Hardware Hump Day: Sleight of Servo

Mario the Maker Magician wows audiences with electronics

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Mario the Maker Magician compares the process of learning magic with learning music. You don’t just start writing your own songs right away; you start by covering the greats and learning the foundations. Then, in Mario’s words, “you create innovation by mixing ideas that have never been mixed before.”

Take, for instance, the famous “Cups & Balls” routine. Mario lines up the three cups in a row and tells the audience that Houdini used to throw one of the three balls into the audience; whoever caught it would be his assistant. The kids wiggle into their best catching positions, holding their breath in anticipation...while Mario…proceeds to do nothing. “I am not Houdini!” he proclaims proudly.

At the end of the routine, Mario reveals under the cups three tiny, 3D-printed, Arduino-powered robots performing random servo movements!

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“I had a desperation to stay relevant because I could feel my magic tricks getting old, so I added this robotic element,” Mario says. “That’s what’s been really fun — taking traditional routines of magic and adapting them with modern technology. Before the microcontroller we really had to do a lot of work to make a motor move from left to right; now you can just program some code.”

Tricks of the Trade

Mario Marchese, 37, lives with his wife, Katie, and two young children, Gigi and Bear, in Nyack, New York. His interest in programming was sparked about a decade ago when he picked up an issue of Make: magazine featuring a beginner’s guide to Arduino. He followed a Make: tutorial to build a cigar-box guitar and later made his own cigar-box amp. He also started making electronic art pieces that interpreted sound from their surroundings and autonomously created drawings based on those sounds. His drawing machines appeared in a few gallery shows in and around New York City, but it wasn’t long before Mario realized he could use the skills he was honing to amp up his magic career.

“The Arduino changed my life in the sense that I learned a programming language that could make motors move,” Mario says. “From there, right early on I see SparkFun and these boards that coincide with what my imagination wants…They made a board that was so tiny I was able to build one of my favorite robotic creations: my lamp called Mr. Lamp.”

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Mr. Lamp, the Robotic Lamp, is one of Mario’s star robots, built out of a flexible Pixaresque standing lamp, a Campbell’s soup can and SparkFun’s smallest Arduino-compatible board, the Pro Micro. Mario has programmed Mr. Lamp to follow the position of a red ball and guess, by way of a nod yes or no, which hand it’s in. But his best trick is playing dead. In fact, this charming mechanical thespian’s exit is so dramatic that the audience truly starts to worry, especially when Mario begins to administer CPR. There’s a sigh of relief when the bot is brought back — and then dismembered to show the audience how it’s made. In culmination, Mario makes the soup can disappear and then magically pop out of his top hat.

Mario takes his creations apart to make kids laugh and to prove his mantra that “you can make magic from ANYTHING.”

“They fall apart on purpose,” Mario says. Case in point: a trick suitcase composed of some 18 servos, all mounted with hot glue and masking tape. Using an Arduino Mega and hidden magnets, he makes flowers and flags pop up out of the suitcase…all well and good until everything goes haywire. In the end, a spring snake shoots out at Mario, all the flowers and flags fall down, and the suitcase, which obviously has a mind of its own, slams shut.

“It’s one of my favorite robotic routines,” Mario says, “because it’s total slapstick reinvented through modern electronics. My show is made of cardboard, tape, hot glue, hodgepodge stuff on purpose because my philosophy in life is to show kids that you can make anything...that we’re not shackled to this consumer culture.”

The Stuff of Magic

There’s no doubt this “maker magician” practices what he preaches. He makes his props from anything and everything. He gives himself a grand introduction by revealing two pizza boxes proclaiming him “World’s Greatest Magician.” He designed and 3D printed molds to cast his own pewter “Mario” coins, which he pulls from thin air or a volunteer’s ear, nose or even armpit before dropping them with a clink into an antique animal crackers tin.

Custom 3d Printed Coin
Custom Coin Side 2
3d Printed Phone

He removed the guts from an old flip phone and designed and 3D printed a new casing and buttons, resoldering all of the electronic connections to work with a gag where he pretends to take pictures in the spirit of Inspector Gadget.

And his true masterpiece is a vintage cymbal-playing monkey doll he gave a makeover and named Marcel. Mario has long been a craftsman and once carved more than a dozen wooden marionettes, even sewing their clothes. But the real magic, he found, is bringing a doll to life…with the help of a little RedBoard.

Remember the ball trick? Marcel the Monkey gets a chance to play too! His task is to place the ball in the cup after three minutes of comedic insubordination behind Mario’s back. Much to the audience’s delight, Marcel mocks Mario when he’s not looking, knocks things over and claps when he’s not supposed to. If the audience makes enough noise, Marcel responds to the sound by beating his chest.

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“The kids I perform for shaped my routine; I literally changed the code of Marcel for six months so I could lead my audience through a story,” Mario says. “What makes Marcel special to me is that he doesn’t do magic; he does theater.”

Mario isn’t the only one who thinks Marcel is special; he brags that the mechanical monkey won four Editor’s Choice awards and a Best in Class at the 2016 World Maker Faire® in New York City. The magician jokes that he, on the other hand, has to make his own awards, as evidenced by the bottle cap ribbon he wears on his chest.

Mentalist and mind reader Asi Wind was at the NYC Maker Faire and saw Mario’s show. Not long after, Asi recommended Mario as a kids’ magician to co-perform with David Blaine at actor Robert DeNiro’s son’s birthday party. A week after the party, David asked Mario to be part of the creative team preparing for his first-ever North American tour, along with Asi and Paul Kieve, who is well-known for producing magical effects on Broadway and in the movies “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Hugo.”

“It was just so cool to be part of that and to bring my spirit of making into that team,” Mario recalls fondly. “We problem solved for hours on magic. It was really fun to brainstorm with geniuses.”

Mario completed his own national tour this summer (#itsafamilybusiness) and is preparing to perform again at this year's World Maker Faire in New York, “the Greatest Show (& Tell) on Earth,” on Sept. 23. Then it’s off to Maker Faire Shenzhen, China, in November! Follow Mario on YouTube at #mymagicfamily, Instagram and Facebook @mariothemagician, or Twitter @mariomagician.

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Photo courtesy Rebecca Handler

In Mario’s words, “making is like unraveling the secrets of the universe.” Want to try making magic yourself? Make Mario’s magic flower lapel.

If you’re in the NYC area, catch Mario’s Maker Faire show at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23. If you’re in or around Colorado, don’t miss SparkFun’s annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition (AVC) at Maker Faire Denver, Oct. 14–15.

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