Inside the vast space are re-worked old-school arcade games, CAD programs powering woodwork bench experiments, giant CNC machines in a shipping container out back, a bubble-gum pink clown circus ball hoisted up to stress-testing metal joists and a combustion engine-turned-robot bartender.
During a recent visit, those not tinkering with stuff or pondering over circuit boards were staring intently into large monitors surrounded by the usual kawaii mascots or superhero universe geek tchotkes.
This is where the company's 42 mad scientists, artists, inventors, storytellers, and performers hang out, engineering crazy, singular experiences for corporate clients like Intel, Coca Cola, Google, and Samsung with daredevil activities such as the Turret Motion Platform (haptic VR hardware fabrication) and Dunk Tank Flambe (exactly as it sounds).
Two Bit Circus just raised $15 million to build a portfolio of next generation micro-amusement parks, bringing immersive spectacle and entertainment—multi-person VR/MR, social play, an interactive supper club, motion platforms, reactive projection mapping, and other magical things—to Los Angeles in early 2018.
The company's co-founders—CEO Brent Bushnell and CTO Eric Gradman (pictured above)—met me on top of a twisty iron staircase in a mezzanine high above the space, where we talked about "engineering entertainment" and what it means to be mad scientists, among other things.
Firstly, Eric, is it true you ran away to the circus, and the reason you have a red mohawk is because you went up in flames one day?
Eric Gradman: So when I was an undergrad at USC, I was a super nerd, in the computer lab every day. Then, one day, the circus rolled into town and I went on tour with them, becoming a fire dancer, clown, aerialist and acrobat. Yes, that's when I caught on fire.
You were the original Burning Man.
[EG] [Laughs] But my safety caught me, and I was back on stage 10 minutes later because a buddy of mine backstage said, "We can fix this." He gave me this new look, and I liked it.
Eventually, you left the circus and took your mohawk back to USC for post-grad, later joining the strange netherworld of Applied Minds, building cool stuff for US Naval Research and other Government-aligned entities.
[EG] I loved it at Applied Minds, learning all sorts of new technology, because that's what you do at those mad think-tank-y-prototyping-places: physics, machine intelligence, robots. I have nothing but wonderful things to say but they're all covered by non-disclosure so I cannot [Laughs]. I needed an outlet to really pursue all of that stuff, and so that's what we do here at Two Bit Circus.
So let's cut to today. Brent, how did you two meet?
Brent Bushnell: Eric and I got connected around the Mindshare LA enlightened decadence events in 2008. The founder Doug Campbell invited a few nerds he knew to a happy hour to talk about fun ways we could entertain the audience. Although, when I was at UCLA studying comp-sci, I ran the Futurists Group there, and Eric was a member! So I'm almost certain we were at the same Futurists meetings before that. We've been serial co-founders ever since, Virsix (Immersive escape room-like experiences), Doppelgames (mobile game platform like Pokemon Go that sold to Handmade Mobile in 2012), Syyn Labs (production company that made this Rube Goldberg machine in OK Go's This Too Shall Pass), and now Two Bit Circus.
At SXSW last year you appeared on a panel with two of your eight siblings and your dad [Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari] and talked about being "raised as nerds."
[BB] [Laughs] Oh, absolutely. Nolan makes no secret that he kept building businesses for which his kids were the perfect beta testers.
As Nolan was around during the whole San Francisco Homebrew Computer Club early Apple era, did Jobs and Woz hang out at your house at all?
[BB] My elder sister, Alissa, remembers them doing so, but me, not so much.
[EG] Oh come on! It's pretty fantastic that they hung out at your house even once! [Laughs][BB] Well, my mom did find some wedding photos the other day and there's one of Jobs in his Birkenstocks at their wedding reception.
[EG] That's awesome.
So, not to labor the point, you're one of the few people in tech who has a father who actually understands what they do?
That's certainly true. In fact he keeps threatening to move in here!
I came to one of your amazing nights, the Anti-gala, at Mary Pickford's old studio The Lot last year. It felt as if I'd stumbled into a magical Narnia or the Mad Hatters Tea Party for grown-ups. Have you always had the impetus to create anarchy and delight?
[EG] Yes. What we do is a ton of fun and then we get to make money doing it, building experiences for big clients like Coca Cola, Intel, and Samsung, taking them all over the place.
