Brent Bushnell is the CEO and Co-Founder and of the amazing Two Bit Circus. His is a huge name in tech, games, and building connective, fun, immersive environments. Brent’s award-winning micro amusement park in the Downtown L.A. Arts District, Two Bit Circus, has won global recognition including being named by Fast Company as one of the Most Innovative Game Companies of 2020 and receiving Trip Advisors’ Traveler’s Choice Award – rated in the top 10% of attractions worldwide. Brent also won Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Innovator Award.
Two Bit Circus combines Virtual Reality, Interactive Gaming, Escape/ Story Rooms, a 100 seat interactive Game Show Theater, a Robot Bartender, and so much more! They’ve attracted huge celebrities and a ton of press, being featured on The TODAY Show, in People Magazine, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, WIRED, and many more.
Brent is an Electrical Engineer, Software Developer, Immersive Entertainment and Human Engagement Expert, STEAM authority, and pioneer in Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality, (starting with some very early major VR projects many years ago for the likes of the NFL and NASCAR).
Brent was also the on-camera inventor for the hit TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, and is responsible for well over 70 million views on the web working with major brands, including building a huge Rube Goldberg machine creating a viral music video for the band OK Go’s song “This Too Shall Pass”.
Brent is the Chair of The Two Bit Circus Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that works with educators and schools to bring STEAM (Science Technology Entertainment Art and Math) learning through exhibits and activities held in schools around the country.
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Brent Bushnell: Two Bit Circus’ Tech Pioneer On The Future Of Connectivity, Experiential, And Games
Joining me is Brent Bushnell. He is the CEO and Cofounder of the amazing Two Bit Circus. He’s a huge name in tech, games and building connective immersive environments. His award-winning micro amusement park in Downtown LA Arts District, Two Bit Circus, was named by Fast Company as one of the Most Innovative Game Companies of 2020 and received Tripadvisors’ Travelers Choice Award rated in the top 10% of attractions worldwide. Brent also won the Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Innovator Award. Two Bit Circus combines virtual reality, interactive gaming, escape, story rooms, a 100 seat interactive game show theater, a robot bartender and so much more.
They’ve attracted huge celebrities and a ton of press being featured on The TODAY Show, People Magazine, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, WIRED, and much more. Brent is an electrical engineer, a software developer, immersive entertainment and human engagement expert, esteem authority, and pioneer in virtual and mixed reality, starting with some very early major VR projects years ago with the likes of the NFL and NASCAR. He was also the on-camera inventor for the hit TV show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and is responsible for well over 70 million views on the web working with major brands, including building a huge Rube Goldberg Machine, creating a viral music video for the band OK Go. Please join me with the very fun and incredible Brent Bushnell.
Brent Bushnell, thank you for joining me here on the show. How are you doing, sir?
I’m great, Chris. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
I am excited to have you. I’ve been looking forward to this. You are such a fun guy in many ways. Your job is fun. Your whole life has been fun. You grew up in the house of Atari and have created fun experiences and connection points for many years. What a fun life. You have the bow tie on.
This is my carbon fiber bow tie. If you need that intersection of strong and lightweight, this is your tie.
I knew you were maybe going to wear a bow tie. I almost wore mine, but then I was like, “I can’t wear one if he is wearing one.”
The more, the merrier. I’m all in on bow ties. I would love nothing more than bow ties.
You have the red nose somewhere nearby.
I have clown noses all over the place. I put it in my car and my office right next to my desk always. I’m a trained clown.
There you are in your circus that you’ve built.
This is our micro amusement park. I’m in downtown Los Angeles. This is a 50,000 square foot building. It’s got both our headquarters as well as 38,000 square feet of entertainment. This is dedicated to the future of entertainment. We’ve got a virtual reality arena, a 100-seat interactive game show theater, a carnival midway, what we call story rooms, our version of Escape Rooms, and a full bar and restaurant.
You have a robot bartender.
There is a robot bartender right next to LED tree, and Gearmo del Pouro is his name. He will make you have a full-blown cocktail.
I’ve been there and it’s been eerily silent every time you go in there this 2020. I don’t know what day you closed down. It was around March 13, 2020, which was a Friday.Play is important. Having fun is an outlet. Click To Tweet
I remember that was the day that we sent out an email saying, “We’re going to be open.” We happened to have a $30,000 thermal imaging camera. We were like, “We’re going to take everybody to these temperatures when they come in and maybe that will be safe.” Then we started reading about all the asymptomatic transmission and I started getting nervous. We closed the Saturday morning. We sent out another newsletter saying, “Sorry, reverse, delete, undo. We’re closing.” The LA City said, “You got to be close by the 16th.” We closed before we had to and have been closed ever since.
