‘Magical’ iPhone put to use in actual magic


Magician Josh Norris, left, does a magic trick with the iPhone of Kristen Byrne, center, and Lennon English at Mad Hatter Restaurant on July 15 in Washington, D.C. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Doris Fuller and her daughter-in-law Carole Fuller are dining at Madhatter restaurant when a magician walks up with a deck of cards. “Can you make her disappear?” Doris says, smiling at Carole.

Ha-ha. That Doris! The magician, Josh Norris, who performs regularly at the Dupont Circle eatery, does a few card tricks, then asks for a phone. Carole hands over her iPhone with the eagerness of someone facing a root canal. “She loves that thing,” her mother-in-law warns.

Norris blows up a balloon. He places the iPhone in one hand, the balloon in the other. He presses them together, letting the air out, somehow sucking the phone into the balloon. The phone rings.

Norris scrambles to free it. “Kristy, it’s so funny you would call right now,” Carole says to her friend on the other end, “because a magician just took my phone out of a balloon.”

The phone-in-the-balloon is a shiny upgrade of a trick nearly as ancient as the original balloon occupant: a deck of cards. Later, Norris will use his phone’s camera in a trick that lets marks see flames from a lighter appear as the shape of numbers from cards hidden in a box. A waitress at the Madhatter will go, “Wow, I don’t think my phone does that.” Then she will fall silent awhile.

Steve Jobs constantly calls his inventions “magical,” and the iPhone is certainly capable of some gee-whiz feats, such as identifying the calorie content of foods by taking pictures of them. But smartphones are showing up in actual magic as props and, increasingly, with sophisticated apps that allow magicians to seemingly pull coins from screens, light matches and predict the denomination of a bill someone is thinking of.

In the Washington region — a boomtown for magicians who make things disappear at political events, trade shows, corporate junkets and on the cash-cow birthday party/bar mitzvah circuit — the high-tech magic used onstage and in close-up performances has prompted some soul-searching about whether the encroachment of smartphones on yet another part of our daily lives has gone too far.

Some wonder: Who is magical? The magician or the device?

“These things allow you to do sleight of hand without doing sleight of hand, and since I spent so much time learning sleight of hand, I might as well do it myself,” said Brian Curry, a popular magician in Northern Virginia. “If we use a smartphone, people will give it all the credit. Chances are people would say, ‘There’s an app for that,’ ” another marketing line Apple founder Jobs has minted.

There are dozens of magic apps on the market, with new ones seemingly appearing every day and being chronicled on YouTube. One of the most popular and debated is iForce, created by a former professional magician and available for $2.99 in Apple’s app store. The app, which utilizes technology in the phone, is so convincing that tech columnist David Pogue not long ago chronicled a campaign by some magicians to give it negative reviews to keep the wider public from discovering it. (Instructions hidden in magic apps give the tricks away.)

‘Emotional investment’

Laurel magician Eric Henning (no relation to Doug Henning) uses smartphone applications as part of his routine, which he often performs at Chick-fil-A outlets. The other day, at a Silver Spring Chick-fil-A, Henning demonstrated iForce to a lunch companion.

Henning showed a blank screen that looked like a doodle pad. He put the phone facedown.

Think of a number between 1 and 8.Done: 7.

There was some magical patter. Are you sure? Are you ready? Blah blah.

He turned the phone over, nice and slow. There it was on the doodle screen, written with what appeared to be a shaky pencil: 7.

“You might be thinking it’s voice activated, so let’s do something else,” Henning said. He cleared the screen.

Write down a denomination of money. Done: Twenty bucks.

“You’re really at the top of the bell curve,” Henning said. Then he quickly turned the phone over. There it was on the doodle screen, $20.

As confounding as the trick seems, some magicians question its bona fides. The other day, local magician Vick Gisin posted this comment on a YouTube video of someone using the app: “It’s a sort of neat little puzzle but it’s not really magic. There is no emotional investment.”

In an interview, Greg Rostami, the app’s developer, acknowledged that iForce runs the risk of making the phone the magician — but he said that could be overcome by a prestidigitator who blends the technology into a strong theatrical performance in which the app seems almost secondary.

Henning and other area magicians say they often prefer performing tricks that combine the new technology with classic sleight of hand. Out of nowhere, just after polishing off some chicken strips and fries, Henning displayed his iPhone, which had a large coin floating around the screen from side to side, up and down. He flipped his wrist, and the coin bounced on the table. Soon the coin vanished and reappeared from his nose, then in his hand, then gone from his hand and gone for good.

How’d he do that!?

“That’s why I like that trick so much,” Henning said. “If people think I just was able to do something because I bought an app, that’s not magic. Once they have an explanation that doesn’t involve magic, magic is over.”

‘Tension is good’

Surprisingly, one of the big local supporters of phone magic is Richard Kaufman, a District publisher of hundreds of magic books and magazines such as Genii. In many ways, Kaufman, 53, is the industry’s institutional memory. He can rattle off tricks and their creators the way baseball geeks can name MVPs and Gold Glove winners.

Describing an app that makes coins switch places on the screen, Kaufman said: “It’s patently stupid, and there’s no reason educated people should have an interest in it, but despite the fact that it’s incredibly stupid, it seems to work. It kills people.”

Kaufman likened the effect to the reaction of an audience in a movie theater when a train on the screen suddenly appears to be heading toward them, getting closer, closer, closer, ohmygod!

“People scream. They get scared,” Kaufman said. “Something like that shouldn’t scare you, yet it does. Our brains are hard-wired for this stuff, apparently.”

Kaufman is not as enamored of using phones as props, such as in the bit Norris performed at the Madhatter with an iPhone and a balloon. Norris, like other magicians interviewed, said he likes using smartphones as props in tricks because people have such strong attachments to them. Their affection is such that some people refuse to turn over their devices, the same way some people refuse to allow their wedding rings to be used in tricks.

“The emotion causes tension, and tension is good,” Norris said. “It can add extra power to the effect.”

In the end — love ’em or hate ’em — Kaufman said he thinks the magician’s craft will survive iPhones, that the technology Jobs has wrought is simply another evolution that magicians either incorporate into their acts or ignore with little harm. There was the telephone. There was photography. There was video. There was the App Store.

“There have been questions in the magical community since the very first hint of technology: Will we seem less magical because of technology X?” Kaufman said. “No.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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