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Posted on Thu 26 May 2016

What Happened at the World's First Magic Hack?

Kieron and Pete welcoming everyone to the Hack.

Posted by

Rosie Cooke

Rosie Cooke

Rosie was the Pervasive Media Studio Assistant between 2015-2017.


Magicians in Residence

Watershed and the University of Bristol disrupted normal residency service to invite two magicians to explore creative ideas that blend technology, interaction design, magic and illusion.

Kieron and Pete welcome everyone to the Hack.

Kieron and Pete welcoming everyone to the Hack.

This week the Pervasive Media Studio hosted the world’s first Magic Hack. What do hacked e-cigarettes, bone conductors, polymorph, conductive paint and RFID tags have to do with magic? We didn’t know, but we had a team of magicians and creative technologists who were ready to find out.

In the initial discussions, both technologists and magicians raised some of the limitations that each group are often confined by. Technologists can be overly focused on what the equipment can do as opposed to what people can do with it. Whereas magicians tend to start with the end result that they hope to achieve and work back from there in order to work out how to achieve it. Working together is a chance to subvert these practices.

To start breaking people out of their working patterns, Magician in Residence Kieron Kirkland and Pete Bennett, a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, gave the group a design exercise. Working from randomly selected magic effects, microcontrollers and various input and outputs devices the group worked together to devise possible illusions. Out of this session ways were found to build mind reading hats and create hands emerging from sand. These ideas were then tested against pragmatic and performance criteria. Of course it was essential that these ideas were actually feasible but it was also important to the group that they were also outside of the tools already available to magicians.

The aim of the world’s first Magic Hack was to explore the combined illusionary possibilities of technology, psychology and theatre. With so many of the Studio’s residents interested in forms of interactive storytelling and the magician’s natural showmanship, it is a natural ground for fostering collaboration. Our magicians and creative technologists won’t be putting a laser in an oven just yet, but one idea that made it into production was a mind reading gong.

At the end of the second day the group demonstrated what they had built. Oliver Humpage, head of ICT at Watershed, took to the stage to debut his impressive mind reading pen. Sam Fitton produced a Voodoo doll that audience members could use to torture him. The world’s first Small Hadron Collider split particles and created invisible anti-matter; thankfully the Watershed was not sucked into a black hole. There were new takes on card tricks and spirits communicated from beyond the grave.

Those skeptical of combining technology and magic might argue that technology robs magic of its focus on traditional sleight-of-hand conjuring and psychological illusion. However, performance and narrative were as important as the objects the group made. The magician’s demonstrated that their craft was not based in the technology or the trick itself, but in the stories they wove. At times the distinction between what was traditional magic and technological assistance became blurred, proof that technology can be used to sustain and augment a sense of mystery.

Magician Jolyon Jenkins reflected on the Hack:

I think what Kieron is trying to do is fantastic – there are huge possibilities to use technology in magic, and we’ve only just started. More importantly, magicians have to find ways to divert audiences   away from a general assumption that tricks use technology (this has always been true: even if the technology doesn’t actually exist, audiences fantasise it into existence.) As audiences become more clued-up and technology becomes more powerful and ubiquitous, that’s a problem that’s going to grow. So the bigger challenge for magicians is how to deal with that, and how not to kill the goose the lays the golden egg. It may be that we ultimately end up reverting to old-school retro methods. But in the mean time there’s plenty of room for fertile collaboration and I want to be part of it. 

Jarrod Knibbe, a PhD student at The Bristol Interaction and Graphics Group in the Computer Science Department at the University of Bristol, had the following to add:

While the use of technology in magic is not a new thing, the importance of secrecy has always meant that magicians were not 'early-adopters' of new technology. But by bringing together technologists and magicians, I think the beauty of the secrecy and the deception involved in magic performance has inspired the technologists and I hope that we have been able to, in turn, inspire the magicians and showcase interesting new ideas and possibilities.

The hack has had a definite impact on the way in which I will approach projects in the future. As technologists, there is always a tendency to try and use the latest tech, to make sure you are innovating from every possible angle, but the hack has shown that there is also scope for innovating in the narrative. An interesting story and clever presentation can transform well-known, even over-used tech into something spectacular!

Bringing together magicians and technologists for the world’s first Magic Hack was a resounding success. Kieron intends to continue developing his Maker Magic project and grow a community of Maker Magicians. Whatever the future of magic might hold, with innovators like Kieron fostering interdisciplinary collaboration it is sure to be exciting.

You can see more on our Magic Hack Storify or using our twitter hastag: #magichack

Project blog by Rosie Cooke

Posted on Thu 26 May 2016

Stuart Nolan's Sketchbook