Commentary / Opinion

Harry Potter and the Magic of Things

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Pity the poor Muggle. Just beyond his reach is a world of mystery and magic – where photographs move, sports turn skyward and a magic wand can conjure just about anything.

It’s easy to understand the allure of magic. It’s the antidote to everything ordinary. Farewell tax return, hello dragons. It’s barmy. Miraculous. Topsy turvy. A tantalizing ‘what if’ that lures us to poke our noses into the impossible, and somehow, make it real.

You could say that technology is the Muggle’s own brand of magic. And while we don’t have wizards, we do have folk capable of creating marvelous things. Some of these technical wizards have conjured their own Harry Potter creations: inspired by magic, and made real with the IoT. Here are just a few.

The Watson-powered Sorting Hat

Who knew IBM had some Harry Potter devotees in our midst? Well apparently we do, and Ryan Anderson, Architect in Residence for IBM Watson, is one of them. Using two of Watson’s APIs, Natural Language Classifier and Speech to Text, Ryan created a connected Sorting Hat that can understand and respond to speech. The premise is simple: put on the hat, tell it a little about yourself, and it will tell you which Hogwarts house should be yours.

Fans of the books will remember that each house values different traits. Honesty for Hufflepuff, intelligence for Ravenclaw, ambition for Slytherin, and bravery for Gryffindor are the most basic, with many other adjectives thrown in for a more comprehensive character assessment. Ryan coded a ‘ground truth’ using a CSV file that aligns qualities like ‘loyal’ or ‘hard-working’ with their corresponding houses, to teach the hat which attributes belong where.

In this way, the hat can make a decision depending on the input it receives from the wearer. But while a hat that understands writing is impressive, it’s hardly the same thing as the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. So to complete the illusion, it needed to respond to speech.

To achieve this, Ryan used Watson’s Speech to Text API. The result is an object that seems to think and respond for itself. Magic, right?

An introduction to the four-day, bite-sized process of creating your own sorting hat.

The Cauldron Wizarding Pub and Inn

This next one almost made me fall off my chair with excitement: London is getting a Harry Potter-inspired pub, where the illusion of magic is created with IoT technology. Maximus Awesomeness! Floatingus beerus! Get-me-there-nowus!

It’s all the brain child of Matthew Cortland, an ex-reading teacher turned techie, with a weakness for wand work and a penchant for Potter. (Sorry.) Matthew will use technology to give the effect of floating candles (achieved with magnets), moving photographs (IoT and cloud computing) and spells (voice-activated lighting.)

Opening is planned for March 2018, following a series of Wizarding hackathons to design different aspects of the pub. You can follow its progress and get involved in the Kickstarter here.

Your very own magic wand

If you visit Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, you can visit Ollivander’s shop and actually try casting spells with an interactive wand. Get the gesture and the command right, and you can turn on the lights, or move an object with a wave of your wand. Infrared is the key here, captured by a network of sensors that interpret spell patterns and trigger their real-world manifestation.

If you want to take your wand home with you, you can – as long as you shell out $40 for it. Alternatively, head over to the Wand Company – manufacturers of the Kymera Wand. This elegant tool is a ‘universal remote control’ and, for authenticity, looks like it’s made from polished wood (it isn’t.) It uses gesture control to perform infrared functions, just like the one in the theme park. You can store up to thirteen codes on the wand itself, which can be replayed with a gesture like a flick or a switch. Each movement corresponds to a code that operates a device in your home – an iPad, or TV, for instance.

Kymera Wand is a universal remote control that puts the magic into ordinary tasks.

Of course, you could achieve all this more easily with a voice-activated home assistant, but it’s probably less fun.

DIY projects for IoT enthusiasts

If you fancy taking a turn at being a techie wizard, there are lots of projects you can try:

Let us know how you get on in the comments below. Or join us for a drink in the Cauldron Wizarding Pub!

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