Designing The Magical #1: Magic Wands

“The power of the wand is the power of belief” – Jim Cellini

I was on holiday in Scotland and walked into an antique shop. The kind that is part junk shop. They also sold bags of nails.

I picked up something that looked like a fancy magic wand. A length of varnished wood, about 70cm, obviously cut from a thin branch, with bumps and knots still showing. Black painted tip at the thin end. Silver pommel at the other. An ornate stick that a teacher in a 1930s boarding school might have used to indicate distant countries on a large globe.

In front of me, there was a father with his boy, about 7 years-old. They saw me pick up the wand and the kid caught my eye.

I said, “Wow look! A magic wand.”

The kid stared at it in amazement.

I said, “I wonder if it still works?”

I pointed the wand at the kid, waved it around, and stage-whispered, “Wooosh!”

It was like I’d pointed a gun at his face and pulled the trigger. He took a sharp step back and held his breath.

A moment passed.

It became clear that no magic had transformed him. The wand wasn’t loaded. The kid let out his breath, slumped his shoulders, and glared at me as if to say, “Why would you do such a reckless thing you jerk?”

His dad burst out laughing.

 

It is no surprise that technology developers see the magic wand as a design goal. To be able to control the world at a distance with a gesture is seen as the ultimate interface.

In his book Enchanted Objects, the MIT researcher David Rose talks about enchanted objects as familiar objects that we already know how to use but which take on new, magical abilities with the addition of technology. Magic wands are familiar objects in the sense that we all know how they work – you just wave them and wish, right? – but they are unfamiliar objects because we have never used a real one. They are familiar fantasy objects. Many technology developers would like to make them real.

A few years ago a story, perhaps an urban myth, went around about a man who removed the chip in his Oyster travel card and placed it on the end of a magic wand. He would wave his magic wand and the automatic barriers would open at his command. The story inspired people to try to remove the chips from Oyster cards and turn them into magical objects such as amulets.

The Kymera Wand universal remote control lets you use 13 gestures to control almost all home entertainment and is clearly designed with the Harry Potter fan in mind. It promises an “authentic flicking and swishing action” and comes in a “dark faux dragonhide covered box”. Fantasy skeuomorphism.

The metaphor isn’t always applied so literally but technology developers of mobile devices, Internet of Things, VR, AR, and gaming certainly love the idea of magic wands.

To understand why magic wands are such a useful but complex metaphor we need to consider violent play.

Brian Sutton-Smith spent his life studying play and eventually referred to the stories that children invent themselves as Fictions of the Irrational. These stories are often full of sexual imagery and graphic violence. What the children are doing is trying to understand the world by creating stories about the events and actions that are most irrational to them. The reason they are full of sex and violence is that the adults around them seem obsessed with these topics and the children are trying to understand why. When I met Brian we discussed how children use the idea of magic to understand the world of violence and power.

One of the key elements of fantasy play is that there are no real consequences. This lack of consequences is as much a reward as a medal or a points system. Through “violent” fantasies children learn to delay gratification, prioritize, consider the perspectives of others, represent things symbolically, and control impulses (Leong and Bodrova, Early Childhood Today, 2005) . Fantasy violence allows children to enact their fears and frustrations and to deal with them in a safe and contained manner (Killing Monsters, Gerard Jones, 2002).

Creating Fictions of the Irrational with imaginary weapons – guns, bows and arrows, spears, ray-guns – seems to be a universal childhood activity. Perhaps this is rooted in deep-seated hunting behavior but its expression is more complex than that simple explanation might suggest.

All weapons in fantasy play are effectively magic wands that help us feel powerful. They give us effortless strength, the ability to control objects and people at a distance, the power to vanquish enemies and rescue comrades, and the support we need to do the right thing in difficult times.

The magic contained in the wand is confidence.

Although all fantasy weapons can be seen as types of magic wands, the magic wand itself is different from a gun or a bow in that it does not fire external projectiles such as bullets and arrows, instead, it fires the power of its wielder. This gives it a different embodied character. It feels different to channel your imaginary power than it does to shoot a bullet. A wand used in fantasy play gives a strong embodied sensation.

For a magician, a wand is also a way to control the attention of the audience. The straight black wand with white tips is a clear way of optimising the design so that the tip attracts the eye when it is waved, spun, or pointed. It can be used for creating rhythm and indicating timing. It is the conductor’s baton of the magical. A wand is a tool for indicating the moment and the location of a magic effect. Bear in mind that, for a magician, anything can be used as a wand. A pencil, a coin, a finger, a book. All can be used to control attention towards the effect.

I’ve been thinking and lecturing about magic wands and commercial technology since the mid-1990s when I designed for a variety of Interactive TV remote controls. They also turn up a lot in my work with artists, for example when I was an advisor on the Interactivos?: Magic and Technology projects in Madrid 2007 and Lima 2009 the workshops featured prototype wands of various types and a lot of action at a distance. This Nature article about the Lima project mentions one particular work where visitors could use a magic wand to control the outline of shadows. The work is Mestre das sombras by Ricardo Nascimiento.

In a world where the experience of remote touch is becomingly increasingly important, we need to take the opportunity to explore the subtleties of magic wand design more critically.

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