Surprise and Delight, Rinse and Repeat

Can you believe this video has garnered almost 1 BILLION views?

Ryan ToysReview is a phenomenon. Since 2014, “unboxing” channels on Youtube have changed the face of children’s television and altered the way kids discover new toys.  Mega star, Ryan, now 8 years old, generated 22 million dollars last year from his unboxing videos and has created a new toy and apparel line for Walmart that includes blind bag collectibles. Nickelodeon even announced a new TV show, called Toy Toy Toy – The Unboxing Show.

The viewer doesn’t know what will be revealed in an unboxing video, but they anticipate that it will be something they like. It is that anticipation combined with mystery that make these videos so compelling.  Humans love the unknown. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is associated with pleasure of all sorts – sex, drugs, and video games – and delight spikes with uncertainty. Turns out we get bored quickly; the first taste of cake tastes vastly better than the third. Habituation to stimuli is a key attribute of our nervous system. In contrast, if you see something surprising or unknown, your attention becomes immediately engaged. (This effect is obvious even in infants who pay more attention to an “optimally scrambled” face than a normal one.) Neuroscientists call this a “prediction error.” It’s the delight we never saw coming.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a loot box in a video game or one of Ryan’s unboxing videos. These mysteries excite our dopaminergic system, which is why we like them.

Toy creators paid attention to the burgeoning popularity of unboxing videos and two years after Ryan first burst onto the scene, MGA introduced the L.O.L. line of toys. The company wanted to cash in on the unboxing and collectibles trends, and so it came up with more than 250 dolls whose identities are hidden until unwrapped.

L.O.L collectible dolls

How does it work?  The L.O.L. Surprise! Pearl Surprise toy boosts of “3 layers of surprises.” First you open up the six plastic pearls, each containing clothing for the LOL collectible dolls. Next, you unwrap a giant seashell covered with sand, then place it in water. It fizzes for a few minutes, until all of the “sand” falls off. Amidst some lovely pastel colors generated by the transformation, a plastic shell emerges. You open the shell, and there are three “surprise” bags inside containing, finally, the dolls and accessories. The transformations and surprises keep coming. Even the dolls hair and skin changes colors when dunked in water. (The down side is that all this packaging stuff is filling up our landfills!)

Like other similarly successful toys, L.O.L. dolls combine three key elements: (1) Surprise within a known collectible universe. The child can anticipate the type of toy but not the specific one in the collection, thus holding out the promise of obtaining a “rare” specimen; (2) Multiple surprises. The toy is teased through layers of unwrapping, with delight and surprise along the way; (3) Toy transformations. The child is required to take an active role in the physical transformation of the toy, e.g., adding water to the seashell.

And just so you don’t think that these toys are only for girls, here’s another example. Grandson Izzy loves Dino eggs.  He prefers to hack at the egg shell with a plastic pick to reveal the specific dinosaur inside, but you can also submerge it in water and watch the shell fall off in the fizzing water.  Voila, a triceratops!

It’s genius, combining anticipation and mystery with actions that reveal further surprises. By emphasizing the process and making the child feel as if she is contributing to making the product, the child has an immediate sense of ownership. The child is the creator, not just a purchaser. It feeds their curiosity and that strange pleasure that comes from pursuing the unknown.

HitPoint’s Fairy House

How does all this relate to Augmented Reality, my primary interest these days? I believe that AR is the perfect medium for combining the power of mystery and subsequent revelation with a physical toy. At HitPoint Studios, we created a prototype of a toy fairy house and mailbox and then combined it with virtual fairies. The child receives virtual messages from the fairy queen, suggesting mobile AR games and activities to do in and around the fairy house. Over time, more and different fairies appear as the child carries out activities to make the fairies happy.  Likewise, the physical fairy house takes on new virtual features, like furniture, lights and sounds.

HitPoint’s Fairy House combines features of some of the bestselling toys described earlier. The mysteries of the fairy world are revealed gradually, through the child’s actions, thus causing virtual transformations (rather than physical) in the toy and surrounding environment. Surprise and delight are key elements to every interaction. Unfortunately, HitPoint hasn’t successfully sold a toy manufacturer on our vision…yet, but we have high hopes that once a company has success with this approach (LEGO?), more companies will follow.