One of the things that directly relate to this park and my work is around social. My whole life has been bringing people together, live entertainment, live experiences. I’m a strong believer in live. As humans, we are social animals at our core. This pandemic has reminded people as they go nuts alone in their homes or with their normal crew that we’d like to be out together. I think of being entertainment, having one foot, in mental health helping to get people together, having fun is its own outlet. Play is important.
You guys have shifted well as an organization. You’ve put a lot of online content out there and you’ve even created an online experience as similar as you could get to show up at the park. My family took advantage of it for a birthday party and that was fun to have many people involved in a game show that you created online. Is that what you guys have been focusing on? Is it trying to get people together still via Zoom?
We intentionally went away from Zoom. One of the things we found was that people get a lot of Zoom fatigue. If you’re on video all day long, that itself is exhausting. You want to be able to relax and not have to worry about your hair. Our game show is an extension of our 100-seat interactive theater here in the park. It was something we always wanted, even before the pandemic was for people to be able to work from home or to play in the park. You could come for the live experience, but then you could also stay home. That shot at the top of the list when the pandemic started.
We’ve been iterating it ever since. We do tons of shows. We both do a public show every Thursday at 7:00 Pacific time. We also do birthday shows, team building, and we’re doing a whole white label solution. We launched with the Main Event. It’s been the happy hour for conferences. We’re bringing a fun way for people to be able to get together. It’s interactive. You’re playing along with the game show. The host can respond. It’s a ton of fun and high-energy. It’s a good hour of entertainment when you’re in lockdown.
We met with all the people in Zoom before we joined the game show. In the game show, there are no cameras. It’s a chat room where everybody can chat along, but everybody also is playing along by answering questions that the game show host is asking us. It’s keeping tabs and tally of how well we’re all doing. It’s fun.
We can send invites to you, Chris and Anna Lee, to join as panelists. The people that are at the top of the leaderboard join as panelists. If you want to, you can join on video and be a participant-focused contestant, but it’s built not to require it.
It was fun. I know you’ve got a lot more of that coming in 2021. You’re expecting to be able to open those doors again.
One of the things that will be interesting, we will both continue to operate this play from the home game show, but I think that the event landscape is going to shift to a hybrid model for the foreseeable future. Just like we have accommodations for a disability, ADA accessible stuff, I believe that a person who is more susceptible to viruses is going to need to be accommodated. Hybrid events will say, “I’m an event planner. I’m throwing an event, and it’s going to be live at Two Bit Circus but also if you don’t want to come to live, you can play from home and be a part of the show,” so that there’ll be this connectivity between the live and virtual participants, which is going to be here to stay for a while.
It’s something that everybody is getting a lot of practice in is how to manage that side, what platforms they like, what things are working, what things aren’t, and how to keep everyone’s attention when they’re not at the event?
I do think they need to be thought of as two distinct events. The virtual has to be awesome and stand alone. The live has to be awesome and stand-alone, and all the better that there’s some connectivity in between.
Going back to the beginning of how you got into this world. You grew up the first of many boys. You have a lot of brothers. Your dad is Nolan Bushnell, who created Atari. This must have been an incredible childhood. We’ve talked about that a little bit, but share with everyone here, what that was like, and what happened to you? You must’ve been a video game pro, and you must’ve been playing a lot of video games and getting obsessed with this type of fun?
It was amazing because, for us, that was normal. We didn’t think that it was anything special, but looking back, my dad’s a big kid. He loves games and plays. He was constantly immersing us in that stuff. We would follow him to work, whether that was at Chuck E. Cheese or whatever new business venture. He’s the most famous for Chuck E. Cheese and Atari. He’s had 25 other companies, including mapping and all other stuff. We would go with him to the amusement park convention, which exists in Orlando every year. IAAPA is an entire trade show floor of games and play. As a kid, that’s Mecca. Everything’s on free play. We had an absolute ball. He also was firm with us about independence. He was like, “I’m going to give you no money. You’re going to work for yourself.” At a young age, I got a job at thirteen bagging groceries and haven’t stopped. I’ve worked in fiber optics and DNA synthesis. I was a sushi chef for a little while, but the independence that he raised us with was critical, and I’m thankful for it.
