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How To Design Mixed Reality Experiences Like A Magician

How To Design Mixed Reality Experiences Like A Magician

When a magician steps onto the stage, or approaches an audience member signaling the invitation into the show, the hush of anticipation from the audience is palpable. Audiences are intrigued by magic not because it's a performance of tricks, but because of its ability to conjure wonder and awe with impossibilities that take place in their physical reality.

Mixed reality blurs the realms of digital and physical realities offering more of a playground for magic to take place. And, it creates the opportunity to bring magic into audiences' personal environments. In my keynotes, I often share my formula for magic moments. Magic is the sum of in-depth audience insights, strong storytelling and the right technology. And this technology must be as invisible as the magician's sleight of hand. Creators can build magic moments using mixed reality by investing in robust world-building, insights into audiences and their physical realities, and harnessing the power of the most relevant tech features.

Emotions Make Magic Feel Real

Emotions help magicians control audience attention. They also make magic feel real.

While illusions are tricks, magic is as real as the emotions that audiences feel. It's the experience that audiences have after witnessing magic moments that makes magic real. When it comes to mixed reality, magic moments can take many forms. As David Copperfield has shared, “it’s not about the illusion, it’s about the illusion plus caring about why it’s happening.” Storytelling makes people care.

Curtis Hickman is Co-Founder & CCO of The VOID and author of Hyper-Reality: The Art of Designing Impossible Experiences. When it comes to magic moments in mixed reality, he describes them as most often being when “the digital and physical worlds converge seamlessly, creating an experience that feels impossible. It's that fleeting instant when users forget they are interacting with technology and are completely immersed in the blended experience, feeling genuine surprise, wonder, and awe.” Magic is a feeling we should aspire to create for audiences.

Greg Madison is a former analog magician, now crafting digital illusions as an interaction designer in the realm of spatial computing for decades. He explains that mixed reality unlocks even more opportunities for emotions. “Mixed reality uniquely positions individuals as both the spectator and the magician, embarking on a personal journey to discover their own superpowers and unveil where the magic resides.” How he wants audiences to feel in an experience is a decision that he makes at the start of a project. “I begin by imagining the illusion I want to create, considering the context, narrative, and the emotions I desire to stir within the audience.”

From XEOPlay's upcoming Follow the White Rabbit XR mystery adventure.

Nicole Lazzaro, President and Founder of XEOPlay, has been fascinated with magic since she was a child. Her first professional project was producing and designing a CD-I that taught magic, and she knows the value of understanding audiences deeply, working as one of the first people to measure emotions on people's faces while they played. Lazzaro is currently leaning into the emotions that magic can create in the soon-to-be-released XR mystery adventure game called Follow the White Rabbit.

“Our goal here is to create wonder, to create the emotions of magic… and not recreate magic tricks… You’re not going to feel magic if an audience simply gets a magic hat” she explains, no matter what is pulled out of it. It’s because the player knows that it’s a virtual hat. Therefore, to create the feeling of magic, those emotions must come “from what the players actually do in the world ... .Wonder is actually your reward for learning.”

Different Scale Can Convey Different Kinds of Wonder

Stephen Macknik, professor and partner of NeuroExperts and co-author of Sleights of Mind explains that “different scales of magic…convey different kinds of wonder.” For example, with close-up magic “you’re right there. You can grab the objects in your hand. It's in your personal space. It feels impossible that [the magicians] are using technologies.”

Close-up magic often takes place on a table shared with the magician and audience, or within a similar distance. Parlor magic often takes place in a small room which may be similar in size to the average living room. Stage magic is often associated with more grand illusions. In reality, the feelings that magicians can inspire change based on the proximity to the performance and your level of interactivity with it. This even impacts the role that you can play in the story being brought to life. When it comes to mixed reality, the emotions possible can range from close-up and parlor magic to grand illusions because mixed reality can show everything from portals into other spaces or full transportation to an immersive environment where scale can vary more dramatically.

Susana Martinez-Conde, a Professor, NeuroExperts Partner and Co-Author of Sleights of Mind, explains that magic illusions can feel like powerful experiences when magicians use everyday objects. These are often present in close-up or parlor magic. Magicians pass around these everyday objects for the audience to inspect and interact with physically so that they identify that they “are real and…haven’t been manipulated.” Her challenge to creators is finding ways to retain that feeling of wonder when audiences are asked to manipulate artificial reality. One approach to this challenge could be to first let people inspect real world items, which may retain their physical properties but create new reactions to the digital realities in an experience.

Create New Rules To Be Broken

Magic often defies what’s perceived as impossible in audiences’ realities, with effects that are brought to life by the magician. Mixed reality gives creators the opportunity to defy perceived impossibilities in audiences’ real environments as well as the fully immersive digital realities of an experience.

“While traditional magic has always been bound by the physical constraints of a stage and the presence of a magician” explains Hickman, “mixed reality transcends these boundaries. It invites users to step into a world where magic isn't just something they witness, but something they actively experience within their own familiar surroundings. This profound shift from passive observation to active participation helps reimagine the relationship between audiences and magical experiences. It fosters a deeply personal and immersive connection, making magic feel less like a fleeting spectacle and more like an integral part of one's reality.”

Lazzaro explains that in order for magic moments to feel real, magicians need to frame the situation by showcasing how the world works and then reinforcing it. A classic magic example of this is when a magician takes actions that showcase that a box is hollow or that they are holding a real fruit. This sets the stage for how things should work based on what the audience is witnessing. I’ve shared examples of this for VR which Hickman referred to as ‘mental arguments. Emotions such as awe can happen when that frame is shattered and something seemingly impossible takes place.

