• The entry to Two Bit Circus in Los Angeles, California.
  • The park is in the Arts District near downtown Los Angeles, which is home to numerous artists' creative spaces, upscale restaurants, and experimental pop-up event venues. Samuel Axon

LOS ANGELES—A new kind of entertainment is opening next month: a large, carnival-like arcade filled with VR headsets, brand-new arcade cabinets, holograms, escape rooms, a robot bartender named Guillermo del Pouro, hidden passages, and more.

It's called Two Bit Circus, and it's run by a company of the same name. Founded by Eric Gradman (a computer programmer who has also worked as a circus performer) and Brent Bushnell (an engineer who is also the son of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's co-founder Nolan Bushnell), Two Bit Circus is something of a staple in the LA scene now. Their previous individual installations have appeared at nightclubs, corporate events, and more.

But the company is also a branded experience studio—a sort of VR carnival ad agency that has produced installations and pop-up events for big names like Disney, Google, Intel, and the NBA. The team even organized an E3 event for Microsoft, and the founders worked together to create the Rube Goldberg machine in OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass" music video.

Gradman and Bushnell told Ars they wanted to start this project to do their own thing, not just rep other brands. This space is Two Bit Circus' first attempt at launching a series of venues across the country that the founders hope will revive both the arcade and the carnival for digitally savvy audiences of adventurous 20-somethings and families. (At least, the space will be family friendly until 9pm, at which time it will shift gears for adults.)

I took a multi-hour tour of the still-under-construction space, played several of the games, talked with the staff, and took lots of pictures.

  • Two Bit Circus is broken up into several sections with a circular bar in the center. Samuel Axon
  • This is the entrance to the still-under-cunstruction Midway, an area that includes digital takes on traditional circus attractions. Samuel Axon
  • Here, a classic carnival game that involves pushing balls on tethers to hit targets is given a video game twist that resembles Rampage. Samuel Axon
  • In addition to games, the Midway contains digital art installations. Here, attendees can sit behind TVs and have their faces displayed on them with oldschool distortion and noise. Samuel Axon
  • Members of the staff are still fine-tuning games. Here, they can be seen testing one, but I wasn't sure exactly what the game was. They're looking at a digital projection, but are manipulating the game with these giant control balls.
  • This is a VR room that guests can book for a few dollars an hour. It contains a VR headset and a variety of VR games—some you might know from your own VR setup, some unique to the setting. Samuel Axon
  • I saw a whole lot of HTC Vive headsets in the Arena. Samuel Axon
  • In this "ModulMaze" from AsterionVR, you put on a VR headset and navigate a maze. The real maze maps to the geometry of the in-VR environment, and there are multiple environments. Samuel Axon
  • Adjacent to that VR maze, you'll find the Story Rooms. These are bookable rooms that range from escape rooms with a digital twist to a simulated Space Team-like starship bridge with multiple users. Samuel Axon
  • Traditional gamers will most likely head to The Arkane, a section dedicated to pinball machines and arcade cabinets new and old. Samuel Axon
  • A rotating set of classic arcade games like Street Fighter can be found here. Samuel Axon
  • There are pinball machines, too. Samuel Axon
  • These elongated arcade cabinets are called "Skidoos." They run custom games, some of which are provided by third-party developers using Two Bit Circus' API. Samuel Axon
  • Instead of cashing in for tokens, you use these machines to load up refillable cards that let you play games around the venue. Samuel Axon
  • Many of the games are made for four players, not one or two. Here's a four-player air hockey table. Samuel Axon
  • Here's another multiplayer game: this wall of buttons plays like the kids' game Twister. Samuel Axon
  • You'll also find this unusual musical instrument installation in the Arkane. Samuel Axon
  • Microsoft's Kinect is ubiquitous.
  • This room is called Club 01. It seats dozens of people, and the space plans nightly events like trivia and live shows. Samuel Axon
  • Guests can answer questions on their own private touchscreens as part of group activities. Samuel Axon
  • A projector shows results on the wall, and an MC leads the activities on a stage. Samuel Axon
  • The dining area has an executive chef who serves "farm-to-carnival" fare. Samuel Axon
  • Nearby, a circular bar has these seats, for some reason. Samuel Axon
  • This robot bartender named "Guillermo del Pouro" can serve a variety of drinks. Its face changes to different animations and icons to enable it to communicate. Samuel Axon
  • There's a human bartender, too. Samuel Axon
  • A VIP area above the main space has comfy couches. Samuel Axon
  • Two Bit Circus employees and contractors work behind these windows, overlooking the park. Samuel Axon

The venue is broken into several sections:

  • The Midway: A digital take on traditional circus games and attractions
  • The Arkane: An arcade full of pinball machines, multi-player digital games, and arcade cabinets both old and new
  • The Arena: A set of VR booths for playing a bunch of popular VR games, including multiple Battlezone stations
  • Story Rooms: A set of room-scale experiences like escape rooms and a Space Team-like starship bridge simulator
  • Club 01: An interactive theater for dozens of attendees to participate in software-driven variety and game shows with live hosts
  • A dining area: Food, snacks, and drinks prepared by a chef specifically for Two Bit Circus

The Arkane features not just classic arcade games but new cabinets unique to the venue called "Skidoos." These can load up third-party games, and Two Bit Circus has an API that will allow indie developers to make games for it. (There's even a Unity plugin.) The company plans to rotate games in and out over time.

The entire space runs on software called Walnut, which ties in with that API. The software can also be used to control the venue (or multiple venues, if the company launches more in the future) with lights and more. This ties into the idea that Two Bit Circus is not just an arcade but an explorable space that tells stories itself. There are vending machines that spit out clues to find secret passages, and so on. Much of this can be managed with the venue's software.

The idea of a VR arcade isn't new (or even uncommon), but Two Bit Circus is a much more robust operation that adds live performance, circus attractions, escape rooms, and more. Entry will be free, but the venue will charge for games, food, drinks, and room rentals—just like a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant. Two Bit Circus hopes to eventually open additional spaces in new cities, scaling the concept across the United States.

Two Bit Circus will open to the public on September 7 in the Arts District near downtown LA.

Original Article

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Ars Technica

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