Tricks with cards are nothing new for a magician. You shuffle them, you guess which one your audience member has chosen, you pull them out from behind somebody’s ear. So far, so run-of-the-mill extraordinary. But using “augmented reality” to animate your joker card so that he comes alive and does a little pogo-sticking around is magic of a rather different order. It is the magic of the future. It is also the magic of Marco Tempest.
Tempest – virtual magician, cyber-illusionist, computer whiz – is the force behind a technological revolution in the world of wands and top hats. The Swiss magician’s tricks of the trade are more likely to involve an iPhone or infrared LED tracking markers than a rabbit. Where most of his peers like intimate audiences, he has almost 33 million views on his YouTube channel. And while they prefer to keep their trade secrets under wraps, he believes in opening up his methods and collaborating with scientists. “I’d rather talk to someone who’s interested in artificial intelligence than discuss the next card trick or newest way to make a coin disappear,” he says.
His combination of cutting-edge technology and traditional sleight of hand leaves audiences struggling to understand what’s real, what’s magic and what falls into the shadowy half-land of virtual reality. During a recent show at the TEDGlobal ideas conference in Edinburgh, the audience watched as Tempest put on a pair of augmented reality goggles and performed card tricks while holding a conversation with the disembodied female voice of his computer. She was impressed: “Marco, I didn’t know you could do all that.” Judging by the applause, the audience was impressed as well.
For most of us, the emergence of a new technology, be it satnav or the touch-screen tablet, always seems a bit magical. Professional performers have long been quick to capitalise on this. One of Tempest’s heroes is 19th-century French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. “He used elements of deception and illusion to make his automatons do things that other automatons couldn’t do,” Tempest says. “He foreshadowed advances in robotics in that way.” By anticipating where technology might go, and adding some magic to fill in the gaps, Tempest is determined to do something similar. His performances are designed “to make possible today what science will make a reality tomorrow”.
In Marco Tempest’s world, the question of reality often pops up where you least expect it. Take his name. Many assume it’s a pseudonym. But he insists that it’s real, the legacy of an English stepfather with the surname Tempest. “People would say, ‘Oh that’s a great name’, and I’d say, ‘Nobody can pronounce it’.” As a little boy in Switzerland it was confusing. Now it’s the perfect moniker.
Dark-haired, with an engaging grin and a habit of saying “fingers crossed” before he starts a performance, Tempest first became interested in magic when he was around eight years old and found a conjuring set in a flea market. It didn’t have any instructions so he would stand in front of the mirror and pretend he knew what he was doing. “It would all be in my mind, telling this story,” he says. As he kept practising, his career took off, and by the time he was 22 he had won the prestigious New York World Cup of Magic.
But Tempest was never satisfied by the confines of traditional magic. He laments the fact that most magicians are “fixated on the past … a lot of the magic we see now was invented in the 1950s”. Growing up in a working-class family, he didn’t have much access to computers, but was always fascinated by them. When Steve Jobs brought out the NeXT computer in 1988, Tempest, by then in his early twenties, seized his opportunity. “I wrote a letter saying that if I had one of those boxes I could create the ‘NeXT wave of magic’.” They sent him a $20,000 computer. “It didn’t do what I imagined it would do,” Tempest remembers, but he hooked it up to a VCR and pretended that it could “go a little bit past what’s technologically possible”.
For the next 20 years, Tempest simulated such effects as touch-screen technology. Eventually the science caught up, making the things he’d often pretended to have widely and cheaply available. During this period, Tempest also became known as someone corporations could go to when they wanted to emotionalise technology. If Nokia want to promote a new phone or Mercedes-Benz their new museum, he’s often the guy who gets the call. “A lot of what I do is being very close to this emerging technology … this sometimes gives me the competitive advantage in my magic.”
Much of what he learns ends up on stage. Dressed down in a black t-shirt, he may take to the podium with three synchronised iPhones and shuffle them like a deck of cards. He’ll show a butterfly on the screen and then produce a seemingly live one or animate a pop-up book and use face tracking to strike up a conversation with conjured figures from the past. In one show, he draws a stick man on a white board before using projection mapping to bring him to life. “Magicians say a lot of times, ‘knock ’em dead’. I don’t want to do that,” he says. “If you can trick the audience into thinking of something other than ‘how did he do it?’ – that’s mission accomplished for me.”
Magicians are notorious for the secrecy of the world in which they operate. “Magic in itself is very introverted,” says Tempest. “There’s this incredible knowledge out there but it’s not liberally interfaced with other fields of research…. ” His aim is to work with people across the spectrum of science and technology, drawing on and making use of their knowledge. “A big theme in my work is to actually interface with other scientists … and together create seemingly impossible things.” Tempest recently spoke at the MIT Media Lab and is collaborating with the NYU Media Research Lab on a new augmented reality project.
How has all this openness gone down within the magic community itself? Tempest insists he still abides by the code of non-disclosure, joking that he would never disclose how another performer made cutlery bend or cigarettes float in space. But he believes that magic needs to be more open. “When [magicians] look at it closer, they see that it’s not actually giving away their methods of magic. It’s giving away my inventions, the things that I contributed to the field of computer vision.”
Looming over all of this is a bigger enigma: the question of what “real” magic actually is. Do people ever feel cheated by the fact that Tempest’s tricks are based on technology as well as illusion? Or that his open-source approach means an enterprising individual could recreate them at home? Tempest believes much of this depends on the audience. “People in the Middle East, they want to see more ‘magic’ magic. People in Hong Kong are just happy if it’s multimedia and high-tech. People in Brazil, they just want you to be good looking.” Certainly the viewers in his YouTube family are swift to tell him what they enjoy and what they don’t.
Tempest is candid about his own magical preferences. “I don’t like tricks where it changes colour – bang! Or it disappears – bang! I like something that levitates for more than just a split second.” Another scientist at TED demonstrated a levitating disc, the product of quantum physics and a superconductor. Magic of a different order, but you can sense Tempest might try to work it into his next act. His particular focus at the moment is artificial intelligence and perception, a field that is still cost prohibitive, but where he is hoping to do more work. “Magic … allows people to reinvent themselves continuously or to bring in what is truly interesting to them,” he says.
For all his mastery of technology, Tempest still loves performing in front of a live audience. “If you see it live, there’s this intimacy, there’s a connection. You see more if you see something live.” But as an audience member, you still don’t see enough to really fathom quite how Tempest does what he does. The screens flicker, the cards jump, the trick plays out. And as he grins at the end of the act, you can glimpse that little boy standing in front of the mirror trying to do magic with the most powerful technology of all: his mind.
Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine