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Two Bit Circus, a Startup That's Bringing the Carnival Midway Game Into the 21st Century 

Thursday, Aug 1 2013
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If it weren't for all the life-sized board games, disassembled robot parts and electronic contraptions curiously sprawled in every corner of Two Bit Circus' Lincoln Heights headquarters, you might mistake it for the kind of trendy new tech startup that dots the Silicon Valley coast. Its staff of 30 inventors, engineers and designers, all in their 20s and 30s, sit at desks across a loftlike space.

But Two Bit Circus is more of a fantastical incubator or small but self-sustaining think tank, all focused on games — playing games, inventing games and teaching kids to build their own games. Work time is interchangeable with playtime.

Housed at the L.A. River–adjacent Brewery Arts Complex, Two Bit's growing collection of custom, interactive inventions is constantly being tested, tweaked and perfected in preparation for next summer, when it will be the main attraction at a traveling event dubbed STEAM Carnival (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics).

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STEAM Carnival is part large-scale public art project, part educational program and all matter of high-tech spectacle, incorporating robotics, virtual reality, motion control and an old-fashioned stage show.

On a recent Friday morning, Two Bit Circus co-founders Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman are geeking out over the latest version of a life-sized board game they've just finished constructing. Based on the 1980s two-player game the aMAZEing Labyrinth, their radical reinvention enlarges the game to human size, requiring four standing players to physically tilt a massive wooden surface in order to navigate a ball through a maze. Then there's the wall of rotating red and green buttons, which Bushnell describes as a physically demanding combination of Whac-A-Mole and Twister. Or the not-so-old-timey version of a high striker — that classic carnival strength-testing game, which guys in old movies hit with a mallet to impress their dates. When struck hard enough, it propels 10,000 volts of electricity across two copper rods, introducing a spark that ignites into a ball of fire.

Both California natives with prestigious pedigrees in science and engineering, Bushnell and Gradman operate at the intersection of technology and nostalgia. "People send us their tech goodies because they know we're going to do something cool with them," says Gradman, a trained circus performer and former government engineer who grew tired of having to keep all his projects secret under nondisclosure agreements. Now he's thrilled to talk freely about developing pneumatic robots using Leap, new motion-sensor technology that has yet to hit the consumer market but soon may replace computer mouses, videogame joysticks, TV remotes and stylus pens.

"We kind of explore a couple different axes: What was a favorite game when you were little? What's some cool new piece of tech that we've got access to that we can make something out of?" adds Bushnell, a graduate of UCLA and the son of Silicon Valley–based video game magnate Nolan Bushnell, the mastermind behind Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's. While it's easy to draw comparisons between Chuck E. Cheese and Steam Circus (arcade games, live entertainment, robotics and animatronics), the latter is an art project — albeit a highly engineered one — with no profit motive, according to Gradman.

After the duo met at a tech conference seven years ago, Gradman says they decided to quit their "soul-sucking day jobs," devote all their time to making interactive art and "drag that stuff out to parties and events." Renting custom games for parties and installing them at large-scale events — anything from Microsoft meetings to Burning Man — not only helped cover Two Bit Circus' startup costs but also provided a much-needed test audience for their latest inventions.

"All of a sudden, Brent had this brilliant idea: Let's make a business doing that!" Gradman adds sarcastically, laughing at the absurdity of the venture.

Then again, the idea isn't so absurd when you consider Gradman and Bushnell's previous ventures, including Doppelgames, a mobile game platform, which they sold to Handmade Mobile in 2012; Syyn Labs, the production company that created the Rube Goldberg machine in OK Go's four-minute-long, single-take music video for "This Too Shall Pass"; and uWink, the interactive restaurant franchise that later morphed into a software company called TapCode, which allows diners to place restaurant orders and play social games on a digital tablet.

In between juggling businesses, "some great, some bad," by Bushnell's standards, he and Gradman even moonlighted as reality stars during the last season of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Initially serving as advisers and consultants to the show's writing team, they eventually made appearances as the show's on-camera inventor, in disguise as a robot with an iPad for a face. "So when [host] Ty Pennington would talk to us," Bushnell recalls, "he'd say, "Hey guys, I need your help, we need to build this!' "

During one of their first cameos, Bushnell and Gradman built a machine that enabled a quadriplegic father to pitch baseballs to his kids using a sip-and-puff device. "He can't move below the neck," Gradman says. "But with the thing we made for him, he was able to control the pitching machine. It was pretty life-changing."

The Extreme Makeover robot now lives in a loft crawlspace in Two Bit Circus' warehouse, a kind of mascot and constant reminder of projects past and present. In another nook that includes a massive laser cutter, Gradman shows off a custom-made STEAM Carnival "rotocube," a wooden steampunk toy with motorized gears adorning its sides. The cube was designed as a gift for those who pledged $168 or more to STEAM Carnival's Kickstarter, which exceeded its $100,000 goal on June 3.

Other Kickstarter incentives included sponsoring kits that are distributed to at-risk L.A. students, who will use them to build projects, such as musical instruments, which will be unveiled before a live audience at STEAM Carnival's stage show next summer in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "The same tools that are in their kits are the same stuff that we use to build all our games," says Gradman, who oversaw the creation of the kits and their disassembly into parts.

Thanks to the publicity from STEAM Carnival's Kickstarter, there's now a backlog of teachers and parents requesting the kits and subsequent participation in STEAM Carnival's stage show, which will be a kind of science fair–meets–circus act for kids.

While Gradman and Bushnell are still scouting for an L.A. location to erect the tents and let the robots loose at next summer's STEAM Carnival, they're currently testing out new games at various events around L.A., such as the twice-annual public art walks at the Brewery (the next one is Oct. 12-13). Those who want to test-drive the latest inventions sooner can do so on Saturday, Aug. 3, at Carnival Night, albeit at the $85 admission price to a fundraiser benefiting NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship) Greater Los Angeles.

"If we're building it, we might as well show it off," Bushnell says. "It's only when we put it in front of people and test it that we see exactly where [the games] fail. These things need to be bulletproof so that we can put 10,000 kids in front of them."

"Or drunks," Gradman adds.

More info on the Carnival Night benefit is at thediningtent.com.

Reach the writer at jswann@laweekly.com

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