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Why Are We Obsessed With 'Unboxing' Videos?

Of the many videos recently uploaded to YouTube, the one above caught our eye. Titled "Num Noms Ice Cream Sundae Sampler Surprise Set with Disney Frozen Fever Birthday Anna Elsa NumNoms," the video features a woman's hands, their elaborately lacquered nails featuring Minnie Mouse, opening a box of toys as her high-pitched voice lyrically guides her viewers—most of whom can barely speak themselves—through the components of the set.

"Time to make an awesome ice cream," she coos, as she piles the plastic bits, called NumNoms, into a plastic cone, waving each piece into a totem pole of sorts. "How tall can we go?" 

Welcome to the world of "unboxing," where products get unwrapped and torn from their packages and shown to an online audience. These videos take after the "haul videos" from earlier this decade, in which adults showcase the stuff they buy during a shopping spree, and the “geekporn” videos that cram the Internet immediately after a new version of a phone or other coveted personal tech comes out.

But unboxing videos are a little different: They portray adults unwrapping children's toys, often with a disembodied voice that sounds as if the narrator is playing with the child. Others choose music instead of voice overs. All focus on the big reveal, which can come many times in a single video, especially when it comes to objects like Kinder Eggs.

And before you dismiss this phenomenon as just another weird trend indicative of our digital obsessions, consider this: unboxing videos routinely take a few of the top 10 spots on most-viewed YouTube watchlists, among the music videos from international superstars and the latest viral prank. There’s clearly something alluring about this unwrapping-by-proxy for millions of people. What is it?

Unboxing video stars are notoriously difficult to reach and private. As the New York Times reported, the star of the above-cited video is Melissa Lima, a.k.a. DisneyCollector or FunToyzCollector, an allegedly 20-something Brazilian native who now lives in Westchester, New York, and may be worth millions thanks to ad revenue and endorsement deals from her videos. One of her most popular videos, “Angry Birds Toy Surprise Jake and the Never Land Pirates Disney Pixar Cars 2 Easter Egg SpongeBob” (unboxing videos rely on keyword searches and often feature dense titles that may not be poetic but are efficient in driving traffic), has garnered more than 106 million views.

But mental_floss spoke to unboxing star Melissa Hunter, a 48-year-old mother who, with her now 12-year-old daughter Gracie, launched the YouTube channel Mommy and Gracie in June 2012. The series features the slapstick, often klutzy duo unboxing toys—predominantly dolls—and reviewing them. The Hunters started the series on a whim and have become quite successful, garnering 587,000 subscribers and 295 millions views (and about 17 million per month). They’ve become a household name, particularly among moms and kids, who range in age from toddlers to tweens.

In November, the Hunters attended the Chicago Toy and Game Fair as special guests and unboxed toys for an hour during an event billed as the world's largest and possibly first livestreaming of unboxing.

Hunter suspects the reason why her unboxing videos are so popular is that they feature both her and her daughter sharing a spirit of curiosity and play. When she was a child, her father spent hours playing with her—a luxury of time many parents can't afford today.

But while Hunter understands how her videos may fill a gap, she’s not necessarily entirely comfortable with it. Her most ardent fans are toddlers who can barely speak. Hunter cites numerous children who’ve come up to her and called her “Mommy” while their parents look on quizzically. “It’s concerning to know that these kids are watching me and my daughter and their parents have no idea what they’re watching,” she tells mental_floss. She’s not alone in her concern; many parents say they are mystified by how bedazzled their children are by unboxing videos.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be so surprised. Hunter gave a talk in New York City in November at StreamCon, a new conference for digital content producers, about why toddler-aimed unboxing videos are solid business. She cited some astonishing statistics: 25 percent of children under the age of 2 in the U.S. have their own tablet, and 80 percent of parents give their device to their child aged 0–2. A look at Google Trends shows that unboxing as a search term has spiked, and not just in America: Countries in South Asia are leading the pack in terms of interest, with tech unboxings aimed at adults being the most popular. 

Psychologists don't think unboxing necessarily has a bad impact on kids—or adults. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, which studies how people interact with media across platforms, thinks unboxing videos feed into a primal curiosity and desire to know what's hidden inside something. The desire to be surprised might be part of our essential makeup.

"The human brain is wired to be curious," she says. "What's in stuff? What's behind stuff? We have a natural proclivity to know."

Rutledge says the unboxing phenomenon isn't new: she points to gumball machines spitting out toys, cereal boxes with surprise gadgets, and popsicles that reveal a joke or quote on the stick only once they’re eaten up. 

This element of surprise has a couple of uses for us, and it varies by age. Consider a toddler watching an unboxing video. They watch a box being taken apart or a plastic egg being opened. Fingers grab the product inside, toy with it, fit it in shapes or assemble parts together. Rutledge says that for the very youngest viewers, unboxing videos can act as both a cognitive experience and a reassurance mechanism.

"For younger kids, they'll watch unboxing videos repeatedly, the way they like to have stories told to them repeatedly," explains Rutledge, herself a mother of six. It's comforting for kids to see the same “surprise” come out from packaging, even though they know what’s inside.

As kids grow older, the element of surprise becomes more of an exploratory event, Rutledge says. Tween, teen, and adult tech geeks who are transfixed by unboxing videos are often looking to buy the product themselves.

"They're sort of how-to videos,” Rutledge says. “You're imagining yourself go through the process [of opening the box]. In contrast to advertisements, these are real."

It's easy to dismiss unboxing videos as more proof of our digital lives being dictated by the Internet, but Rutledge argues that these videos—as well as other online games that have risen in popularity among children—shouldn't be cast aside as silly or brain numbing.

"We have a negative understanding of vicarious in our society—that you're not doing your own living,” she says. Unboxing, she says, “is a different thing. It's more of an exploratory learning process."

“For kids, handing them a toy ice cream parlor [for example]—it's already done the work for you. There's no imagination, no building, thinking, creativity, or problem solving,” she continues. “With these videos and other games, there's learning: How are they putting it together? How are they using the Play-Doh? How are they making different creations?"

Screenshots from FunToyzCollector, YouTube

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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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May 23, 2017
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