emotions, rather than a preset radio.
Virginia Tech seemed a natural place for a local TED Talk, according to alumnus Alex Obenauer, who helped work the event.
"We were interested just from having a big passion for TED in general," Obenauer said. "The 'ideas worth spreading' motto falls so in line with 'invent the future' in such a great way that we wanted to see that collaboration happen."
The staff's enthusiasm transferred over to the speakers as well, such as Fish and Wildlife faculty member Kathleen Alexander.
"They went through a lot of work to make us all feel confident and secure that what we had to say was important,” Alexander said. “It really made all the difference. That's why you change and share ideas, when people enable you.”
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