You basically went in into a curriculum of mostly engineering coupled with science. What was your field in college?
I studied Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at UCLA. Critically, I did it after having taken a number of gap years. Out of high school, I went to CU Boulder for one year and then left for four. I started my first company doing website design, web and email hosting. We are an outsourced IT for small businesses before Gmail and a lot of those tools got very robust. I had servers in a bank vault in Downtown LA and was changing hard drives. All the stuff that you can now do with Amazon in a click of a button. It took me weeks. What was amazing was when I went back to school at UCLA, I’d had all the problems. Database design, operating systems and all of these things I wanted to know. Now I was at the front of the class and drinking it in, still running my company from the gen one smartphones. Everybody expected it to be in an office and I was running my company from the halls of UCLA.
Eventually, you hooked up with a guy named Eric.
My Cofounder Eric Gradman, also an incredible nerd. He went to USC for robotics, and neither of us follows sports. The UCLA and USC conflict is lost on us, but we’re both trained clowns. We both love to play games. We met at a top-secret nerd night where we were showcasing games we’d made for live events. We’re like, “You’re awesome. It’s neat what you made.” That night we went and made one of our first interactive art pieces together. We literally haven’t stopped. That was 2008. We’ve made many games together. We made Escape Rooms. We did our own version years before Escape Rooms. We didn’t even have the language to describe it. We were like, “People, do you want to come and do a thing? It’s like a cross between a scavenger hunt and a murder mystery dinner, and you come to a physical location.” It was wild to try even to describe it. We’ve made tons of stuff and huge viral marketing stunts. We helped OK Go make their big Rube Goldberg Machine music video. They got 60 plus million views.
How did that happen? You weren’t known for Rube Goldberg machines.
At the time, we were basically this band of nerds in Downtown LA that there was this party called Mindshare that happened every month. It happened in unpermitted warehouses. It was like a rave for nerds. We would go. In this warehouse, there would be different speakers on different topics from nanotech to rockets to whatever, and then it would break for a cocktail party. We would bring interactive art to that cocktail party. We pointed to a camera, projector, and whiteboard that responded to everything that you did. We took the circus ball that Eric had used in the circus and mounted it on casters to create a huge trackball. We built a 3 on 3 space battle game, a cloud that rains tequila, all crazy stuff. What happened was OK Go found out about this. They’re based in LA, and they found out about this band of nerds in Downtown and said, “We want to build this crazy thing, do you want to help?” That was where that came from.
What an amazing band, and what an amazing bunch of music videos they did. Was that the only music video that you did with them?
That was the only video we did with them, but it did unlock and many brands came to us saying, “We want a viral video too.” That early viral videos.
How long ago was that video?
That was about 2012. On the back of the success of that, we had all these brands coming after us, saying, “Not only do we want a viral video, we want a Rube Goldberg Machine.” We were like, “No, we were out of the Rube Goldberg Machine business.” It was so hard to make that thing. It took months, and 80 takes. It almost never worked. We did make one exception. Google was wanted to do a Rube Goldberg. We were like, “We have three conditions. We can use lasers, fire and robots.” They were like, “That sounds great.”
We got all three of them in there because of the original OK Go one, and they wanted it to be stuff that you could have found in your garage. We did enjoy making that other one, but we got to bungee jump cars for Chevy. We literally bungee jumped its nose into a little kiddie pool. We took 25 black and white cars out to the desert for DieHard battery. We arranged them like a big piano and then had Gary Numan play the song Cars on the cars. It was ridiculous stuff. It’s so fun and imaginative. Sometimes I can’t believe we get to call it to work.
You also got known for being one of the early people and one of the early persons working with VR. You were doing some things before anybody even was even thinking about it.
As that band of nerds, brands would come to us and say, “We either want a spectacle stunt thing, do it, give us a viral video or we have this new tech, and we want to make it fun. We want to make it interesting.” We did all kinds of stuff for Intel, incorporating their tech into attractions we could take to Say Yes. We brought a ton of our own stuff to Amazon’s holiday party for 5,000 people. We did big events like that. Dave & Buster’s very early was like, “We’ve been tracking this VR stuff. We think it could be interesting. We want to do a test. There were no VR attractions at the time.” We built a couple of different attractions, a four-player driving and a two-player skydiving game. Both were allowed to be able to test, “How long do people want to do this? Do they care about cleanliness? What are they willing to pay? Is this an operational nightmare?” This was 2013 or sometime around there. There was very little awareness around what would work and what didn’t. We had to build our own head tracking before Oculus even had head tracking. It was interesting.
