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15 Creative Examples of Fast Food Packaging (Both Real and Imagined)

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So much of fast food's appeal boils down to marketing—and that's why the packaging can sometimes make or break a product. Fast food packaging design is so important that some designers go out of their way to imagine their own renditions. Here are some packaging ideas that were practical, exciting, or downright crazy. 

1. CAPTURE THE MOMENT 

Earlier this summer, Kentucky Fried Chicken confused the public by announcing their new “Memories Bucket,” a container that the company said would print out Polaroid-like pictures via Bluetooth. The bucket has yet to hit the restaurants and might just be a strange publicity stunt, but we’re hungry for some fried chicken either way. 

2. SHOW TIME

Pizza Hut knows that pizza and movies are a great combination, so this year they created a pizza box that doubles as a projector. All you need is the box and a smartphone to turn any place into a mini movie theater.  

3. FOOD FOR BIKERS

Biking while holding fast food just got way easier thanks to the new McBike packaging, which carries a McDonald’s burger, fries, and drink. According to Wired, cyclists can hook the whole thing onto their handle bars and take their food on the go. The mint carrier was only available for a one day campaign in June in Copenhagen and Medellin, Colombia. 

4. MULTI-TASK

Burgers are delightful, but doing anything else while eating them can be tough. In a humorous ad campaign, Burger King proposed the “Hands Free Whopper” in 2013, a plastic stand that hooks around your shoulders (similar to a harmonica holder) that allowed a user to do other activities while chowing down. Sadly, this product never actually made it to the stores, so you'll actually have to put your burger down if you want to multi-task. 

5. SUGARY STRAWS

When Starbucks unveiled its S’mores Frappuccino in late spring, they made sure the straws were extra special too. The cookie straws are lined with chocolate to give you even more of that sugar you desperately crave. 

6. A GOOD READ

When eating alone, or with a particularly boring friend, your eyes might wander in search of something to read. Chipotle and Jonathan Safran Foer worked together to create complimentary entertainment—short stories by everyone from Jeffrey Eugenides to Aziz Ansari—on the sides of the chain's cups and bags. The project launched last year and continues to engage patrons today.

7. A COLORFUL WRAPPING

To celebrate the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade last year, Burger King created a new burger called the “Proud Whopper.” The burger was the same as always, but it was wrapped in a colorful rainbow paper that said “we are all the same inside.”

8. EDIBLE CUPS

KFC in Britain is experimenting with a cup that you can eat after drinking your coffee. The cup is made out of wafer and lined in sugar paper and white chocolate. The company believes that this interesting new packaging will appeal to environmentally conscious customers. 

9. FILL UP YOUR CUP

Designer Joshua Harris designed “Coffee Top Caddie,” a special molded top that lets you stack sugars and creamers on top of your Dunkin Donuts cup. Harris wasn't working with Dunkin, however, so this brilliant concept probably won't be available anytime soon.

10. GOAL!

To coincide with the 2014 World Cup, McDonald’s released a series of soccer-themed French fry holders designed by 12 different artists. After downloading the “McDonald’s GOL!” app, users could hover their phones over the sleeves to start a mini game. The fries became a goal and the player could knock a virtual ball into the net. 

11. HEAT ALERT

Netherlands-based designer Tiago Pinto doesn't want you to burn your mouth. That’s why he created a concept for Dunkin Donuts cups that alerts drinkers when their beverage is too hot. Hot cups are bright orange and say “I am hot!” but turn white once they've cooled to a safe temperature. This hasn’t been adopted yet, but we hope it is—it would really help keep us from missing the small window between scalding and lukewarm coffee. 

12. EAT YOUR TWEETS

Remember to watch what you tweet at Taco Bell, because they might shame you with tacos. When the fast food joint brought their Doritos Locos Tacos to Canada in 2013, their first action was to make the impatient complainers eat their words—literally. Those particular tweeters were invited to a "special fan event" and asked to eat tacos with their angry tweets printed on the side of the shell.

13. GET FANCY 

In an attempt to break into the luxury market, McDonald’s Japan rolled out the "Quarter Pounder Jewelry" series in 2013, which featured a number of fancy burgers that cost ¥1,000 ($10). The gourmet burgers incorporated high-end ingredients like avocado, chorizo, pineapple, and black truffle sauce. To showcase this fanciness, the food was packaged in a sleek white box embellished with a small golden M; the burger container even opened like a watch box. The packaging was so luxurious that customers could almost forget they were sitting in a plastic booth. 

14. TEXT ON YOUR TRAY

KFC Germany understands that texting with greasy fingers can be a real drag. To help out their oily patrons, they lined their trays with disposable Bluetooth keyboards instead of paper for a week in May. The plan seemed a little harebrained, but it worked—geolocated social interaction at the restaurants increased substantially. 

15. EAT IN SECRET

In Japan, it’s considered rude for women to open their mouths too wide in public. Sexism aside, it led to a decline in female customers at the Japanese burger chain FRESHNESS BURGER due to their food’s large size. To get women back in their restaurant, the chain introduced special napkins that hid women’s faces while they ate. The “Liberation Wrapper” had a woman’s lower face printed on it to give the illusion the eater wasn’t opening their mouths at all. The innovative wrappers led to a 200 percent leap in classic burger sales. 

BONUS: SPOOKY BURGERS 

Instead of making edgier packaging, Burger King once decided to just change the color of their actual food. Called the “Black Pearl” and the “Black Diamond,” the two meals were marketed in Japan right before Halloween 2014. The spooky-looking burgers had black buns and black cheese.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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