Recently in my favourite magic discussion group, SME Talk, Stephen Kilgore shared a DIY magic project idea using a cheap home alarm system to create a mentalism effect. Normally this sort of electronic magic comes at a premium price, so magicians were naturally attracted to this bargain bin idea.
So much about this is what I love about magic. Creatively looking at things around you for magical properties. Adapting old ideas to new opportunities. Sharing your ideas to inspire others. Mr. Kilgore is a shining example of this on a regular basis. It’s been a great, positive discussion.
But… something is bugging me.
Something about this trick feels wrong to me. I never thought about it when it was a $500 prop, but when it is an easily attainable $30 dollar project I feel compelled to at least consider it.
The trick Stephen constructed goes something like this; You have a row of six coloured blocks on a tray. You turn away. They choose one, and are instructed to lift it up to clearly show the audience their choice. The block is replaced, and you can then reveal the object they picked.
The secret relies on an electronic home alarm, intended to tell you which door or window of your home has been opened. In this case, you are visually alerted to which block has been “stolen” from the tray.
It’s a pretty fundamental mind-reading stunt. Pick any object, I tell you which one you picked. I’ve come across countless techniques for the plot. Gaetan Bloom pulls off the same effect using thread, or Jim Steinmeyer’s impromptu Three Card Monte comes to mind. So there must be something about this method that has captured my attention. It has potential, but also some challenges.
Stephen Kilgore’s Mental Blocks, finished project.
The light-up receiver, along with one of six transmitter units.
Beyond dead batteries, one problem with electronic methods is that the procedure must be precise.
In this case, the chosen object must be lifted and replaced. The performer says it must be done to indicate the choice, but this would be accomplished more naturally by simply pointing or tapping the chosen object. Neither of which would successfully signal the choice to the magician. As such, you must insist the volunteer follows the actions precisely, and that sort of awkward insistence makes a trick much easier to figure out. The lack of casualness makes for a stiff tension, and very often points directly to the method.
This would not be an issue if lifting the block was a more natural, obvious action. So, let’s think about other ways to set up the outcome we need.
What if, instead of colored blocks, they are all identical except for the bottom side. When they are asked to pick a color, they must lift the block in order to do so. This idea would translate to anything that requires physical inspection. It could be a row of coins, if properly gimmicked, and they are asked to pick one of the years. It would be necessary to pick it up to inspect the date, especially if they were heads-side up.
Or, instead of the objects themselves triggering the signal, it could be a covering or cup over the objects. Again, it would be a natural part of the process to lift the cup to look at the object, and trigger the alarm.
The objects could also be removed from the tray entirely, hidden in a pocket or cupped hands. Obviously it would not work to only hide the chosen object, but the alarm would show which object was removed first. The rest can be discarded into a bag, out of sight.
That said, you could also know the order in which the objects are lifted, so you could give instructions to put three objects into different locations, then reveal all three in their proper spots. (Yellow in your left hand, red in your right, and green in your pocket) This would also help to make a very quick trick into a more layered routine.
Now we’re closing in on the Color Match trick, where a person picks out markers and colors in a picture to match a prediction. Again, they must naturally lift the marker in order to do the action. Not wanting to step on the toes of another creator, what else could you do where the objects are somehow used, in order, to match a prediction?
You could reverse the whole procedure as well, using the same electronic gadget to signal which object is placed on the tray, rather than which is removed. It’s a little more complicated to make, with more custom wiring, but each block could have a unique trigger placement to send the proper signal. A six-sided cube could signal which side is facing up.
Clearly there is a lot of potential options with this method, but I feel like I’m getting carried away, caught up in the creative challenge, and losing sight of something more important.
Asking important questions
Here’s the real question… something that a magician must consider when they are looking at adding a new routine to their repertoire.
What is attracting you to this idea?
Would you want to perform this trick if it wasn’t for the cleverness of the method?
Have you ever wanted to do the pick-an-object trick before you learned it could be done with a $30 wireless alarm? Are you more attracted to the bargain than you are the effect?
It’s one thing to pursue magic as a fun hobby. You can tinker with clever methods all day long, and often it is part of the creative process. However, when you step in front of and audience please put their experience of the show above yours.
Sure, I do believe any magic trick can be made into a show-piece, but it makes no sense to work from the inside-out hoping you somehow back into a great routine. I’d suggest adding this alarm idea to your notebook and saving it for when it becomes the answer to a performance-inspired question.
As it is, I feel the secret method is more entertaining than the effect.
It’s exciting for magicians, but not for our audiences.
To dig deeper into this idea, please join the SME Talk Magic community on Facebook and use the search box to find Stephen Kilgore’s original posts on the topic. His first post shows his inspiration and prototype idea, then there are more showing the progress of his build including a video demonstration. The search term “Kilgore alarm” yields good results.