a Difference a Year Makes
Jon Thompson is a freelance writer by day and performer by night. He's the author of The Stripper Deck, Poker Faced, and Naked Mentalism, all published by lulu.com.
Last summer, I released an ebook called "Electronics for Magicians". No prizes for guessing its subject matter, The book gained a few favourable reviews and the extra publicity ensured that sales have been pleasingly strong ever since, but more interesting for me were the doors this slim volume opened.
Last November, at the excellent Tabula Mentis convention at lovely old Hitchin Priory in Darkest Hertfordshire, I quietly launched the beginnings of a range of affordable utility devices I call "Factotums", after the name of a servant that performs many tasks for his master. The first was a simple radio thumper. I think most people who decide to combine mentalism with electronics begin with this kind of device. It seems to be a rite of passage, something to get out of your system. I also launched a second device that detects neos, and if you don't know what a neo is, why are you reading this? The Factotum Magnet Detector has since become a bit of an underground phenomenon. Being so sensitive and tuneable, it's capable of carrying out many different tasks, from playing "which hand is the coin in and which way up is it" to keeping people safe during all-too-dangerous performances of effects like Spiked. I think we've all laughed and winced in equal measure at gung-ho performers who have mistakenly slammed their hand down on the nail, or even worse, the hand of a spectator.
Over the winter, people began emailing to enquire about private commissions for electronic props. One or two turned out to be asking me to cheaply recreate commercial devices cheaper than their legitimate developers. That's an idea I will not entertain.
One or two requesters had no concept of what's possible, and required me to somehow invent technology that takes next to no space (including the power source) and yet does something incredible, like freshly printing full newspaper pages inside a performer's suit jacket! It's a sad fact that hardware takes up space. Motors cannot be made incredibly small and yet incredibly powerful, and they always make a noise. The same goes for servomotors, which I love working with but still have a faint whine to them when in operation. Batteries are limited by something called their power density. This means that the more power you need, the bigger the battery generally needs to be. Despite this, I've been hard at work creating some interesting and unique pieces for performance spaces and individuals. Along the way, I've learned something very important that I want to share with you (here comes the rant).
When you cut away requests for impossible 'James Bond' tech, what's left is usually best handled by keeping the hardware as simple as possible and escaping into software. Microcontroller chips, even tiny ones with little memory, are designed to sense and control their environment, which makes them ideal for creating that certain "ghost in the machine" that customers demand from avant-garde props. They're ultra reliable, cheap and easy to work with. Best of all, if you're good at programming, you can fit an awful lot of functionality (even simple artificial intelligence) into a very small amount of RAM indeed. Software simplifies hardware, and once software only needs writing once, leading to lower overall retail costs.
Some people who hang around magic forums spreading their prejudices and views as fact - I call them "armchair performers", and we've all had rows with a few of them I'll wager - hold that the use of electronics in mentalism and magic is a recipe for disaster. Things will break at the least appropriate time, batteries will fail and so on. And yet, any competent designer will tell you that these problems can all be traced directly back to the fitness of the design for the purpose to which it's put. Physical build quality is vital. I have no idea how true the story is, but I was very concerned a couple of years ago by a tale posted on the Magic Café about one performer who was packing for a gig when a gadget he was relying on as the centrepiece of his act literally fell apart in his hands. That's completely unacceptable.
Flimsy parts or rushing a design for a gaff to market are two of the real recipes for disaster. Unencrypted communications links, or devices that are susceptible to the radiation given off by mobile phones are two more. A performer trying to get away with the old battery he took from the TV remote rather than using a freshly-charged set of high capacity batteries taken directly from their charger and put into the equipment as part of his pre-show ritual is yet another. There's an onus not only on designers to adopt sound principles, but also for users to follow the operating instructions. Several users have contacted me to say that the range of the Factotum Magnetic Thumper gradually gets smaller over time, to which, I always reply: "When did you last change the batteries?"
By simplifying the design of the hardware as much as possible, physical problems are minimised and easily spotted at the prototyping stage. The real effort in building such devices is then transferred to the design of the software, which must be properly designed and completely tested using a proper design methodology, not lashed together until it stops failing. "Hacking" code around may be coo, but there's no substitute for the real effort of proper software design. Providing there's good, solid design from the initial idea stage onwards, and by spending time making devices genuinely user friendly, there's no reason why magic and mentalism can't be joined by reliable, highly functional electronic helpmates. These are the real "ghosts in the machine" and I want to see more developers bringing out low cost stuff like this.
Perhaps best of all, microcontrollers allow for field upgrades. Over time, feedback on the current functionality of a device may lead to pressure to create an upgrade to the software. When that happens, it's possible to simply pop the lid of the device, prise out the old microcontroller, and push home a new one. Send the old one back for a discount on other products. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been done before.
The best of mentalism, like the best of anything, is a blend that produces an overall effect that's far more potent than the sum of its parts. Good art - the stuff that doesn't need a slip of paper on the wall next to it explaining what the hell it is you're looking at - simply 'speaks' to us. Really well presented mentalism is most definitely art, just as really well presented magic is art (take the time to look up some old Tommy Wonder performances on YouTube).
It seems to me that a flat refusal to explore the frontiers opened by new techniques and technologies is akin to 19th century impressionists refusing to accept the amazing galaxy of vibrant colours made possible by chemistry, preferring instead to laboriously grind their own expensive pigments. Meanwhile, Turner was painting his masterpiece about the passing of sail into the age of steam in the shape of The Fighting Téméraire, with its lush purples, greens and blues giving shadows a translucent reality never seen before in oils.
But above all, we must never abandon completely an old technique just because a newer one is available. In art, there is actually a place for grinding your own pigments, just as there is a place for the very oldest of mentalism techniques. The key is to know when each is appropriate, to know where a newer technique can leave you free to develop what you do into true art, and when that art will come from a synthesis of techniques both old and new.
Anyway, that's quite enough ranting for one month. What does the future hold? Well, I'm very pleased to announce that in May, I shook hands on a deal with Costas Damianou from the UK's Magic Tao to sell the first two volumes of Naked Mentalism, and also the Factotum Magnetic Thumper. More devices are to follow. Volume 3 of Naked Mentalism is also underway, as is volume 2 of Electronics for Magicians. It's already been a busy year and looks set to become even busier. But I'm sure I'll have something to rant about each month, here where Thinking is most definitely Allowed.
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