Digital illusionists Keelan Leyser (left) and Matt Daniel-Baker
Digital illusionists Keelan Leyser (left) and Matt Daniel-Baker

Welcome to the age of digital magic

  • Technology is transforming the world of magic, with magicians creating digital illusions, complex tricks and innovative new apps
  • Magic is also a subject of research at science laboratories and universities, leading to different innovations

One of Rahul Kharbanda’s most popular acts uses a soft drink bottle and a gadget such as the iPad, and he never fails to elicit a gasp from the audience. Kharbanda, who describes himself as an iPad magician, places the bottle on the screen, pushes it inwards, and the bottle disappears into the iPad in a blink. He then pulls it out from the screen and places it on top again, to resounding applause.

Far away in Las Vegas, US, one can see Keelan Leyser stun shoppers at a lifestyle store with his brand of digital street magic. He shows them products—nail polish, pens, and more—on a website, pulls the ones they like from the screen and places them in their hands. In another act, his colleague Matt Daniel-Baker and he perform digital illusions of the more advanced kind—tablets are stacked vertically or horizontally in a line, and objects can be seen flitting from one screen to another at their command.

According to an article on his website, Leyser, who has performed in over 60 countries, including on television shows such as Masters Of Illusion in the US, creates stage shows using gadgets and technologies ranging from iPads, virtual reality, holograms and drones to robotics.

Gone are the days when magic meant pulling a rabbit out of a hat or having an assistant lie down on top of standing swords—or, at best, doing a Houdini-esque disappearing act. Today, illusions involve digital effects and gadgetry. Apps on the phone are, in fact, disguised tricks. At the basic level, predictions are emailed to unsuspecting audience members, instead of being shown as handwritten notes. At an advanced level, magicians can break your phone code or disappear from the stage into a screen.

Kharbanda often presents his take on a classical card trick. “Usually, when an audience member has thought of a card, the magician takes that card out of someone else’s pocket. I present it differently. When the card is chosen, I throw the deck into the iPad, where it rotates until the correct card reveals itself," he says. For illusionists such as Kharbanda, the shift to technology is inevitable, given that everyone from an eight-year-old to an 80-year-old is hooked to apps and gadgets. “In such a case, the use of digital technology offers a natural connect with the audience, and that wow factor," he says.

To be a proficient illusionist, however, it is imperative to master the concepts of traditional magic first. Kharbanda himself started off as an assistant to his father, Ashok Kharbanda, who came from the hub of magic, Kolkata, to Delhi in 1982. “I have been part of his grand illusions, hence the concepts were very clear. But I was looking for something to make it unique. So my brother Sumit—also an illusionist—and I decided to experiment with technology," he says. His attempt at digital magic coincided with companies wanting something “different" for product launches, promotions and corporate events.

Kharbanda, then, has been busy working with companies for events, the latest being ones in Mumbai for Asian Paints, Tata Steel and Halonix last month. Leyser too has performed across India, with performances for Unilever, Vodafone, Airtel and ESPN. He has even had a brush with Bollywood, presenting his brand of iPad magic at the music launch of the 2014 film Happy New Year, pulling out CDs, chocolates, tennis balls and flowers for Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and other cast members.

Today, magic is also a subject of research at science laboratories and universities, leading to innovations in the form of apps for professional magicians. For instance, researchers at London’s Queen Mary University have taught the computer to create magic tricks—the programme is given an outline of a magic jigsaw puzzle, card tricks and mind reading. It is also fed the results of experiments of how the human mind understands these tricks. The system then delivers new variants which can be performed by a magician.

A card trick, Phoney, was launched recently on the Google Play Store. Co-creator Howard Williams explained the significance of the app in a press statement: “Computer intelligence can process much larger amounts of information and run through all the possible outcomes in a way that is almost impossible for a person to do on their own. So, while, a member of the audience might have seen a variation on this trick before, the AI can now use psychological and mathematical principles to create lots of different versions and keep audiences guessing."

The Wall Street Journal, in a November 2015 article, “Magic-Trick Apps To Unleash Your Inner David Blaine", too mentions such apps for professional and amateur digital magicians. It talks about A.I. Magic, which has a surprisingly realistic mock Siri interface. Created by magician Rich Ferguson, the app is described on WSJ thus: “You tell your friends there’s a new, experimental feature for Siri. It may sound crazy, you continue, but Siri can now sense your brain waves to read your mind. To prove it, you spread out a deck of cards face up and ask your friend to touch any one, without naming it aloud so your phone can’t hear. You launch Siri, and, lo and behold, she names the correct card."

Technology has not just changed the nature and content of magic but has also brought the global community of magicians closer. They can now connect through online forums and Facebook groups, discussing newer techniques and collaborations.

Psychological illusionist Arvind Jayashankar
Psychological illusionist Arvind Jayashankar

For instance, psychological illusionist Arvind Jayashankar, who has performed in over 45 countries, including off-Broadway in New York City and on the Dutch show, De Nieuwe Uri Geller, used to moderate a forum of 80,000 members on Ellusionist.com, the leading online magic store. He would share his knowledge and expertise with both professional as well as aspiring magicians. “The forum has now shifted to Facebook, where magicians discuss performing styles and special fields such as mind reading," says Jayashankar.

On Ellusionist.com, Jayashankar would come across Indian magicians on and off, but ever since the shift to Facebook, he has been encountering a lot of young Asian magicians. “I am seeing a lot of people use mobile phones, tablets, and progressing to incorporating digital effects," he says. “The idea is to see how you can manipulate magic using an everyday object—after all, there is no denying now that the mobile is an everyday object."

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