Published: Sep 07, 2017
Updated: Sep 07, 2017

3 Elements of magic and the bond between technology and illusion

Author: Christy Roland

Marco Tempest at AT&T SHAPEAugmented Reality (AR) is melding the real world with technology to create some amazing experiences that can help people do all kinds of things like perform medical procedures remotely, teach users new skills, and even enhance entertainment. At AT&T SHAPE in Los Angeles, cyber illusionist Marco Tempest demonstrated how magic and technology could merge to create fascinating tricks at his talk on “Inventing the Impossible.” At the heart of his work is discovering new ways to blend illusion with technology to create new magic tricks. However, there’s a lot more that goes into creating a good trick than just some sleight of hand and implementing technology in the right way. Magic is a deception, and in order to truly enjoy it, an audience must suspend disbelief – something we do every day.

Jean Robert-Houdin, first recognized the role of a magician as a storyteller, which means every trick is a story that follows the archetypes of narrative fiction. However, in magic, they are stories with a twist. Magicians tend to tell these stories dramatically (think: catching a bullet or trying to escape from a locked box submerged in water). “The finale of a trick defies logic, gives new insights into a problem, and the audience laughs,” said Tempest. “It’s fun to be fooled.”

The Art and Craft of Creating Contemporary Illusions

1. Advanced Technology as Magic
The concept of magic and science is not new; magicians have known this for over 2,000 years. The temples of ancient Greece in 150 BC were filled with magic: doors mysteriously opened and alters dispersed into flames. These were all magic tricks that applied the science they knew at the time. However, attendees didn’t know that and thought it was magic. Even today, when magicians hear about a new technology, they find a way to use it in their tricks before the public realizes it’s capabilities. You might call magicians the first “early adopters” of technology.

2. Magic and Psychology
We may think that magic is about deceiving the eye, but Tempest explains this is not true. The success of a magic trick depends on deceiving the brain, which makes magicians take on the role of psychologist. The brain can be lazy and to save energy, it looks for patterns. “The magician exploits this, setting up familiar patterns, so the brain jumps to the wrong conclusions,” said Tempest.

When designing a trick everything must seem familiar, so magicians use ordinary props and straightforward language. This device is a mask for the deception that’s actually occurring. Interestingly, the eye sees everything, but the brain is fooled. Tempest performed the “Princess Card Trick” (a variation of the familiar the pick a card tricks) first developed in 1903 using AR to demonstrate the connection between the brain and magic. Sure enough, the card the audience picked disappeared.

3. Secrecy
Magicians are keepers of secrets. Consider the fact that the slogan of the Magic Castle in L.A. is indocilis privata loqui, which translates to no acts can disclose secrets. After all, if you know the secret to a trick it’s unlikely to fool you. Tempest has a different take on secrecy and believes that he can give his audience a truly magical experience by collaborating with writers, technologists, software developers, artists, engineers, and designers. Together each person brings their skillset, and the result is a trick far better than anything a single magician could do on their own. “Sometimes when devising a trick for the 21st-century secrecy is replaced by collaboration,” suggested Tempest.

Magic and the Future

When you think about the magicians of the past such as France’s Jean Robert-Houdin, you start to see how they are instrumental in pre-visualizing the future. For example, Robert-Houdin created one of the first incandescent light bulbs and had an electronic gate installed in his home long before it was available to the public. “Sometimes a well-performed piece of magic often looks like advance technology,” explained Tempest.

In doing so, the illusion becomes so convincing that it’s almost indistinguishable in reality, which in turn over time will turn the illusion into reality. Magicians are not only entertaining, but they are also providing their audience with a glimpse at what the future might look like. They already show us what it might be like to fly or read minds.

Watch Marco Tempest’s session at SHAPE here and the tricks he performed during his presentation. Let us know what you think of the session in the comments below. Do you think man will control machines or the other way around?

Marco Tempest, Executive Director of the NYC MagicLab and a Director’s Fellow at MIT Media Lab.

Marco Tempest is a cyber illusionist, combining magic and technology to produce astonishing illusions. He began his performing career as a stage magician and manipulator, winning many awards and establishing and international reputation as one of the world’s most unique performers. His interest in computer-generated imagery led him to incorporate video and digital technology in his work and the development of a new form of contemporary illusion. The expansion of the Internet and social media provided more opportunities for digital illusions and ways of interacting with audiences and creating magically augmented realities. Tempest is a keen advocate of the open source community, working with artists, writers, and technologists to create new experiences and researches the practical uses of the technology of illusion. He continues to perform around the world, is a media consultant on the subject of magic and illusion and lectures at international conferences on the psychology of deception and creative thinking.


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