Fed up of the mail left in front of his house getting stolen every so often, a California-based engineer Mark Rober built a glitter bomb to trick parcel thieves. The glitter bomb certainly did that, surprising and shaming local package thieves. Yet it is only the latest success for Rober. Over the past seven years, he has parlayed his penchant for complex and zany devices—and slick videos that explain how they work—into a career as a celebrity YouTube personality.
Mark Rober was fed up. Packages delivered to his Northern California home began disappearing from his doorstep. So, the mechanical engineer with a mischievous sense of humor exacted what he called “engineering revenge.”
He built a “glitter bomb”—a booby-trapped fake package—and left it on his doorstep for thieves to steal. When the unsuspecting criminal opened the package, it smothered them with a pound of glitter and lots of foul-smelling spray. The glitter bomb also housed four hidden smartphones, which tracked the package via GPS—and recorded the thieves’ reactions getting pranked.
But Rober didn’t keep their humiliation to himself. He has a talent for making cool videos and a highly popular You-Tube channel, so he shared it with the world.
The result was a video titled “Package Thief vs. Glitter Bomb Trap.” Footage from security cameras showed thieves, sometimes wearing backpacks, grabbing the package; smartphones’ video caught their reactions when the bomb exploded after opening.
Rober posted it on YouTube in mid-December. Within one day, it garnered nearly 12 million views. By late January, nearly 54 million people had seen it. It also aired on CBS Los Angeles’s evening news, thanks to a family member who is one of the anchormen. In roughly one month, his subscribers skyrocketed by nearly one-third, to six million.
“That’s the cool thing about being a mechanical engineer,” Rober said. “If you have an idea, unlike most of the people in the population, you have a much better opportunity to build something physical that achieves a task.”
The glitter bomb certainly did that, surprising and shaming local package thieves. Yet it is only the latest success for Rober. Over the past seven years, he has parlayed his penchant for complex and zany devices—and slick videos that explain how they work—into a career as a celebrity YouTube personality.
It was a surprising turnabout for an engineer who had spent years equipping Curiosity rover for Mars.
The 39-year-old California native’s love of mechanical engineering started with high school physics, where he learned nature was predictable, understandable, and explainable through mathematical equations. He loved physics so much, he still dreams of returning to it as a teacher.
Instead, Rober pursued mechanical engineering because of the way it embodied those natural laws: “I just feel that what you see is what you get,” he said. “You can actually see the equations in action as physical things you can touch.”
He earned an undergraduate mechanical engineering degree at Brigham Young University and joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in 2004. While there, he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California.
JPL’s creative environment ignited his own creativity, Rober said. His job was designing mechanical parts and instruments on CAD systems and testing them for projects such as the Curiosity rover.
But it was rats—dead rats, specifically—that prompted one of Rober’s first inventions. The rats would get caught and die in traps set under the building Rober and his boss worked in. The potent smell would penetrate the building, so Rober wired the traps to send him an alert him via his smartphone when a carcass needed extracting, said Brian Okerlund, JPL’s group supervisor for mechanical engineering and design.
It became clear to Okerlund that Rober was not your typical mechanical engineer. “He’s way out there,” he said. “He was a very creative individual who brought a lot of fun to the workplace.”
Rober’s zany Halloween costume—and the video he made about it—launched his next career.
The costume was a T-shirt in which Rober cut two holes, one in front and one in back. He taped an iPad to the inside of each hole, then FaceTimed the two iPads with each other. With their cameras pointing outwards, the effect made it look like you could see through the shirt. Rober painted fake blood around the large holes and the “iPad 2 Halloween Costume-Gaping Hole in Torso” video was born. More than 8.2 million viewers have seen it on YouTube.
“That was just an idea I had that I thought was cool, and it went pretty viral,” Rober said. “I decided I would make monthly videos. That was seven years ago. And I’ve literally made one video a month since then.”
The success of the video also led him to launch in 2012 his technology-based costume company Digital Dudz. Firstmonth sales reached $250,000, Rober said. After a year, Rober sold Digital Dudz to the British costume company, Morphsuits, and became a creative designer.