Now people can come to this incredible place, Two Bit Circus, in downtown LA. I’m sure Coronavirus got in the way, but I know there are plans for there to be many more of these locations all around the world.
We picked this site not accidentally. This is about one floor of a department store. As you imagine, Macy’s and Sears and all those places going away, we’ve designed a format for rapid replication. What we proved when we opened is that the appetite for this is massive. When we closed down, we were Fast Company’s Most Innovative Game Company List for 2020. We won Tripadvisor’s Top 10% of Attractions worldwide. Every Saturday was more attended than the last. There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but that for an adult is especially bad.
The good news is that you have this situation where there’s a lot of people around you in LA who are very creative. There’s a lot of gamers, athletes and celebrities. I know Jack Black has come in and enjoyed playing there and put it on his JablinskiGames.
We’ve had Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Aguilera, Elon Musk, Will Smith and his whole family. The list goes on and on. It’s been a fun, wild ride.
The point is that it proves that this is what people want to do. They want to be connected. They want to do something fun. They want to be able to play games. They want to be able to look at all these new technologies. I remember, I walked in the door, and maybe it was the first time I came, but there was an instrument. I’m a drummer. My friend was with me. We were jamming on this weird thing that made weird sounds. The whole park was there for us. We were like, “I don’t even know what’s over there.” For 40 minutes, I was like, “We got to check out.” We were going to a concert or some kind of a show, but we had to go. We didn’t even get to even look at anything else, except for the first thing we saw.
One of the things that I love about this place so much is it’s not any one technology. This is not a VR arcade and not a traditional location-based entertainment facility. We’ve scoured the Earth for incredible stuff. We’ve made our own things and partnered with creators to help showcase their stuff. We even have every quarter what we call beta night, which is a special evening on a Tuesday night, a slower night where we open it up to creators to come and showcase their stuff. Locals come and they get to try that stuff out. The promise of the beta night is, “You’re going to be the first to try it.” You might get a splinter. It might be a little buggy, but you’re going to be right there iterating with the creator. There’s a whole set of people that love to be a part of that process. It’s my favorite night.Immersive entertainment is as close to real life as we can get right now. Everything else is an approximation. Click To Tweet
If you like something, you can add it to Two Bit Circus. You can buy it.
That’s happened multiple times where the developers worked on it. They’ve made it. They’ve become the best thing at beta night, and then they end up being permanently a part of the park. They stay here and tweak with it more until finally, it’s ready to take flight. In fact, one of my younger brothers did that, Wyatt Bushnell, and he got his arcade, his eight-player driver to the point where it was the highest-earning in the whole arcade, and then sold one to every Dave & Buster’s in the country and another 300 locations worldwide with the hot wheels license. A cool testament to that cycle from concept all the way through to proven attraction.
There are many things in there that I want to talk about. The great thing also is that meeting planners, professional, event directors, and whatever you want to call the person who puts together an amazing event who are my customers, they can look at this and say, “I want this at my event. I want you to bring me some attractions.” This is changing what is possible, especially with the Oculus and the VR stuff that people can transform themselves at an event into another world. You can do many things.
We’ve hosted over 100 events here, full park takeovers and all that kind of stuff, but then we’ve also brought attractions to other people’s events. One memory that I loved. We did a VR skydiving experience at XPRIZE. You would get into a harness with the VR headset on and then the harness would lower you down over a bunch of fans so you could feel what it’s like to jump from 30,000 feet. It’s a lot of fun. We love doing stuff at events with our game show platform, it opens up even more options.
You have an actual theater in there.
It’s an interactive game show theater. There are touchscreens on every table. Everybody gets to play as part of the show. You’re doing great, Chris. We’re going to pull you up on stage with the podium next to somebody else. You guys are going to compete. Part of the big transition that I see in entertainment is one from classic entertainment. It was very passive. You read a book and you watch a movie. You’re this passive observer looking into somebody else’s world. Video games were the first time that you had some control over the action. For a little while, it was with your thumbs, but now you use your whole body. We can build experiences into this whole environment. There is in fact secret stuff all over this place that you have to be here in order to discover. There is a technology that enabled all kinds of new ways to play. For us, it always roots back to that social, getting people together with live, and being able to be part of the show interacting and not just passive.
