How electronics technology keeps ripping off the world of Harry Potter

-November 16, 2010

In honor of Part I of the final Harry Potter film opening this week, I have compiled a list of devices, mostly electronic, that mimic the magical devices in the books. We live in an age of marvels. It’s easy to forget that the industry that we work in lies beneath the vast majority of them, and we are privileged to be participants.

Or, as, as muggle-lover Mr. Weasley says, “Ingenious, really, how many ways Muggles have found of getting along without magic.”.”

Invisibility Cloak

”Harry looked down at his feet, but they were gone. He dashed to the mirror. Sure enough, his reflection looked back at him, just his head suspended in midair, his body completely invisible. He pulled the cloak over his head and his reflection vanished completely.” I, p. 201

Perhaps the device that most readers desire after entering the magical world is an invisibility cloak. I have two examples of technology work-arounds for invisibility. Perhaps the one which has received the most attention is the use of metamaterials, thin bendable sheets with a negative index of refraction that can bend light – although so far, not in the visible spectrum —  around an object. Work on various types of metamaterials is being done at Purdue and University of St. Andrews, Scotland, with the earliest prognostications of when it will bend visible light targeting 2012.

While we wait for metamaterials to become available, here’s an electronics work-around. Evanbooth took the LCD display from a DVD player, positioned it behind a gory cutout in a sweatshirt, and fed it images from a camera hanging on his back, giving the impression of a gaping hole where his guts should be. Not quite an invisibility cloak, but still a very clever Halloween costume. [Via Make.]

Gaping hole costume

Gaping hole components

Quick-Quotes Quill

“You won’t mind, Harry, if I use a Quick-Quotes Quill? It leaves me free to talk to you normally…” and…
““Ignore the quill, Harry,” said Rita Skeeter firmly.” IV, p.304

The first time I used a Livescribe SmartPen I thought, this thing is like Rita Skeeter’s Quick-Quotes Quill. Well, maybe not exactly - the Quick-Quotes inserts a lot of editorial opinion into the interview process. (For example, her set-up run of, “Testing – my name is Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter,” becomes “Attractive blonde Rita Skeeter, forty-three, whose savage quill has punctured many inflated reputations…”)    When I first read about the Quick-Quill I wanted one. Not for the Quill’s additional writing and editorializing, but rather because Rita Skeeter could ignore her note-taking responsibilities while she focused on the questions she asked and the answers. (Ok, she mostly ignored the answers, but then she has a unique interview style.) I wanted such a device.


The SmartPen is self-indexing; It records whatever is said, while also recording your handwritten notes with its tiny IR camera. Later when you want to listen to what was said at any particular time you just tap the Pen at that point in your notes, and it begins playback. Brilliant, and makes interviews very, very easy. Like magic.

What about a simple digital voice recorder? They’re not nearly as handy as a SmartPen. With a digital recorder you always have one eye on the DVR timer so you can jot down the time when the interviewee made a particularly apt of quotable comment, and the whole process becomes a dance with the interviewee  wanting to see what you deem worthy of tagging, and you wanting him/her to forget the recorder completely.

The Marauder’s Map

“It was a map showing every detail of the Hogwarts castle and grounds. But the truly remarkable thing were the tiny ink dots moving around it, each labeled with a name in minuscule writing.” III, p193.

One could argue that location aware social media mashups, like foursquare and Twitter with google maps, or Facebook with its location awareness-enabled, perform exactly the function of the Marauder’s Map, and if someone hasn’t already created  an iPhone or Android app that performs essentially the Map’s functions, well, then someone soon will.  Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, said in an interview, “I don’t know if you’re a Harry Potter guy, but I also thought of foursquare as a cross between the marauder’s map and the Weasley clock.  That idea of always having a map in front of you showing where everyone is really appealed to me.”

The Internet of Things also promises to track objects and people within a defined location. From an earlier article, “The Internet of Things is the networked interconnection of everyday objects – soda cans, shoes, refrigerators, you name it – mostly through RFID tags and IP addresses. Here’s a good example of one implementation of it: Ford’s Tool Link system (a $1220 option) has sensors built into vehicles like the Ford Transit Connect so that when the driver presses a button the van displays an inventory of all tools onboard. A similar system for the home would show you an inventory of all clothes that were supposed to be in your suitcase, or things in your briefcase.”  I noticed in the comments that most readers were not impressed by the concept of the Internet of Things, but most likely we’d all love a Marauder’s Map.

GPS tracking beacons on a ankle bracelet are coming into increasingly wide use as an inexpensive substitute for a prison sentence, or sort of a reverse  Marauder’s Map. Rather than letting the viewer see any one who enters a specific geo-location, tracking beacons let you know when a particular person leaves an area, thus making it an effective substitute for a virtual prison. This recent Atlantic Monthly article argues that, “Increasingly, GPS devices… are looking like an appealing alternative to conventional incarceration.” Infinitely preferable to Azkaban.

[Update: Reader Larry M points out the Garmin Rino FRS/GMRS radio plus GPS navigator has offered Marauder’s Map features for several years.]

Magic wands: Swish and flick

“Now, don’t forget the nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick.” Book I, p171

This one’s a bit of a stretch, but stick with me for a bit. Professor Flitwick is of course referring to the proper wand movement that should accompany the levitation charm, Wingardium Leviosa.  If you’ve tried the Wii with some of its games like golf or bowling or tennis you’ve probably noticed that  the Wii controller is not a particularly sensitive input device. In general, if you swing the device in roughly the right direction, it credits you with a valid swing. However, the next generation of motion sensors will be capable of 6-axis sensing (3-axis acceleration and 3-axis angular rotation) and on-sensor algorithm calculation, all playing nicely with smart phone APIs like the Android. With this type of motion sensing capability, your smart phone now becomes quite sensitive to gestural inputs. Include the audio input on your smart phone and your swish-and-flick gesture can work in tandem with your correct pronunciation of “Wing-GARD-ium Levi-OH-sa.”

If any of you come up with other electro-magic workarounds I’ve missed, please add them in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll be at the movies and for the last time see a part of the world of Harry Potter for the first time.

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