By Amy B Wang / The Washington Post
Mark Rober’s muse was a package thief.
Two package thieves, to be exact, both of whom had made off with a delivery from his California porch one day in broad daylight, about seven months ago.
Indignant, Rober — a former NASA engineer who runs a popular YouTube channel documenting his many quirky science experiments — started thinking about how he could apprehend the porch pirates. Though he had caught the thieves on his security cameras, Rober said police had told him it was not worth their time to look into.
“So you also feel powerless. And I just felt like something needs to be done to take a stand against dishonest punks like this,” Rober said in a YouTube video posted Monday. “And then I was like, hold up.”
Rober explained he had spent nine years working for NASA, including designing hardware for the Mars Curiosity rover that is, well, currently roving Mars.
“If anyone was going to make a revenge bait package and over-engineer the crap out of it, it was going to be me,” Rober concluded.
Rober decided he would create a booby trap inspired by his “childhood hero and inspiration” Kevin McAllister, the young and resourceful protagonist (played by Macaulay Culkin) in the “Home Alone” films of the 1990s.
With the help of friends, Rober mocked up a design for his ideal trap: It would be disguised as a package — specifically, a cellophane-wrapped Apple HomePod box he knew would be “enticing” for any porch pirate. It would be GPS-enabled, so he could track its journey once it left his home perimeter. It would record video with embedded cellphones, no matter how the thief picked up the parcel.
And, once triggered, it would be glittery. So glittery.
“Ultimately, when they opened the package, I wanted to celebrate their choice of profession with a cloud of glitter,” Rober said.
One pound of glitter, that is. To add insult to injury, Rober also built in a can of “fart spray,” programmed to automatically spray after the glitter explosion was triggered.
“No joke, you can clear a room with one spray of this stuff,” Rober said.
The whole package took about six months to engineer and then “test” in the field.
Sure enough, it was not long after Rober placed the finished trap/box on his porch that a thief picked it up. Then another. Then another. Each time, the recording devices inside the package documented the would-be porch pirates’ varied reactions after the box “detonated” glitter and/or fart spray. Many of those responses are unprintable here.
There are a few delightful Easter eggs. If anyone had looked carefully, he or she would have noticed the mocked-up UPS delivery label addressed to “Harry and Marv,” a nod to the up-to-no-good pair in “Home Alone.”
As it turns out, none of the thieves paid such close attention before snatching the box.
On Monday, Rober uploaded his video documenting the project, “Glitter Bomb vs. Package Thief,” to his YouTube page. As of Tuesday afternoon, the video had more than 11 million views.
“It’s like lighthearted engineering fun,” Rober told The Washington Post in a phone interview Tuesday. “[With all my videos], I try to get people stoked about science and engineering. But this clearly struck some kind of nerve.”
The porch pirate epidemic is real. A study by InsuranceQuotes estimated nearly 26 million Americans have had a holiday package stolen. With the rise in pilfered packages has come an increase in “doorstep vigilantes.”
Though some online have wondered whether Rober hired actors, he insisted all of the recorded footage was of actual package thieves.
“I challenge anyone who thinks packages don’t get stolen to put a cellophane-wrapped HomePod box on their porch and leave it there day after day and see just how honest people are,” Rober told The Post.
Rober also emphasized the “glitter bomb” was not for sale, but merely a project “to get people pumped about science and engineering and education,” like the others on his YouTube channel. (For instance, he has also tackled how to create a “hot tub” of liquid sand, how to skin a watermelon and how to engineer a moving dartboard that gives you a bull’s eye every time.)
Rober said he has not had any more packages stolen since using the decoy — though there is, after six months of testing and retesting, glitter all over his house and garage workshop.
“So at the end of the day, the joke is sort of on me,” he said. “Luckily, I have a wife who has the patience of Job.”