With the pandemic, I’m sure it’s giving you guys a lot of things to think about as far as how do we get people to connect who are stuck in their homes, playing games all the time, maybe with each other, but are there some other things they can do besides being a character? Being a little character on a screen that all these other people are interacting with, but can you be yourself and can lead to some things creatively that other people can enjoy? Tell us a little bit about what are your ideas about how VR and that interactive world are shaping themselves going forward?
VR is in this larger class of immersive entertainment. Two Bit Circus is in that class of immersive entertainment. What the tech has now allowed is to immerse not just your eyes and ears in the entertainment but all of your senses. We’ve got VR here where, as you walk, it moves you in the world. Classic video games didn’t do that. You were sitting on a couch, even if your character is running around. The more that you can have what your body is experiencing be what the character is experiencing, fusing those things together because what that now allows you to do is be Harry Potter, wave a wand, and have something magical happen. You can be in the middle of a zombie infestation and have to defend the fricking village.
A lot of this stuff is an incredible workout. You’re moving your body, docking, jive and weaving. Immersive entertainment is as close to real life as we can get right now. Real-life is incredible resolution. This is the best that it gets. Everything else is an approximation, but what you can start to do is now give people those fantasy roles and allow them to be that thing, suspend their own lives and jump into this other world. We all have different worlds that we love. You might like the sports world. I might like the zombie world or I have a penchant for horror. Whatever the world is that you love, being able to do it in a more immersive way.
Can you do the whole body now a thing at home, and is there a chance for people to create environments, or are there a lot of environments for people to jump into at home?
VR in the home is getting amazing. Even a couple of years ago, it required a $2,000 computer and special sensors and a ton of space. It was a project to set it up. Something like the Oculus Quest makes that super easy. It’s a single headset and it pairs with your phone. It is all pretty turnkey. Not only is the hardware great and accessible, I think the thing is like $400. There’s so much great content. There are rhythm games, and there are great shooting games, fantasy games. There’s enough content to make you want to get it. Nobody bought Nintendo for the hardware. They bought it for the Super Mario Brothers. They bought it for the content. It was a vehicle for the content. Finally, the VR content is getting wonderful.
What are the things that excite you the most about what you guys have done there? As far as the VR, would you say that you have AR or XR there as well?
We have MR, Mixed Reality, which is a way of talking about one of our experiences. You’re going through a maze. In VR, you’ve got your gun, but at a certain point, you are going in an elevator, and the ground starts to vibrate, or you’re looking out over a huge, expansive cavern, and you feel the wind on your face. Those things bring additional senses to the table. In general, more on immersive entertainment, the thing that I think, whether you’re talking about VR, AR, mixed reality, immersive theater, which is another incredible category where rather than sitting in a seat facing the stage and watching the theater, the theater is all around you, and maybe you get a one-on-one moment with an actor who is responding to you in real-time. This is part of what is so special about immersive is that it’s personalized to you, your experience, you can ask them questions, and they will respond. It gets closer to how we normally interact with the regular world. You’re interacting with the tools you understand, but you’re in a fantasy narrative, and that’s powerful.
Tell me a little bit about it, is there anything that’s coming up in the future that you haven’t had there in Two Bit yet. You haven’t played with yourself yet, but that you know it’s coming. Tell us a little bit about what you’re excited about futuristic technologies and games that people should all get excited about.
Here is the thing that gets powerful is as all of these immersive tools get tested and made robust in an entertainment context, we’re learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t. That stuff can now graduate to more things, not just entertainment, but therapy, education, training and fitness. There are many studies. You will work out harder in VR than you will in real life. The second that we’ve added some tracking and that immersion, you’re going to work out harder. There’s already a gym in Northern California that is called Black Box that has VR headsets for learning. You will learn things longer the more of your senses are involved in experiencing it. The biggest deployment of virtual reality in the world, Walmart’s corporate training.
For Walmart employees to be able to train, what we’re going to start to see is education jumping off of the page, jumping out of the classroom into something that you get to experience the first person. It will match more real life. If you think about it, the current school format is old, dated, and tired, and was a product of the industrial era. We are so far beyond that. We need to train kids with creativity and design thinking and all of these new approaches that don’t require that traditional outmoded approach. All of these technologies are going to be revolutionary to those industries.
Kids are learning differently now than they were. They’re not reading a book, they’re looking at a screen, so why not put the education on the screen?
