In a humming warehouse in Los Angeles, two self-proclaimed "mad inventors" are creating the future of fun with their start-up, Two Bit Circus.
The company — made up of a band of mad scientists, roboticists, visual artists and storytellers— is engineering entertainment by blending science, technology and creativity to create interactive games and exhibits for children and adults alike.
Their goal: to blur the line between physical and digital playgrounds to create a new world of social amusement. One example is the Dunk Tank Flambé — think traditional dunk tank, only instead of getting doused in water, you're in a flame-retardant suit and lit on fire.
Founders CEO Brent Bushnell, and CTO Eric Gradman met a decade ago when both were working as engineers in Los Angeles, bonding over a shared passion for games and technology. Gradman worked in robotics and rapid prototyping, while Bushnell — the son of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell — worked in computer science and electrical engineering. After years of operating a successful consulting agency building activations for clients like Google and Intel and bringing other companies' crazy ideas to life, they decided they wanted to work on their own. So they launched their company Two Bit Circus in 2012.
"We are STEM nerds — science, technology, engineering and math," Bushnell said. "We did a bunch of consulting for other brands, and at a certain point we said, 'Hey, we've done a hundred events for other people, let's do our own event.'"
Since then, they've raised $21 million from investors, including Techstars and Foundry Group, to build a "micro amusement park" in downtown Los Angeles, filled with their interactive games and installations. The 50-thousand-square-foot park opens early next year, and the company has plans for two additional locations in the next 18 months.
"Inside the park, you'll find the future of fun, and that to us looks like virtual reality, augmented reality. We are going to have carnival midway games that are made more awesome by technology," Gradman said, with Bushnell adding, "It's going to be bananas."
The company has also grown to 42 employees and has a nonprofit, the Two Bit Circus Foundation, which has hosted nearly a dozen carnivals featuring Bushnell and Gradman's games to promote an interest in STEM education among kids.
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Ideally, the amusement park is step one in "getting directly in front of the consumer and building an audience," Bushnell said. "We are also going to vertically integrate and build our own content. This is the first step in building a large media entertainment company."
Fun also runs in the family — Bushnell's father, Nolan, created Chuck E. Cheese's and Atari. And while he originally shied away from the notion of working in games and entertainment, Bushnell came back around.
"I've literally been going to amusement park conventions since I was five," he said. "[Originally]. me and my siblings actually rejected games and entertainment for years. I went out and actually did DNA synthesis, fiber optics and was even a sushi chef for a while. It took this kind of full-circle tour of trying lots of other stuff before realizing this is totally what I should be doing."
Now Bushnell and Gradman are hoping to help the next generation realize it might "totally" be what they should be doing as well.