In some of his recent acts, though he is live on stage, you are instructed to watch him on a large screen above his head. This allows the AR aspects to be laid over the live film. He has constructed a system that allows the superimposed images to interact with his movements by using a complex system of infrared tracking markers and high-speed cameras. In one particular card trick, we see through his eyes via a camera attached to a pair of glasses. As he lays down a joker, for example, the jester comes alive and starts dancing about.
Some magicians have a hard time understanding this. Why would a magician share this information for free? It doesn’t make sense to my peers
Tempest says, “In that routine it is not just about adding computer graphic layers on top of existing objects but actually, on the fly, photographing the real world environment and then changing it around without it feeling like I’ve just overlaid the real world with computer graphics.”
During a recent talk at TED he explained the beauty of illusion through an act where he used AR that appears three-dimensional as he walks around and in front of certain virtual objects. In quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the ‘suspension of disbelief’, the poet’s face is projected onto Tempest’s own face.
You may think that using AR is somehow cheating, that magic is about fooling the audience with sleight of hand alone but part of the magic when it comes to Tempest is in his ability to harness the technology required to bring his synthesis of the virtual and real world alive. He has collaborated with technicians and programmers over the years to create an incredibly sophisticated set up – AR is still fairly nascent in general terms and it is through the pioneering work of people like Tempest and his collaborators that it is rapidly advancing. Interestingly, and contrary to the traditional ethos of magicians, he is a fan of the open source movement and is fairly open himself when it comes to explaining the technology behind his tricks.
Tempest notes, “The typical model involves a magician who hires a consultant to help him do something and then that’s kept secret. I, however, bring together this group of people in a non-hierarchical system; we create things and share them with others. This is usual in the open source world but very unusual in magic. Some magicians have a hard time understanding this. Why would a magician share this information for free? It doesn’t make sense to my peers.”
His route into technological magic started in the late 80s after he brazenly wrote to Steve Jobs, who at the time had just set up a new computer company called NeXt, asking for a free computer. Tempest says, “ I said in the letter, ‘if you give me one of these computers I can give the neXt wave magic’ and they actually sent me one. It was amazing. I was still living at my Grandmother’s house in Switzerland and they sent me about $20,000 worth of gear. But it didn’t do what I thought it would do. It didn’t play video and it didn’t do computer graphics like they were starting to do in Hollywood movies back then so I had to break it up and kind of hack the monitor to get what I wanted.”
In those days however, technology was still far too primitive to create what he can do today. Tempest says, “It is only in the last five years or so that technology has really picked up, that we can, without being at the MIT Media Lab and having access to super computers and million dollar rigs, do it on a Macbook Pro or PC.”
Back in 2006, Tempest decided to pare things down, taking his magic onto the street and filming it on a mobile phone with no post-production or editing. One trick, involving a shrinking umbrella, was played on the Jay Leno show in the US and today has received nearly 3 million hits on YouTube.
It is also a story that, at its core, is about somebody who is very dear to my heart, he is one of my heroes
His latest act is perhaps less of a magic trick and more of a dedication to one of Tempest’s unsung heroes, Nikola Tesla, who developed the alternating current system among other things.
In this piece images are projected onto a pop-up book. This was achieved by using 3D spatial scans and creating a piece of software that locates the geometry enabling it to know what to project onto each piece.
Tempest also wore a mask onto which faces were projected. Projection mapping is not too difficult when it is being used on locked-off surfaces but as his face was moving they needed to create a face-mapping module which used infrared LED markers to allow the projection to move with the face.
He says, “It’s technically very complicated and it was a fairly large group of people involved. It is also a story that, at its core, is about somebody who is very dear to my heart, he is one of my heroes.”
Watch the video below to see how ‘Nikola Tesla in Sound and Light’ was made. It doesn’t look easy, that’s for sure.