Two years ago, Mark Rober was an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., part of a team that worked on the Curiosity rover. For Halloween, he strapped an iPad to his chest and another to his back. Then he turned them on and used the devices’ cameras and screens to make it appear as if he had a gaping hole in the middle of his torso.
In 2012, Rober and a few friends launched Digital Dudz in their spare time, creating a free smartphone app and selling $29 T-shirts to people who liked Rober’s original idea but didn’t want to shell out for two iPads. Customers got instructions on duct-taping their mobile devices to the inside of their Digital Dudz shirts and cutting holes to reveal video of a beating human heart. It might not seem like the kind of product that took a rocket scientist to build.
In a month, Digital Dudz had $250,000 in sales and was getting nibbles from would-be acquirers. It was a happy accident for Rober, 33. “I wouldn’t call myself an entrepreneur,” he says. “I’ve never been the type who feels like he can’t work for the man.” Still, he jumped at the opportunity, selling Digital Dudz this summer to four-year-old British costume-maker Morphsuits, which has built a business around full-body spandex suits, and leaving his job to join the company as chief creative officer. “I talked to my guys at NASA,” says Rober. “They said: ‘You need to go for this’ and that I will always have a job back there.”
The business is growing, he says. Before hitching his star to Morphsuits, Rober sold costumes online, relying on a local T-shirt maker and fulfillment house. This year, his costumes have pockets sewn into the insides and are being carried in hundreds of Party City stores and other specialty shops across the U.S. They’re still low-tech but no longer require duct tape.
They’ve also gone mainstream. Today ran a segment this morning on his new designs, which include a costume that uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to create a gruesome effect: When a friend pretends to punch the wearer in the back, the app makes it look like the wearer’s intestines are being ripped out. Two weeks before Halloween, Rober says sales are up 400 percent from last year.
Now he’s trying to expand beyond fright-night apparel. Earlier this year, Rober says he signed a deal with Walt Disney (DIS) to create augmented outfits modeled on Marvel Comics superheroes, and he plans to start selling them in 2014. He’s also working on a series of “ugly Christmas sweaters” for later this year—think crackling fires or a chuckling Santa.
Clothing that incorporates tech for purely aesthetic reasons has yet to be widely marketed, says Michael Moriarty, who covers wearable tech for AT Kearney. “If you look at all technology, we start with big clunky things that ultimately get distributed down,” he says. “I might have 100 apps on my phone. The question is, do you want them in your pants?”
Wearable tech, including smart watches and glasses, will become a $19 billion industry by 2018, according to a report published this week by Juniper Research. Of course, those technologies are meant to do more than impress friends and strangers.
Building technology directly into clothing for the sole purpose of creating a visual effect is still prohibitively expensive, says Rober. He reckons, though, that his relatively simple approach has legs. “It’s not something you’d wear three times a week,” he says. “But if you’re going out and want to create an impact, we feel there’s certainly a market.”