Some of those are even, not just the technology themselves, but the technology allows. A great teacher having filmed their presentation for the day, you can watch that at night. Come to the classroom in order to be able to talk directly with the teacher and have them give you one-on-one instruction. The teacher becomes an exception handler. That’s the flipped learning model. Each of these now starts to be able to make better use of the teacher, empower the leaders of the class to be able to help mentor the back of the class. You’re making more efficient use of your resources. We’ve spent a ton of time in learning and education.
Two Bit Circus spun out an entire nonprofit. We have a whole 501(c)(3) foundation. We build K-12 learning experiences, a whole solution of playful learning. We collect clean waste from companies and package it up as art supplies for the schools. We deploy tool benches for maker spaces and train the teachers. At this point, we’re in over half the schools of Los Angeles as well as chapters in 80 countries. It’s an incredible organization. We had our anti-gala. We used our game show platform to throw that, but we’ve seen firsthand how much education is changing and it’s exciting.
What’s this deal with you burning yourself up? Do you like to put on fire suits and catch yourself on fire?
I run a high-tech circus. Fire has got to be involved. After we did a bunch of the corporate events and before we opened the park, we had a traveling carnival. We traveled that carnival for two years, huge events, 120,000 square feet. Multiple football fields in size, tons of immersive entertainment, one-half all the immersive entertainment and one-half hands-on projects for kids to learn about science and engineering. The message was, “We built all this stuff. It’s not that hard. You can too. Here’s how.” My favorite attraction there was the Dunk Tank Swamp Bay, where if you think of the classic dunk tank where you throw a ball and fall in the water. Ours, we were like, “Water’s okay, but fire is awesome.” You’re immersed in a firewall, but you don’t die because you’re wearing a fire suit.
How many times did you do that?
I have done that now more than I can count. Over ten times, but I’ll never forget the first time when we’ve been talking about the dunk tank thing and then finally, we built it, and they were like, “Brent, there you go.” I was like, “Did somebody else do this yet?” It is very safe. We’re nerds, after all. The fire marshals come in there loaded for bear, and then they see that we’ve got all those boxes checked, and then they are total pyros.
They wanted to do it too. The fireman?
They love it. They’ll stay there all day. The kids are throwing the balls. They go nuts.
You got automatic people to be there for security and volunteers. During the pandemic, you had a child. Congratulations.
Thank you so much. It’s been an absolute joy. I was older in my family. I had many younger siblings, but having my son has been an amazing experience.
You are in the very beginning.
He’s a handful of months old, but I didn’t even think I’d like this young part. I knew I was going to when we could play together. Even right now, when he recognizes me and gets all excited, it gets me all excited. We’re like this feedback loop of enthusiasm.
I don’t know if you’re planning on having as many children as your father and mother did, but that’s up to you. I know you might have a thing for that since you came from it.
Eight was wonderful for them. We’ll do 2 or 3.
Here’s my question. I love when I talk to people in my job because I talked to many people who are inspiring. Many people I know are in technology, so many of the great speakers I represent and am around, and you know a lot of them yourself. Categorically to a man, every single one of these men and women would say to me they are so excited about the future, even in the middle of a pandemic. In other words, this is the best time in the history of human beings to be alive. Even though we have major problems with the planet, environment, and with all kinds of people disagreeing over things, nations, all that but it is the greatest time to be alive as a human being. I know that because I’ve met all these people who’ve educated me about it. I want to hear your take on that.A decline in social engagement is also a decline in civic engagement. Click To Tweet
It’s never been a better time to be a human. If you look at the long-term data of mortality and the diseases that we’re susceptible to, it’s an incredible time to be human.
Isn’t it about the technology that’s coming and that is here already, and we’re figuring out what to do with it? Isn’t that the real reason why this is such a great time because of what it’s going to do for us?
There are lots of reasons for concern. Humanity is doing great but we are taxing the planet. With the pandemic, we’ve seen the results of less air travel and how there are lots of meetings that weren’t necessary to be in person. I do hope that we take away some messages here as we reconstruct society from the pandemic. In general, it is an unbelievable time. The tools are amazing. You mentioned, the technology has gotten great that now you can do the fun part, the creative part of saying, “What do I want to do?” Be able to pull all these amazing tools then together. It was part of what inspired Eric and I even in the early days, 2008. The sensors in your phone had gotten so cheap.
Putting an accelerometer in something was easy. Computer vision was open-source. Kinect made depth-sensing cameras accessible. This was the tech that used to be a decade of PhDs and you had to spend a million dollars to license it. Now it was free. Knowing that was possible, all of a sudden, he and I on a weekend could be like, “Let’s make a three on three spaceship that’s a crazy space battle game with ten screens and multiple controllers,” and we’d actually do it. It’s a powerful time for creativity, to be sure.
