Brent Bushnell is a jack-of-all-tech-trades with a whimsical take on real-world engineering
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.’”
OK Go: The Rube Goldberg machine built by Syyn Labs for the band’s song “This Too Shall Pass.” Video: OK GO/Syyn Labs
Home was a sprawling turn-of-the-century mansion in upscale Woodside, Calif. There Brent and his younger brother Tyler took on a daunting engineering problem: creating a circuit diagram for the entire house. “It was a rat’s nest, with tiered sets of circuit breakers. We had walkie-talkies, and we went through and pinged out the whole house, so you would know which breaker to go to if something blew. We put little labels on every outlet in the house. It was really useful for the rest of the family.” The boys were aged 6 and 8 at the time.
He and Tyler also spent a lot of time designing games, sometimes on a computer using HyperCard software, sometimes on pieces of paper that they laid out around the house. In high school, they built a collectible trading card game, Worlds, along the lines of the popular card game Magic: The Gathering but based in a science-fiction world. They licensed the game to the Topps Co. for US $15 000 and rushed to meet the company’s deadlines, sometimes missing school to do so, but in the end Topps shelved the final product.
Then, when Brent was 19 and a sophomore in the EE program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, disaster struck the family. Merrill Lynch waged an intense legal battle against Nolan that arose out of a dispute concerning venture capital funding in the ’80s. The company eventually succeeded in seizing much of Nolan’s personal property, at one point even going after 15-year-old Brent’s $300 personal bank account. The family was forced to sell the Woodside house and move to a modest rented house in Southern California.
“As hard as that was,” Brent says, “I’m grateful for it. It made us better and stronger. Scar tissue is a good thing.”
Growing up in a hyperentrepreneurial family with eight children does present its share of opportunities. Brent left college about halfway through to join his sister Alissa’s Internet start-up in San Francisco. Once that was on track, he moved south to go back to school, this time at the University of California, Los Angeles, in computer science, while he and brother Tyler started a Web hosting company. Brent had every intent of finishing his degree, but in 2005, with just three classes to go, his father’s latest start-up, uWink (think Chuck E. Cheese’s for adults) needed him. The CTO had gone missing, and the company, with around $20 million raised and restaurants rolling out around California, needed someone fast. Bushnell once again left school. (He says he’d really like to finish up his degree at some point but doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.)
By late 2008 the company was in trouble—the victim, Bushnell says, of bad timing and an ill-fated attempt to scale up too fast. Its last restaurant closed in 2010. At the start-up, Bushnell spent much of his time scrambling to find $500 multitouch tablet computers that the company intended to place at each table for ordering food, entertainment, and interacting with other patrons. What they needed was something an awful lot like the iPad. But there was no iPad in those days, so he cobbled together tablets, at the cost of about $1000 each, and wrote his own apps.
The collapse of uWink was a huge disappointment, but it couldn’t have happened at a better time: He’d been spending the occasional evening working with friends at Syyn Labs, then called Mindshare Labs. The company, started in 2007 as a Tuesday night get-together for techies to drink and build cool stuff, had been more recreation than anything else. They set up laser pointers, mirrors, and sensors to create a laser maze; they built a scavenger hunt that sent players carrying souped-up RFID readers to find pucks scattered around a venue. To the surprise and delight of their creators, these absurd gizmos appeared to have commercial possibilities. In 2008 the rock band OK Go hired the techies to build a machine that band members could “dance” with, whatever that meant. Syyn Labs came up with a contraption that filled a warehouse and used it to accompany a song with 4 minutes of frantic activity. It started small, with a toy car triggering a chain reaction of dominoes and ball bearings winding down a maze of channels, Rube Goldberg–style, and finished big, with a piano dropping, a real car rolling, full-size chairs tipping over, garbage cans crashing, a spring-loaded hammer smashing a television, and a band member on a bungee cord slamming into a pile of boxes.
The music video starring the machine, for the song “This Too Shall Pass,” went on to garner nearly 40 million views on YouTube. Since then the company has been in demand whenever art directors and designers envision something unusual, striking, and technically complex.
Syyn Labs today has more potential clients than it can handle, so members of the team meet every week or so to choose the most interesting projects. Typically, Bushnell has little warning of what he’ll be working on next. And over at “Extreme Makeover,” he rarely gets more than a week’s notice about what problems he might be asked to solve for the next featured family; he just knows he’ll have to do it quickly. He thrives on the pace, Bushnell says, because he rarely has time to tire of one project before he’s diving into another one.
Fortunately, he doesn’t waste a lot of time commuting. He lives just east of downtown Los Angeles, in a live-work space carved out of the old Pabst brewery. Doppelgames is in the same building, directly below his lofted living area; Syyn Labs is in a converted paint factory a short walk away.
The workspace is littered with projects in progress or recently completed—intriguing flotsam like a partially smashed Chevy Sonic, a half-disassembled piano, a minigolf green, and an electronically controlled fire fountain hooked up to a propane tank. “It’s hilarious stuff,” Bushnell says. “It’s hard to call what I do work, actually.”
An abridged version of this article appeared in print.