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What magic can teach us about the future of technology, according to an MIT magician

At the computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, Marco Tempest of Magic Lab and the MIT Media Lab explained how magic tricks can test people’s psychological responses to emerging technology, like drones and robots.

What magic can teach us about the future of technology, according to an MIT magician
Marco Tempest gives SIGGRAPH 2020 Keynote Session © 2020 ACM SIGGRAPH

In a live-streamed talk for this year’s SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference, magician Marco Tempest demonstrated a flock of drones that responded to his spoken and gestured commands, forming a ring around him and even following his orders to insert themselves into a box.

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Tempest, the head of New York’s Magic Lab and a magician who frequently works with digital technology, might be an illusionist, but the drones were completely real. The illusion was in their behavior, he revealed: The drones were preprogrammed to follow coded routes, guided in part by lines on a carpet below Tempest, and didn’t pay any attention to what Tempest was doing. Their seeming obedience and collaboration was just the result of each device’s individual program.

“You could say it’s the illusion of interactivity you’re experiencing when you’re watching my drones,” Tempest, who has been a director’s fellow at the MIT Media Lab and taught a course there on using magic as technology design inspiration, told the streaming audience for the talk at the Association for Computing Machinery’s well-known graphics conference. “They would do everything they do without me even being there.”

The demonstration was more than just a clever trick: It’s an example of how techniques from magic, which Tempest says blends elements of technology and psychology, can be used to see how people react to the potential machines of tomorrow.

“New technologies tend to be magical when we first see them,” said Tempest, in a talk that used augmented reality to place Tempest on a virtual stage. As he spoke, quotes appeared on screen animated with voiceovers, in a style reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary, from past visionaries including Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll and celebrated magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Obedient drone swarms aren’t on the market yet, but by simulating them, it’s possible to see how people react to and think about the various forms they could take. In general, Tempest said, it’s important to seek advice early on from a wide variety of people in crafting user experiences—a term he associated with his illusions as much as with app building.

“When you’re developing anything, I think it’s important to listen, and not just to the loudest voices but to the quietest whispers,” he said.

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Tempest, who has made magic using cellphone cameras and frequently gives talks at tech companies, also spoke of the importance of collaboration with outside experts in building anything, whether it’s magical, artistic, or technological. He maintains an “open door policy” at the Magic Lab, working with people from a variety of disciplines and taking ideas and inspirations from the open-source community, he said. The goal should be to flexibly learn what each participant is able to contribute rather than rely on one person’s expertise to solve a particular problem. “You could come out the other end with new skills for yourself and something you’re not the only one to be proud of,” he said.

Magicians, like those in other fields, are learning new ways to collaborate and share ideas with one another during the pandemic, he said. Some are adding videoconferencing to their practices, along with concepts like “magic boxes” that they mail to audiences. These boxes are to be opened at a particular time to demonstrate a trick. The overall concept, though, remains the same for magicians and those in other disciplines, including technology: telling a coherent story, an activity as old as humanity itself.

“I don’t think magic will ever disappear,” he said. “No matter how much technology, human beings stay the same—they always want magic.”

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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