It’s also a time where we can go anywhere and see anything. You had to read it in a book or even watch it on TV, and now you can go there with drones, VR glasses, and with all of the mapping that’s happened. You can create any reality.
I love that you bring that up. My favorite example is Notre Dame. Ubisoft, the Montreal game company, captured Notre Dame in super high resolution for their game Assassin’s Creed. As a result of having this incredible capture of Notre Dame, the French government, when Notre Dame burned down, the people who had the canonical reference on what Notre Dame looked like was this video game company. They are using those renderings in order to be able to reconstruct Notre Dame. Not only that, those same renderings are now being put into an educational experience so kids the world over can go and experience first-person what it’s like to be inside of Notre Dame and not have to fly to Paris. It couldn’t even go if they were in Paris anyway because it’s being reconstructed. That’s a good example of the art that this technology has taken to lots of places like entertainment, education, architecture and reconstruction. It’s powerful stuff.
Because this is your world, is there some research that you’re aware of that shows that when people are connecting together, even if they’re at home and it’s through a screen, that shows that person is healthier and happier?
I’m obsessed with this topic. I mentioned that I think of myself as having one foot in mental health and wellness because play is part of us. It’s not flippant and unnecessary. The Animal Kingdom play. Stuart Brown has researched for many years talking about the play. There’s a couple of great books. One Harvard sociologist wrote called Bowling Alone. He did a huge survey across people getting together live, whether they were church-going, union attendance, bowling leagues, card playing, all these different things, and found that attendance cratered over the decades. Right alongside that cratering was this increase in isolation, loneliness, and dissatisfaction despite the fact that it’s never been better to be a human on the face of Earth in all of time.
Even tracking perfectly with a decline in social engagement was also a decline in civic engagement. People stopped caring about their community the less that they spent time with each other. There’s real data there around the need. Another book called Lost Connections does an incredible job. This guy had suffered from depression forever. He tried every single drug that he could get his hands on. Finally, after all this research found, the thing that made the most sense and was the most important was having friends. Real-life connections were the ultimate antidepressant. There was even a study that said, “The magnitude of having friends and real-life social relationships were as important as quitting smoking.” Imagine the amount of airplay smoking gets in our society and how comparatively little airplay the importance of social relationships gets. I could talk your ear off about this, but I’m a huge believer, play as a stimulant for creativity, play as a recipe for happiness. Play is critical.
How young will your child and children be when you allow them to play video games? I know I’ve asked Nolan this and he was all for it. What’s your take on that?
I will absolutely let them as soon as they are able, but it’s also about moderation, everything in moderation. Water is wonderful and I love it, and you can drown. You’ve got to make sure that you have the right amount of these things. While we will let them play video games early, we’re also going to not let them play video games at all, at certain times, and force them outside and have unstructured time, go off, and play in the dirt. A variety of life experiences is also fundamental for creativity, so we’ll make sure that we include that in our child-rearing.
I remember your dad told me something funny. He said, “I would let them play with anything that they wanted to in my workshop as long as they couldn’t cut their finger off.”
Jeff Bezos even goes one step further. They were like, “We want our kids to be able to play and work with heavy equipment and tools. We’d much rather they lose a finger than be dull and uneducated.” I’ve butchered the quote, but there’s something there.
It’s about saying yes, and it’s about encouraging creativity, which is something that you’ve been doing your whole life once you left the house with this whole endeavor that you’ve created here, this amazing thing.
Creativity is a muscle like your bicep. It is something that you can cultivate. It is something that you can change your life to be able to cultivate. Creativity is something that you work at. We have all ways in which we stay creative here at Two Bit. For me, personally, I will go to random conferences and try to expose myself to as much information as I possibly can.
When people come to your facility now that you’ve created, which lives in a breeze and is a real place to go, and I can’t wait for you to have them all over the world. When people walk into that, it inspires creativity because everything you’re looking at is something you’ve never seen before. I don’t even know what that is behind you. It looks like it’s a cool lighting structure with some panels.
It’s our LED tree. I had to unplug the songbirds so that they didn’t interfere with our audio. It was even songbirds in the LEDs.
I was talking about it, and it looks like a hot air balloon, which is the roof of the bar.
This is our deconstructed circus tent that is the epicenter of our big circular bar.
Everywhere you look in that place is amazing.
