11/16/2011 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cyberillusionist? A High-Tech Magician Who Writes His Own C Plus Plus Code


"I don't know what magic will be like in 50 years but I suspect it will look a lot like Marco Tempest."
HSH Princess Stephanie of Monaco

Marco Tempest is one interesting and fun guy. He's the rare and essential type of person that life really demands: he makes us smile.


Let us suppose you've lost your dog or been laid off or forced to move unexpectedly. No problem, Marco's infectious buoyancy will make you smile. If you are a child, well then, Marco will succeed with the ease and grace that children themselves possess.

Marco's recent performance at the World Technology Summit (where he also picked up the trophy for the "Arts" category) was a crucial refresher for me and the audience.

He came onstage right after some real doom and gloom prognosticators to a lot of long faces and worried looks. That lasted about 30 seconds and disappeared once Marco launched into the engaging mixture of magic and technology revelation which he invented. It was a very necessary up-lifter to have this happy, smiling Swiss at this exact moment because people were really starting to question the need to go on.

Recently, Marco invited TechScape into his spacious, loft-style Greenwich Village "studio" which we found to be more of a 'magic laboratory.'

"Magicians will always tell you the trick is the most important thing," Marco tells us shortly after arriving and ushering us into his magical lair, "but I'm more interested in telling a story."

He continued, "I want to avoid the 'how did you do that?' question because just having a trick is not enough online," said Tempest, who considers it his sacred duty to repurpose the convergence of magic and technology for redistribution on the Internet. "Historically, magicians were always at the forefront of technology," he said.

Taking us back in time, Marco says, "When we're kids everything is magic... rainbows... soap bubbles... snow flakes. Then, we grow up and forget everything. Magic has this power of reenchantment. If we were all a little more like children, we are more human... humane."

This techgeek/magician has none of the antisocial awkwardness of a geek but remains unwaveringly focused on seizing all the opportunities to incorporate technology into his magic. "I did magic all my life from the time I was 12," Tempest says, "and I like to tap into the magic from history."

And Marco is not just a magician seeking to employ the ancient or latest and greatest in technology to merely improve his magic; no, he's more interested in truly integrating technology into his magic, almost making the magic secondary; but of course, not quite.

One of Marco's best illusions is one where he takes a rotating blank canvas in one hand and a pen in the other and starts 'drawing' a stick-figure on the canvas which then comes alive and starts moving on its own and playing with Marco. As Marco endears this playful stick-figure to his audiences, he -- the stick-figure -- seems to take on a life of its own and develop a personality; eating a cookie, morphing into a fish, then a spider, playing with a ball and finally, walking off into the sunset with a girl stick-figure Marco makes for him and tells him to "go for it." A final stick-figure kiss naturally ensues.


In order to make this cyber illusion, Marco invented what he calls an "Augmented Reality Projection and Tracking System" using a high-speed infrared camera and 2-D particle system which can simultaneously track the canvas wherever or however he chooses to move it and also illuminates him on the darkened stage.

When I tell him I like the techno music he uses to accompany his stick-figure, he doesn't miss a beat: "Music is like magic," he quickly observes with a broad grin.

Marco is also known for his iPhone shuffling trick (at TED, amongst other places) where he takes three iPhones and a remarkable small high-tech platform with a tiny aerial camera documenting all of his antics which are exhilarating.

Imagine this: a magician or a plumber or a carpenter, for that matter, who wants to improve his business by integrating the real love, the passion he has for technology.

So he learns how to code in C Plus Plus as Marco did; and he recognizes product development paths for new tools he needs in his work and consolidates two different, disparate technologies from seemingly unrelated product categories into one, very sensible and innovative new product, as Marco does. All of a sudden you don't have a magician or plumber or a carpenter anymore, but a technology product developer -- a regular Thomas Edison.

Marco explains how he took an expensive, high-speed HD video camera originally intended for industrial purposes and then jury-rigged some Mars Rover "fixed pattern noise reduction" software he downloaded from the NASA web site to improve the pictures this camera took. Tempest is now working with the camera manufacturer on developing a new camera product based on his improvements.

No wonder the camera manufacturer wanted Marco's contributions in a new product; Marco shot some stunning video with this new device.

However, I don't think Marco is doing this for money; somehow he seems motivated by something else intangible, ethereal. "My products and magic are free," he stated resolutely, "but on the commercial side of what I do, the big tech companies are impressed with somebody like me who can emotionalize a piece of technology." Indeed, our intrepid magician travels the globe like a nomad giving his talks.

Marco is the kind of magician who likes to share his secrets and the technologies he uses to create them with his audiences, and this is what separates him from the magic act you might hire for a kid's party. There's more than that, of course, but that is a central differentiator of Marco Tempest. And this sharing of how the trick is done and "openness" is all part of Marco's charismatic chats.

"Magic is, in its core, introverted and closed," he said almost whispering, "it's the most closed community ever and I want to change all that and make it more open. If we want things to change, we have to be more open-minded."

When Marco says "open" he means it in two ways: first as in explaining the secrets and involving everyone in the magic and secondly in the sense of the "open source" software movement where every programmer can take the evolving code and add to it, provided they make their contributions accessible to all. Marco seems to want all technology, not just software to be open; a humanitarian concept if there ever was one.

As Tempest takes the event and technology world by storm, he has delivered timely keynotes at some of the world's most weighty forums, including the crème de la crème TED Global conferences (where he received a rare two standing ovation response) and the pinnacle, World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland each year.

He also gives myriad presentations to corporation and innovation centers who like the more entertaining events Marco offers up as a cheerful, fun and educational alternative to the kind of dry technical and scientific lectures these things can sometimes be. His hi-def talk to "Innovators@Google" is one of his best.

Add to all this his recent appearance as the CNN kick-off guest feature on Dr. Sanjay Gupta's new show, The Next Line, and you've got a guy who's about as hot as a person can get right now. And deservedly so.

After sharing all his technological secrets with TechScape and literally dozens of tech tricks he has in development, Marco performs one last trick with the world's smallest computers made by Sifteo. These computers look great for education as they wirelessly add up numbers correctly while being moved around in different order.

As we left Marco's studio, I didn't want to leave. I laughed to myself as I imagined Marco having to drag me out by my feet as I white-knuckled a table, refusing to leave. After all, I was going back out into the cold, cruel world from the phantasmagorical grotto where nothing seems too serious, much less a harsh reality.

I've been occasionally wondering, over the years, as people seem to get increasingly unhappy about things and separated from themselves, when or if somebody could commercialize then monetize happiness or a simple smile. For me, Marco Tempest has done that.