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Interview: Two Bit Circus is using VR to cram 50-acre amusement parks into 50,000 sqft spaces

May 30th, 2017 at 1:15 PM
VR Amusement Parks

Brent Bushnell is the co-founder of a company that wants to build a family of high-tech amusement park-type operations around the country. And as if that’s not enough, when he’s not busy laying the groundwork for the first of those facilities – which is planned for Downtown Los Angeles and set to launch in early 2018 — he married Maggie Grace, the actress on Lost and Taken, this month.

His company is an entertainment venture called Two Bit Circus. The name speaks to Bushnell’s and co-founder Eric Gradman’s obsession with carnivals and the big top. It’s also, needless to say, something of a metaphor for Bushnell’s life at the moment.

“I don’t want to be too on-the-nose, but god am I juggling a lot right now!” laughs the co-founder of a company that’s raised $21.5 million to build what will function essentially like amusement parks for adults, with the facilities spanning between 40,000 and 80,000 square feet.

They’ll be packed with everything from VR games to robots and escape room-type experiences, among other features. Bushnell’s father is also on the company’s board, which is no accident.

That’s because this is the kind of operation Bushnell’s father knows plenty about running. He’s Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari – as such, regarded in some circles as a founding father of the video game industry — as well as idea man behind the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain. And now here comes another Bushnell who hears opportunity knocking around arcades and entertainment destinations.

His father’s mentorship mixed no-nonsense advice with a guided tour of the elder Bushnell’s world of video games and corporate life. Here’s the deal, Bushnell remembers his father once telling him and his siblings as they began their careers — “I’m happy to mentor you. But I’m not going to give you any money. You’re going to do this on your own.”

The children would accompany the elder Bushnell to business meetings and amusement park conventions. Meanwhile, their father was always bringing home the hottest and newest video games to try out.

It was a crash-course in the business of entertainment that helped prepare the younger Bushnell for where he finds himself today.

Two Bit Circus was incorporated in 2012, but Bushnell didn’t launch the startup before trying his hand at different jobs, like his stint as a sushi chef. “It’s funny,” he says now, “I kind of had to go around and do all that to come back to where I started.”

Bushnell is working today with Gradman in a workshop that’s “humming with tons of activity.” It’s all part of bringing Two Bit Circus’ inaugural LA space to life. They spend their days playing with the latest digital gizmos and planning out how to incorporate as much tech as they can into the spaces.

“We’re definitely going to have various types of virtual reality,” Bushnell said. “We love lasers and robots, so those things will be liberally sprinkled around. Eric and I are both obsessed with the circus, so we’ll have elements of that including sort of our own reimagined midway and some fun there. What else … there’ll be a theatre with some fun interactivity. A reimagined arcade. Other interesting toys and gags. We’ve got some fun surprises.”

He and Gradman met back in 2008. They both have engineering backgrounds and had been working regular 9-5 jobs at the time, but they wanted some kind of a fun diversion they could pursue at night and on the weekends. That turned into their making interactive artwork and taking advantage of things they saw around them at the time, like the advent of Arduino, improvements in computer vision and the like.

Eventually, they asked themselves — wouldn’t it be fun if they had their own space to showcase some of what they were making as well as other tech? And so they found themselves caught up in their idea of peeling people away from their smartphones, convincing them to actually leave their homes, and come experience what Bushnell proudly declares will be regarded as “the future of entertainment.”

“There’s kind of this backlash against technology, this idea that people are always on their phones and that their interactions with other people are mediated by technology,” Bushnell said. “We’d sort of like to reposition it and facilitate it with technology. At the end of the day, you and I are going to be elbow-to-elbow playing a game together, as opposed to being connected to our million closest friends while we’re just alone in our basement.”

The target market the company has identified is affluent young adults. Professionals perhaps out for a drink after work, 20- and 30-somethings who might otherwise be going bowling or looking for an escape room experience in the area. The founders even foresee company team-building events taking place in their spaces, maybe even client presentations there.

Two Bit Circus is building a network of what could be thought of as amusement parks, but Bushnell points out that if you consider the typical such venture, they tend to span something like 50-80 acres in a city. And adds that there are only a certain number of places that can support an operation of that size.

“Most people get to go to Disneyland maybe twice in their life,” he said. “Once as a kid and maybe once as a parent. We’re looking for something smaller that can be deployed in every major city — in the 40,000-80,000 square foot range, which you can just about put in every major city. We’re also looking for much more regular visitors. You’d come here more than twice in your life. We’re looking at all sort of different ways to engage people on a week-to-week or a month-to-month basis.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.

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