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Local engineer creates new Halloween costume venture

A side project turns into a nationally selling product

Posted: October 12, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 12, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Mark Rober displays his "Digital Dudz" T-shirt creations at his home in Valencia.

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When Valencia resident Mark Rober watched Mars Rover Curiosity launch in late 2011, the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab engineer needed something to occupy his free time until the rover he helped design made its historic landing this August.

So Rober began working nights on a side project that has turned into a national Internet sensation and business venture: Digital Dudz, Halloween costumes you control with your smartphone.

Since launching the 22-shirt line on Oct. 1 with a YouTube video and officially starting sales on Oct. 3, Rober has more than made back his personal investment and garnered 2.36 million YouTube views. His designs have already been featured on national television, radio and Internet outlets.

“We live in the age of ‘virality,’” Rober said.



Twisted tweaks to T-shirts

The concept of Digital Dudz is simple: You can purchase a T-shirt with one of 22 designs on it and download the free Digital Dudz iPhone or Android app. On the app, you choose the animation that coincides with the shirt, and tape the phone into the hole in the shirt. The result: A shirt with a moving part, including spooky sounds.

“There’s certainly a do-it-yourself element to it,” Rober said. “For some people it might turn them off but for some people it makes it even cooler. The people with the big elaborate costumes will still do them every year anyway.”

In addition to the shirts, Rober is selling a latex piece to place into a shirt that creates the illusion of a large wound. Tape the phone underneath, and you can have a beating heart popping out of your chest.

Rober said the most popular product, other than the latex wound, is a man’s face with one large eye safety pinned open. Tap the smartphone’s screen underneath the shirt and the eye starts to roll every which way.

“Is that not the creepiest thing ever?” Rober asked while showing off the eye animation.



From local to national

Rober wasn’t raised to be a costume designer. The 32-year-old grew up in Orange County and attended Brigham Young University, where he studied mechanical engineering. He came to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab after college and has lived in Valencia for eight years with his wife and son.

On Halloween 2011, he finagled a costume out of two iPads taped on his front and back, video-chatting with each other to create an allusion that he had a hole in his stomach. The effect was gruesome but realistic, and Rober put out a YouTube video showing how he made the costume.

“It just totally blew up from there,” Rober said, with the video hitting 3.2 million views and getting coverage from CNN, CBS and Gizmodo. The feedback inspired him and within three days after Halloween 2011, he had formulated nearly all of the concepts for Digital Dudz, working nights and weekends ever since.

The No. 1 complaint he got from people who watched his iPad video, he said, was that few people have access to or can afford two iPads for that Halloween costume.

“So the point of Digital Dudz is for the cost of a T shirt and six minutes of your time, let your costume dominate the party,” he said.

Rober hired 14 people to help design and manufacture the shirts, website and phone app — mostly in the Southern California region and mostly through CraigsList. The shirt manufacturer is in Thousand Oaks and Rober uses a Valencia fulfillment service. With no business experience prior to this venture — previously, he had no idea what a fulfillment house did — Rober said he’s learned a lot in the process.

“Ten years ago there was no way I could have done this,” he said. “But God bless Google.”

All of the designs were Rober’s own concepts, the first idea being a “Scooby-Doo-esque” portrait of a man, where the eyes move unexpectedly. The most difficult design to pull off was the crystal ball. Users can upload their own personal photos to the application and the crystal ball will show the photos through the shirt.

The feedback and sales have been “really wonderful,” Rober said. Once sales began, Rober said he made his entire investment back in only seven hours.

“I far exceeded expectations for myself,” he said.

Digital Dudz is only online for now, but Rober will be taking the costumes to trade shows this winter, in hopes of getting the costumes in stores nationwide. While the engineer took two weeks off of work to concentrate on the T shirts, he’s back at JPL – but a new concept to launch for Halloween 2013 is already in the works.

As for Rober, he has just two and a half weeks to pick his favorite to wear on Halloween.

“It’s 22 of my children,” he said. “I can’t pick a favorite child.”

See the Digital Dudz at www.digitaldudz.com.

smitchell@the-signal.com

661-287-5593

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