MAS.S65: Indistinguishable From… Magic as Interface, Technology, and Tradition

Instructors: Dan Novy, V. Michael Bove, and Marco Tempest

Meeting Time: Tuesdays  – 2:30PM – 4:30PM – E15-443a

SPRING  TERM 2016 — (Feb. 2 through May 10) —12 Units — H Level 0-12-0

Course Description:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Clarke’s Third Law

“Any sufficiently debased magic is indistinguishable from technology.” — Rowling’s Corollary

“Everything you can think of is true.” — Tom Waits

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.

Guest lecturers and representatives of Member companies will contribute to select project critiques. Requires regular reading, discussion, practicing magic tricks, design exercises, weekly assignments and a final project. Students should have at least basic experience with fabrication techniques and/or coding skills.


Grading will be based on attendance, enthusiastic participation in class discussion, respectful project critiques of fellow students, and clear and detailed documentation of projects (30%). Participation includes speaking during class, being attentive and engaged, as well as commenting and critiquing online materials at the class website. Weekly assignments will be worth 30% of your total grade. The final project will be worth 40% (including documentation). Each unexcused absence will result in a loss of 10% of total points. Each failure to do the assigned readings will result in a 5% loss of total points. Projects may be done alone or in collaboration. Collaborations must document the full extent of each participant’s contribution and equal effort is expected per collaborator. The final project may build on any of the weekly assignments.

Topics: One week each, reading selections, topic, and topic order may change.

Week 1 (2/2): Introduction/Overview 
Class Overview and Expectations

  • What IS magic?
  • Types of magic.
  • What is “Thinking like a magician?”
  • “Every demo is a magic trick.”

Assignment for Next Week:

  • Become aware and count how many times you hear or see the word “magic” used in your environment.
  • Upload a smartphone pic of the word “magic” seen in the wild. Describe how it is being used.
  • Pick a classic sleight of hand illusion ( 1, 2, 3, 4). Learn and practice it. Be ready to perform it next week.  What perceptions or expectations does your chosen illusion confound?
  • Post a short video of yourself practicing your illusion to the class website. Be sure to use the “Assignment” tag.

Read for Next Week:

View for Next Week:

Week 2 (2/9): The Science of Magic
In Class: Discuss the readings
Design Exercise: Perform your trick.
GUEST: (Peter Lamont??)
Assignment for Next Week: Create a Trick++. Augment the trick you learned last week, or pick a new one, and create a Marco Tempest style “mixed-reality” illusion.

Read for Next Week:

No Class on 2/16 (MIT Monday’s Class Schedule on Tuesday)

Week 3 (2/23): Deceiving the Senses
GUEST: (??Richard Wiseman??)
Design Exercise: Perform your Trick++.
Assignment for Next Week (Choose One):

  • Create a multisensory illusion. How would you do a gustatory or olfactory illusion? How would you do a tactile illusion?
  • OR
  • Create an illusion of nature using the Minnaert reading. Can you make a Fata Morgana in a box? Can you create the Green Flash? Etc. Be creative.

Read for Next Week:

Week 4 (3/1): A Lens on Magic: Perspective, Editing, and Visual Effects.
GUEST: (??Greg Borenstein??)
Assignment for Next Week: Create a video using anamorphic or forced perspective techniques, creative cutting, or Zack King like vfx.

Read for Next Week:

Week 5 (3/8): Smoke and Mirrors: Stage Illusion as Information Display
In class: Present your videos.
Assignment for Next Week: Build a Pepper’s Ghost illusion in a way or context no one ever has before.

Read for Next Week:

View for Next Week:

Week 6 (3/15): Magical Warfare: Camouflage and Cryptography
GUEST: Kevin Slavin
In class: Present your Pepper’s Ghost projects.
Assignment for Next Week: Build an anti-surveillance, deception, or camouflage device. (2 weeks. Due on 3/29)

Read for Next Week:

No Class on 3/22 (SPRING BREAK!)

Week 7 (3/29): Magic Items: Rings, Swords, and the Internet of Things.
GUEST: David Rose
In class: Present your anti-surveillance, deception, or camouflage devices.
Assignment for Next Week: Pick a spell from the AD&D Player’s Handbook (any edition), other fantasy role playing game, or from fantasy literature or mythology, and make it real. (Three Week Assignment, due on 4/26.)

Read for Next Week:

Week 8 (4/5): Computational Demonology; Ghosts in the Machines.
In class: Markov Chain Twitterbot Workshop.
Assignment for Next Week:

  • Continue Working on you Magic Item (Due 4/26).
  • Explore possible Final Project Ideas. Prepare to present ideas on 4/26

Read for Next Week:

No Class on 4/12 (Media Lab Member Week)

No Class on 4/19 (Patriots Day)

Week 9 (4/26): Digital Magic: The Mathematics of Mystery
In class:

    • Present your Magic Item.
    • The Magic Circle
    • Present your Final Project Ideas

Assignment for Next Week: WORK ON YOUR FINAL PROJECT

Read for Next Week:

Week 10 (5/3): Showmanship, Environment, and Illusion
In class: Final Project update. How will you incorporate the readings?
Assignment for Next Week: No Assignment. FINISH YOUR FINAL PROJECT.

Read for Next Week: No Reading. FINISH YOUR FINAL PROJECT.

Week 11 (5/10): Final Project Presentation