CREATIVITY AT THE BAT
HOW PASSION PROJECTS LEAD TO INNOVATION IN SURPRISING PLACES
When Ji Shen enrolled at Xiamen University in China, he decided to major in communications and hoped to focus on painting. Little did he know he would eventually make a pivot from that plan to earning a doctorate studying data science.
But what he did know was that switching career paths wouldn’t mean putting aside his original passions or somehow shutting down the creative side of his brain just because he’d be working in the world of data.
“People treat it like it’s not creative,” Shen says. “I think the brainstorming process is very similar to what I was doing in art.”
Shen, now a Senior Research Statistician Developer at SAS, and his technical colleagues who collaborate on projects like The Batting Lab – a data-driven interactive batting cage experience – certainly aren’t among those who think analytics and creativity are mutually exclusive.
In fact, they say their ability to put AI in people’s lives in unexpected ways starts with following their creative instincts.
“I believe passion projects are actually the foundation to innovation,” says Alex Boakye, VP of Solutions Development at SAS. “A lot of our solutions we have in place are because we were doing various passion projects where someone wanted to explore something new.”
FUN MEETS FUNCTION
This approach shines through in The Batting Lab, a batting cage outfitted with sensors and cameras that uses AI, computer vision and Internet of Things analytics to help kids improve their baseball and softball swings, as well as their confidence in using data and analytics.
The Batting Lab analyzed thousands of swings from elite college players to build a model of the optimal swing and used that model to help guide youth hitters to a better swing.
"Every stage of The Batting Lab was made possible by our creative ways of thinking,” says Gunce Walton, an Econometric Modeling Manager at SAS. “Asking the right question is the starting point to finding the right solution.”
When a little leaguer steps into the cage, each swing generates 50,000 data points, so a session of 50 swings adds up to more than 2.5 million data points analyzed. The Battling Lab then shows each player how to optimize their weight distribution, hand position, core movements and other factors.
While The Batting Lab was creative enough to be featured on the Today show for helping kids improve their data literacy as much as their swings, it was also quite innovative in its use of AI and analytics technologies that you’d find in industries ranging from financial markets to health care to manufacturing.
“It seems very fun, but there are complex algorithms that we’re running in the back to help us prove out various use cases in adjacent areas,” Boakye says.
Boakye believes innovation can come from anyone, anywhere – and approaches can vary based on our experiences, our backgrounds and the unique ways we look at different problems.
He likens the members of his R&D organization to artists and musicians when it comes to creative thinking, an assessment they happily embrace.
“I think that a lot of people go into data science because they are interested in the world around us,” says Sophia Rowland, a Product Manager at SAS. “I love sitting down and collaborating with some really smart people to put together these really wonderful solutions.”
So what further innovations might emerge from the technology developed for The Batting Lab? Or what might be the next big undertaking that shows off unexpected uses of AI in the world?
We don’t know, but we do know that the creative thinking of data scientists, software engineers and other so-called “technical” minds – whether they started as aspiring artists like Shen or not – is what will bring those ideas to life.
“I think it’s important if you can connect your interests to your work,” Shen says. “We have to use our instinct, our life experience and our creativity to attack real-world problems.”
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU
Curious about SAS and the analytics that empower organizations everywhere?