Magic and Illusions: A Sandbox for Creativity

By Claudia Robaina, 2 years ago

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Can successfully performing a magic trick earn a student academic credit at the graduate level? Can this be done at MIT? At the Media Lab, where seeing potential in unlikely combinations is the key to success, we say, “Of course! Absolutely.”

This semester, the course “Indistinguishable From… Magic as Interface, Technology and Tradition” is being offered at the Lab. Graduate students Greg Borenstein and Dan Novy teach the class, along with advisors Joi Ito (Director of the MIT Media Lab) and Kevin Slavin (principal investigator of the Playful Systems group). The course features a number of guest speakers ranging including Adam Harvey — who runs an online marketplace for counter surveillance art called The Privacy Gift Shop — and David Rose, co-founder and CEO of Ambient Devices. Kicking off the first class was our very own Director’s Fellow, Marco Tempest.

In his presentation to the class, Marco invited the students to consider this idea: Technology and magic can be combined to create real usable future innovations and applications. In fact, magic dates all the way back to Neolithic ceremonies, according to the course syllabus. Ever since the birth of engineering, people have been creating ‘magic’ by manipulating technology in new, previously unimaginable ways.

Marco believes that the mentality of a magician is much needed at a place like the MIT Media Lab, where students are encouraged to push boundaries and create new products:

People who get involved in magic tend to have a puzzle-solving mentality. They want to know how things work and they want to know how to subvert the process, take it apart and rearrange it, so that it does what they want it to, rather than what is expected.

There’s already evidence of this. In 2014, Marco and graduate student David Nunez successfully programmed a robot to perform a magic show at TED. You can read about this project on our site and watch the video here.

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Unlike many magicians for whom secrecy is a coveted tool, Marco encourages his spectators to think about and question the mechanics behind his illusions. “You cannot deny the reality of people’s curiosity,” he explains. “Problem solving is a part of critical thinking, which is an important life skill.” In Marco’s ‘PhoneCam Magic’ videos, he engages random people on the street to become part of his illusion. While they record the trick on his phone, Marco manipulates the common belief that cameras never lie by altering and shrinking fixed objects, such as a bystander’s umbrella. Watch these videos on his youtube page — each trick has over a million views!

In addition to his presentation, Marco gave each student a deck of cards and taught them a magic trick to practice and perform in the upcoming weeks. Greg and Dan asked everyone to look beyond the mechanics of the trick and to think about the intersection of storytelling and magic with science. How can illusion be combined with technology to create something new? Marco thinks the possibilities are endless: Prototyping future applications; emerging mobile technologies; 3d cameras; positioning sensors; gaze tracking; dynamic, robotic, self-organizing systems; theatrical effects; theme park experiences; teaching technologies where augmented reality and illusion could help create immersive environments for learning.

In addition to Marco’s demonstrations of current digital illusions, the class discussed the up-and-coming intersections of magic with machine learning and voice recognition. As the class continues, students will develop and perform their own projects, some of which we’ll get to see at the end of the semester. Could this be the start of a new illusions lab? Stay tuned.