Two years later, he took an R&D job with a Silicon Valley technology company as a new products creator/designer. (The identity of the company is confidential.)
Rober’s personal inventions are typically mechanically complex—a dartboard that moves to catch or avoid a player’s darts (which took three years to build); a rock-skipping robot; a lemon-powered car. But there’s a zaniness to them too, like something out of a child’s fantasy—the world’s largest super soaker; a snowball machine gun. They come alive in Rober’s slick videos, which he writes, shoots, narrates, and edits to tell how he built each invention.
Their combination of wild exuberance and deep technology have earned him guest appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, two TEDx talks, and a slot as a host on Discovery’s Science channel.
“I really do get as stoked and excited about these projects as it hopefully comes across on camera,” he said.
The glitter bomb is clearly Rober’s greatest hit. It is also among the most complex of his creations: a combination of mechanical components, four smartphones, and a customprinted circuit board attached to a 3-D printed chassis.
One mechanical component released a pound of multicolored glitter from a cup embedded into the device’s top. Basically, it consisted of a motor and gear box attached to the cup, which faced upward to the sky, Rober explained. “When you spin it, the centrifugal acceleration then pushes the glitter outwards in a very uniform pattern.”
But Rober did not just want to fling glitter at thieves who stole his package. He wanted to humiliate them by posting their response in a video. That meant recording their expressions and cries as the glitter coated their pants and car seats. Working with an electrical engineer friend, Rober designed a printed circuit board that activated the four smartphones to record the action. When thieves opened the box, a mechanical trigger-activated the circuit board.
“The printed circuit board was the brains of the operation,” he said. “It would know when the package was being shook, and it would send a message to the phones to start recording or stop recording.”
It also turned on a motor that turned a cam that pushed down on the button of a can of foul-smelling spray. This released the aerosol six times every 30 seconds.
“When you applied a current to that motor, it would spin this cam five or six times, and so the spray would spray,” he explained.
Rober theorized that the spray would force the thieves to toss the package so he could retrieve it before they opened it and found the smartphones. Instead, Rober was able to retrieve the phones and use their videos to make the video he posted on YouTube in December.
“I’ve had a lot of stuff go viral, but nothing this overwhelming; it was pretty intense,” Rober said.
However, nothing is without hiccups.
During video production, one of Rober’s friends asked if he could put the glitter bomb package on her doorstep. She then asked two of her friends to pose as thieves, take the package, and open it. When Rober found out, he cut the two “thieves” out of the video and apologized on his Twitter feed.
Rober also figured out a way to make a living off his celebrity. Three years ago, he began seeking out sponsors for his videos. They include such companies as Audible, Brilliant, WIX.com Inc., HelloFresh, Toyota Motor, Volkswagen Group of America, and NordVPN. The companies pay Rober a flat fee to make a short pitch about their products or services—and sometimes a personal testimonial—at the end of the sponsored video. The fees offset the cost of producing the video.
“This is just an example of influencer marketing because I have a brand and people trust me,” he said. “So if I say nice things about their thing ... in a lot of ways it’s a lot better than a TV commercial because they can track how well it does through referrals,” he said.
The videos often include shots of items and technology he uses in his creations. Rober says those are coincidental and he does not get paid for them.
Rober has turned his hobby into a gig that most engineers would envy. Working for sponsors could pay more than a typical mechanical engineering job, he said. Yet, even though he has a backlog of clients, his continued success depends on keeping his YouTube life a hobby.
“Creativity is such a precious little flame,” Rober said. “If you’re not enjoying it, and you’re feeling a lot of pressure and such, the flame goes out.”
Becoming a YouTube celebrity was never a goal, he says. He just wanted to convey the joy of mechanical engineering and science to people in ways that resonate with them. For him, a spectacle, like his glitter bomb video, works best.
“I want to give people that ‘Aha!’ moment,” he said. “I want to change people’s mental model of how the world works, and give them a taste of what I felt in high school physics,” Rober said.
Rober may have been describing his own life when he said in his glitter bomb video, “Sometimes a well-engineered design is beautiful.”