Indistinguishable From… Magic as Interface, Technology, and Tradition


by Daniel Novy

Jan. 13, 2020

Daniel Novy, Research Scientist
Gregory Borenstein, Research Assistant
Marco Tempest, Director's Fellows Program Alumnus
H-Level 0-12-0
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When Aleister Crowley defined magic as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will,” he might as easily have been describing technology. In fact, “magic” is still the word we use to encompass the wonders of a new technology before it becomes ubiquitous.

From Neolithic ceremonies to Las Vegas stage shows, “magic” describes a long tradition of using technology, ritual, and performance to create wonder. As 21st century technologists there’s still a lot we can learn from this tradition. Engineering illusions requires close attention to the limits of human perception, disciplined practice of the art of showmanship, and subtle use of the crafts of deception — skills that are just as relevant to contemporary technology demos as they were to 19th century stage illusions.

Further, magic is one of the central metaphors people use to understand the technology we build. From install wizards to voice commands and background daemons, the cultural tropes of magic permeate user interface design. Understanding the traditions and vocabularies behind these tropes can help us produce interfaces that use magic to empower users rather than merely obscuring their function.

With a focus on the creation of functional prototypes and practicing real magical crafts, this class combines theatrical illusion, psychophysics, sleight of hand, machine learning, camouflage, and neuroscience to explore how ideas from ancient magic and modern stage illusion can inform cutting edge technology.

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