Mixed reality brings in real spaces and objects that can have their rules of existence broken. Even controllers can be integrated into the illusion. Madison explains that part of his process is to “identify props to make the digital illusion tangible. The prop acts as a disguised controller, but subconsciously, it's like handing over a deck of cards at the beginning of a magic trick, anchoring the illusion in reality. For instance, if participants need to control flying entities, cast spells, or invoke elemental deities, I would craft a wizard staff merging virtual and real elements, instead of using the standard controller as a controller.”

Know Your Audiences, Including Their Physical Realities 

As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, in-depth audience insights are part of my formula for creating magic moments. When it comes to mixed reality, this means going far beyond understanding your audience’s aspirations, knowledge and even physical abilities. You need to understand the physical realities of their environment from the typical footprint they have to roam around in, to the typical physical items they may have present with them.

Hickman shares that “creators should start by understanding the physical environment and the user's perspective within that space. Think about how digital elements can interact with the real world in unexpected ways.” A mixed reality illusion “aims to extend reality with digital elements” says Madison. Which reality is being extended is up to the creator. 

Content can create connections between physical and digital realities with causes and effects. Martinez-Conde explains that “we connect cause and effect when we shouldn't…like using a magic wand and an effect happens when in reality those two things have nothing to do with each other.” Madison often creates this connection by using physical objects to “direct attention, and create a sensory bridge, aiding in the establishment of a suspension of disbelief….the 'magic moment' occurs when the brain begins to doubt what is physically present and what is virtual, thereby shaking our certainties about reality itself.”

Don’t shy away from reflective surfaces. Assume that they exist in most audience members’ homes, and shying away from them means missing a detail that could make or break an illusion. Some examples for how to lean into using them include Martinez-Conde’s idea to use a mirror to change how we see ourselves in reality. In reality, mirrors flip our image. We can use mixed reality to take that image and flip it so that an audience member sees themself as others see them. And, “for real physical reflective surfaces like shiny floors, glass tables, windows” Madison suggests creating “reflections using mirrored duplicate geometry with some transparency, and employ a lower Level of Detail if necessary.”

Madison also suggests using 360-degree photos or videos of the physical space as reflection probes to enhance the illusion. Hickman is excited about the possibilities of real-time high fidelity environment mapping. 

“The greater the accuracy of this the better the foundation for great illusions” he explains.

Beyond integration of physical environmental elements, don’t underestimate the power of integrating an audience member, especially their hands, into the digital illusion. Lazzaro explains that there are a lot of emotions that can be brought to life when a real or digital object is interacted with by holding it or even using your hands to cast spells. “It’s very personal” she explains, and it must feel fluid.

Greg Madison’s Tangible Maze - Quest Pro, illustrating the point of "feeling the digital illusion".

The Art of Magic Thrives on Subtlety

“The art of magic thrives on subtlety” explains Hickman. “Its deepest impacts are often felt when it operates in the shadows, unnoticed yet profoundly affecting.” 

Beyond ensuring certain items like lighting and shadows reinforce a reality, Madison assesses the strength of his magic moments by seeking out subtle spoilers.“Surprisingly, I occasionally close my eyes to pinpoint what feels off, understanding that a perfect illusion extends beyond the visual—it should weigh, feel, behave, and sound right. Taking long breaks is crucial, as revisiting with fresh eyes often unveils new insights into what subtle elements break or reinforce the illusions.” As an example he once prototyped a mixed reality roll-a-ball game where players could tilt a real physical frame to guide a virtual sphere. “I attached a controller to track the frame, and what convinced my brain of the marble 'realness' and 'presence' was the tactile feedback from the rumble motors transmitted to my hands via the object as the virtual marble rolled and hit boundaries. This specific illusion can be experienced in Eleven VR Table Tennis or Walkabout Mini Golf.”

Image from XEOPlay's upcoming Follow the White Rabbit XR mystery adventure

Mixed Reality Empowers and Demands Rich Effects

Blending physical and digital realities seamlessly for a mixed reality experience reinforces the need for seemingly real graphics and spatial audio. The good news is reality already appears to be real and doesn’t require computational power.

“In mixed reality, the alignment and interaction between real and digital elements are crucial, and any misalignment can spoil the experience. Graphic fidelity and consistency with the physical environment are key - even more so than in VR” explains Hickman. “A lot of people go with low poly look…For us it breaks the illusion because it clearly separates the virtual from the real” says Lazzaro. Furthermore, her team is focusing on headsets that have color passthrough to help to blend worlds together. Reality can even have a filter applied to it to blend with the look of the digital realm. 

Magic doesn’t have to take place all around an environment to feel real. In mixed reality, Madison explains that the digital content is what takes center stage. This allows “the redirected computational power to be used for enhancing expensive effects mentioned earlier, fortifying the illusion.”

Also consider where and when the magic in your mixed reality content comes to life, as it takes time for eyes to adjust to different distances. Macknik explains further that “when you look at something close up your eyes converge, they rotate inwards towards each other. From a distance my eyes are not crossing that much….your eyes automatically change their level of accommodation.” 

If your illusion is at risk of being spoiled by technical limits such as imperfect tracking or the vergence-accommodation conflict, you should integrate ways to mask the limitation with an effect in the content itself.

Laura Mingail is founder of Archetypes & Effects as well as a strategist and magician focused on innovative forms of storytelling and technologies.

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