[BB] We're a true integration partner. For example, initially we brought our games to Intel events and then they said, "Great! Next time, let's put Intel Inside," and they gave us a bunch of their latest cameras and tech to include for follow-up activations.
So how do you find geeks with the right set of skills to work here?
[EG] Oh, they find us, we don't need to look for them.
[BB] It's true. We're looking for uncorrelated characteristics—passions that don't follow naturally from the domain we're hiring for. A good example is an electrical engineer that is also a world ranked unicyclist. If people can show they're passionate about something, anything, then they might be able to bring that passion to the Circus.
[EG] They need to understand how computers work; they should believe that computers hold no mystery. I'm looking for people who can take computers and software apart.
[BB] Which tends to overlap with people who are Linux geeks, like us!
[EG] The geekery here is often rooted in a love of video games. Plus, if they've spent their tech career skating on top of a bunch of APIs, but not understanding how they interact with the silicon underneath, they're not going to be able to do what we do here: computer vision, custom circuit boards, psych skills, all of those things will come together in enough of a generalist engineer mindset.
So let's get to your next big venture: the micro-amusement parks. What are they and when will they arrive?
[BB] This is the natural extension of our expertise in merging engineering and out-of-home entertainment, and it's literally the culmination of a decade of work. These micro-amusement parks are informed by all the work we've done for clients in the past. Something that was frustrating to us is that we so often were building attractions for pop-up events but every time their event ended, the tour wound down, or the show was launched—like the time we made an awesome escape room for Warner Bros.—we had to warehouse everything, or break it up and put it in the trash. There wasn't an ongoing place this stuff could go to live. We've wanted a permanent place, an ongoing showcase. The first park is in downtown L.A. in early 2018. It's a template, and it'll be the first of many.
So you'll be launching micro-amusement parks throughout the US eventually?
[BB] That's the plan. People care more about life experiences than buying stuff. Most malls are repositioning their tenant mix to focus much more on entertainment. And to be clear, there's a glut of retail, we overbuilt malls. Every time a Macy's or Sears leaves a mall, there's real estate company looking for a new anchor tenant. People need a place to try out cool new tech, get immersed in the story, with a beer in hand, being social, not in the dry atmosphere of a big box retailer. There's a period between when tech leaves the lab, and before it's ready for the home, that it's perfect for out-of-home entertainment. That's where our micro-amusement parks come in. We're building a ton of attractions and also partnering with tech and media companies who want to showcase and test new products they take them to market.
How big are the micro-amusement parks?
[EG] About 50,000 square feet.
Not that micro then.
[BB] Small for an amusement park but huge for retail. We have a design for as small as 25,000 square feet, but we don't want to go smaller than that.
What will people find inside the micro-amusement park?
[EG] It'll be a platform to experience entertainment you can't easily get anywhere else. When you walk in there's a carnival midway with completely re-imagined games, an arcade with 2020-era video games, a crazy bar, a robot bartender
[BB] There'll be a 100-seat supper club with projection displays, game shows, cabaret, and tablets at every table. It's a whole platform so we can rotate content and bring in new experiences on a regular basis.
[EG] It's an amusement park with its own API and centralized show control manages the entire ecosystem.
[BB] We're always looking for social experiences. As an example, in a mixed reality experience, Eric might be inside VR as Godzilla, and you and I are on the couch nearby with Xbox controllers, manipulating the tanks in the world trying to stop him from destroying the city. Three people entertained, only one in VR.
How much does it cost? Less than $99 day ticket to Disneyland, more than a handful of quarters/tokens for the local arcade?
[BB] It will depend on the time of day, think Uber surge pricing, with other experiences, like a full show, you can pay for additionally inside.
Is mobile a part of this?
[EG] I'm glad you asked. We'll be integrating the experience into the phone with live scavenger hunts, stories that overlay the park, characters that live in the walls and communicate with you.
[BB] Any PCMag readers who happen to be in the L.A. area, and fancy signing up as a beta tester for any of our Two Bit Circus inventions as we test them out before they go into the micro-amusement parks, can sign up online.
[EG] It's the future of fun: a crazy carnival from the future. You need to be here.
When it opens, we'll be there.