WHAT HE DOES
Conceives and builds outrageous contraptions that entertain people on television, in Internet videos, and in real life.
Syyn Labs, Doppelgames, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"
where he does It
Gets to play with technology in novel ways; every project is different.
A hundred years after Rube Goldberg’s cartoons of impossibly complex machines captured the public’s imagination, another California-born engineer, Brent Bushnell, is spending his days designing and building bizarre and complex machines—and making money at it.
Bushnell is a lead engineer with Syyn Labs, a company he cofounded that mashes up technology, art, advertising, and entertainment, creating one-of-a-kind high-tech spectacles that draw crowds and attention to its clients. The company’s greatest hits include the "car organ" built for a DieHard battery commercial, created from 24 cars with their horns tuned, all hooked up to one battery and a keyboard operated by ’80s pop icon Gary Numan. Then there was the giant Willie Wonka candy-making machine, built for the Toys R Us in New York City’s Times Square. And, best of all, there’s the Rube Goldberg machine built for the Google Science Fair, designed around classic science fair projects, including a hamster running on a wheel to generate electricity, a Tesla coil that ignites a toy rocket, a laser pointer that powers robotic hands, and a mechanism that releases baking soda into vinegar, blowing up a balloon.
Bushnell is also the founder of Doppelgames, a venture-funded company that builds smartphone apps that are tethered to the real world. Its first product riffs on geocaching, a pastime in which people use GPS to find physical objects hidden along trails or roadsides. In the Doppelgames version, called Nio Quest , a player hunting for parts of a spaceship, for example, has to be in the right place in the real world—perhaps a park in San Francisco or a beach in Los Angeles. Only then will the virtual objects in the game world appear on the player’s smartphone.
Is it tough juggling two jobs, especially ones as unusual as these? Apparently not. Bushnell recently added yet another job, signing with the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" television show as a resident geek. Each week, the show features a flock of designers and construction workers who build a dream house for a selected family—in just seven days. For Bushnell, this job is actually an outgrowth of job No. 1: This season, Syyn Labs is creating high-tech gizmos for the show’s projects, and he helps build them and reveal them on camera.
The son of Nolan Bushnell, founder of video-game pioneer Atari (and the kiddie birthday-party destination Chuck E. Cheese’s), Brent and his seven siblings grew up creating games, tinkering with electronics, and starting companies. Being the child of a video-game pioneer had its perks. "Where most kids would be going to a baseball game on Sunday," he recalls, "we would go out for noodles and then to Fry’s Electronics," the legendary San Francisco Bay–area tech chain. Dad brought home game systems and software weeks before their official releases. "I’ll never forget him putting me in front of Mosaic (the first popular Web browser) and saying, ’Oh, Brent, here’s the Internet.’ "