The rabbit hole goes deep. You have to know to ask the front desk about the Tentpole Society. There’s secret stuff all over this place. There are over twenty hours of entertainment in here. We wanted to make sure that you couldn’t do it all the 1st time, 2nd second time, and the 10th time and that you never knew if you’d found it all.
You’ve got to tell us one of the secrets because nobody will be able to even go for a while. Maybe a new one coming. You can give us a little something.
You’ve got to ask the front desk about the Tentpole Society.
Is that one of the secrets?
I’m not sure.
We’ll leave it at that. You’re being very mysterious. I can’t wait to come back. It’s such an awesome place, and whenever you’re speaking, it’s fun because you’re inspiring yourself. You’ve created so much to influence people and put smiles on people’s faces and inspire them to create and think. I’m sure that schools must want to bring their kids there for fun, but also to inspire them with Science, engineering, and computer technology. Do you have schools that are coming a lot?
We’ve we brought schools here before. We’ve brought the carnival to schools. We’ve made a lot of different approaches, and then we also work with the kids, so they build their games. Think of it as a replacement for the science fair. They learn how to make their own game, and then they showcase it so that everybody gets to play it too. It’s a lot more fun than some boring baking soda and vinegar volcano.
No offense to all the Science teachers out there.
Science teachers are my heroes. I love Science teachers. My Physics teacher from high school was an absolute inspiration and part of why I’m here.
You guys have always been very well associated with STEM, with the foundation, but in general. I know you’ve spoken at a ton of STEM conferences, and they always love you. You’re the most exciting speaker of them all.
It’s not everybody who gets to blow stuff up. Speaking of fun nerdy stuff, we have this huge roof, and we were like, “What should we do with our huge roof? We can put a garden up there or a patio.” We were finally like, “That’s going to be hard and expensive.” Instead, we painted a huge Google maps pin. We pre-pinned everybody’s map. When Google updates their satellite imagery, we will pre-pinned everybody’s map. There’ll be a pin already there for them.
Your dad had something to do with GPS technology. I know that.
We’re bringing it full circle.
Brent, this is mind-blowing stuff. I hope that people get a sense of what this is. With any video I’ve ever seen of Two Bit Circus, it doesn’t make the impact that it does when you’re there.
Coming live is important. Being able to be surrounded by the sights, sounds, smells, and getting to play yourself is special. I cannot wait to be able to reopen this place and share it with everybody again. I miss the energy.
It’ll be back soon in 2021. Thank you so much for coming on, inspiring all of us, and talking about everything. You have set the tone for everybody who comes in contact with you. It’s going to be fun and that they’re going to be inspired, they’re going to be more creative just having been there or having been in your presence. That’s the guy you are. Thanks for doing that for all of us.
I appreciate you so much. Thank you so much for having me, and here’s to more fun ahead.
Thanks. I’ll see you.
About Brent Bushnell
Brent Bushnell is an entrepreneur, electrical engineer, software developer, and an authority in immersive entertainment, Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, and Augmented Reality. Brent is an expert in the art of connection and experiential engagement. He is passionate about creating new ways to capture people’s hearts and minds with new technologies.
Brent is the CEO and co-founder of Two Bit Circus, a Los Angeles-based experiential entertainment company. The interdisciplinary team strives to create immersive, social fun and is currently building a network of micro-amusement parks featuring free-roaming VR, a robot bartender, an interactive game show supper club and more. Previously, Two Bit Circus launched STEAM Carnival, a traveling showcase of high-tech entertainment and student STEAM workshops. They’ve captured action sports content in 360 video for brands like the NFL, NBA, Indy and the Olympics for use in VR activations at the Super Bowl, All Star games and in retail. And they regularly serve as immersive entertainment partners for major brands and location-based facilities. One of their first projects was creating the Rube Goldberg machine for the band OK Go for their viral “This Too Shall Pass” music video that has garnered 60+ million views online.
Brent is on fire about using play and spectacle to inspire inventors. He is passionate about rebranding STEM learning to STEAM with the inclusion of art and creativity. He is motivated by the power of group games and interactive media to bring people together in fun and meaningful ways. As a UCLA-trained engineer, he is a hands-on maker who uses rapid prototyping to turn vision into reality. He’s board president of Two Bit Circus Foundation, an LA-based 501c3 that deploys STEAM-based programs for middle and high school students. Previously, he was the on-camera inventor for the ABC TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. He was a founding member of Syyn Labs, a creative collective creating stunts for brands like Google and Disney.
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