Magazine Article


PMA and the Age of Magic

image with distortion on the left
The above screenshot, from DXO’s Optics Pro v4.2 shows the original image with distortion on the left; perspective is corrected in the image on the right.
photo was taken with a fisheye lens
The photo was taken with a fisheye lens, and shows the perspective distortion.
Photo using Image Trends' Fisheye-Hemi software.
The photo shows the correction using Image Trends' Fisheye-Hemi software.

We hear explanations from time to time as to why magic has disappeared from mortal earth. In the day of the genome, some people speculate that a certain kind of superstition-gene was bred out of the species, oh, two thousand years ago, as we all turned industriously to finding rational explanations. Another theory postulates that magical beings are real enough, or at least were, but like Puff the Magic Dragon need to be believed in to survive—and we began believing in science. One of our favorites holds that certain kinds of mold spores have characteristics in common with psilocybin, the hallucinogenic drug, and that before refrigeration was invented there was a lot of moldy bread.

Those may be great theses, but we can't really buy them. Today's geopolitics result from two millennia of being rational? Nah. Nor can we imagine the global population, from the Great Wall of China to the Andes, long before there were telephones, collectively agreeing to breed superstition out.

So what did happen to magic? we wondered as we headed for the PMA Show in March. And there, in the city of Lance Burton and David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, and Penn and Teller, it struck us: magic is not extinct. It's alive and well and living in Las Vegas. We know. We ate only fresh sandwiches, but we saw it.

Saw it not in the clubs, but in the Las Vegas Convention Center. But it wasn't called magic. Nowadays it's called software.

Software. The stuff that makes computers go. The instruction set that infuses the inert, the blank, and the dark with the imitation of life. The stuff that permits the same computer that makes out your tax return to also make out your photographs.

What Does It Take to Make a Believer?

Whether or not magic is metaphysical, it's certainly supernatural. "Super" as in "superior to." Nature dictates the laws of light, the laws of optics. Software magic is above all that, and sometimes says phooey to it.

But it took some kind of wizard to make the public believe. Remember the immersive-photography craze? In some cases done literally with mirrors, it turned the computer screen into a window, past which the whole wide world (or as much as was in the picture) could spin. It put the spectator into the hole in a doughnut of reality. It let you look up, look down, look behind. Companies like IPIX came into the world, convinced they would take it by storm marketing simple point-and-shoots—the Olympus D-340 is one we recall, essentially the second Olympus on the market—with a special lens that could turn each photo into a whirling dervish.

It was magical, all right, but the sales weren't. Outside of experimenters and hobbyists and the occasional real-estate broker, there just didn't seem to be much interest from the picture-taking public. Why not? We're not even sure anybody asked.

So let's take an educated guess. It was the late 1990s, and the public as a whole was yet unaccustomed to viewing photos on computer screens. As they approached this suspicious and intimidating entity of digital photography, they yearned for it to be as normal—as unmagical—as could be. On top of that, they didn't want all the doodads that went with creating immersive photos: the time, the effort, and, often as not, the flawed results. They wanted to snap the shutter, drop the pictures off at the minilab, come back in an hour for prints. Just like Grandpa used to do.

Undaunted, the software industry lowered its sights. Instead of stitching a full circle of photos together (as some immersive systems did), how about stitching just a few? So that, instead of the hole of the doughnut, you get CinemaScope?

Where immersive software produced results that were, arguably, gimmicky, panoramic software had some tangible advantages. Lens doesn't have enough of a wide angle? Can't back away enough to get a large subject in frame? Why not take two or three pictures, horizontally or vertically, and stitch them together in software? What a great idea. And with a little bit of care, it works.

But subjects suitable to stitched photos usually have to be motionless. If your stitched panorama is a streetscape, and somebody was out walking when you snapped your pix, he may appear twice in the final result. Stitched pictures work, but they work best with still-lifes.

Pulling Rabbits from Hats

One of the challenges of the times, of course, was that we were trying to pull big rabbits from small hats. Many of those software programs were processor-intensive, and the old AT-bus computer had neither speed nor capacity. Software fun-and-games could be successful, but it could also be time-consuming in a world raised on instant gratification.

Today, of course, the hats are bigger. The computer you buy now for 700 bucks has the throughput practically of what they once called supercomputers.

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