More than 40 years ago, Nolan Bushnell started Atari, began selling Pong, the first coin-op videogame, and kicked off a revolution in the way we entertain ourselves. His son, Brent Bushnell, thinks it’s time to reinvent play once again.
Brent has been applying technology to fun and whimsy for years now. He’s worked under contract for advertising companies, for corporate events, in a brief stint as a tech-savvy cast member of the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and just for his own entertainment. (I profiled Brent in IEEE Spectrum’s 2012 Dream Jobs Special Report). But these efforts, for the most part, have been one-offs. Now he’s thinking bigger.
In 2012, Brent joined with fellow engineer Eric Gradman to start a company called Two Bit Circus. The goal: mix technology, games new and old, and a few flames into an event that’s part carnival midway, part arcade, and part Burning Man; then use the event to inspire children to want to create their own games, and realize they needed a good basic STEM education to do so.
Bushnell and Gradman call the project STEAM Carnival (STEAM stands for Science, Technology Engineering, Art, and Math). With funds raised via Kickstarter, they held an event in Los Angeles in 2014, and a second in San Francisco this past weekend.
Just last month, Two Bit Circus announced that it had closed a $6.5 million investment round, with commitments from Techstars, Foundry Group, and Intel Capital. This cash will let the company take STEAM Carnival to four more cities: Seattle, Charlotte, Chicago, and Dallas. But that’s only the beginning. Bushnell says:
We plan to build an entertainment company; we will be Cirque de Soleil meets Disney. We’ll have smaller home versions of the games, a TV show, and a YouTube channel.
Photo: Tekla Perry
Brent Bushnell, dressed for the San Francisco event as a benign Willie Wonka, and Gradman, sporting his everyday Mohawk, welcomed the crowd of invited adults attending a Friday evening reception. Earlier that day, 4,000 children came as part of school groups. The STEAM Carnival was open to the public all weekend.
“We can reinvent fun,” Gradman told the Friday night crowd. “We are bringing people together with social games, using the next generation of technology.”
“All the fun, has not yet been invented,” Nolan Bushnell assured the group.
Will it work? Well, maybe. Some of the games were a lot of fun, though some were frustrating. The gear is clearly all at the prototype stage at this point and fairly fragile. Team members hovered over most of the systems and had to pull out keyboards to reboot them on occasion.
But some of it did impress. As a pinball player from way back who hustles past videogames in any arcade to get to the wall of pinball machines, I was happily surprised when a virtual pinball machine (a large display encased in a classic stand-up pinball game case, with flippers that were just as responsive as the old-school machines) had me as engrossed as the real thing.
“Button Bash,” a stand-up version of Whack-A-Mole meets Twister, had just the right progression from simple to difficult and compelling—and had me laughing uncontrollably when I realized that playing with just two hands wasn’t going to cut it. I had to get knees and feet and head involved and get seriously tangled up with my opponent.
“Off Your Rocker,” a horse race game in which you sit on an adult-size rocking horse wired with motion sensors, surrounded by opponents on similar horses [see video, above], was not only fun for participants, but for spectators. Advancing along the onscreen virtual racecourse took concentration and a little finesse—you have to match your physical rocking to the on-screen motion. (This game could end up being STEAM Carnival’s break-out hit—something much more fun in bars than a mechanical bull.)
Photo: Two Bit Circus
On stage, there was a different kind of interaction: a performer playing with lightning generated by a giant Tesla coil. And out in front, the “Dunk Tank Flambe,” a twist on a classic carnival dunk tank, but with flames instead of water consuming the dunkee. In this case, the dunkee was a slightly nervous Nolan Bushnell, clearly willing to do anything to support his kids.
Is Two Bit Circus on to something, at least $6.5 million worth of something? Maybe. What stood out for me is the focus on what I’ll call “real-world-social gaming,” something that could just be an antidote to what we’ve come to think of as social gaming. Many of the STEAM Carnival games require you to either work with one or more people to operate, have you very physically aware of another player, or force you to literally push and collide with the people you compete against. People seemed a little shy about the physicality of it all at first—and then got seriously involved. And the crowd at the Friday evening event, which seemed to be made up largely of the Gen X and Gen Y community, was quite notably not engaging in one particular activity: staring down at their smart phones.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.