Arts & Design

Meet the Reinventor: Eric Gradman, co-creator of the Two Bit Circus

The creative mind behind Los Angeles’ new house of fun blends old school carnival wonder with high-tech innovation.

By Angela Matusik — February 1, 2019

With a twinkle in his eye and a bright red mohawk, Eric Gradman, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of the Two Bit Circus, the first VR-driven micro-amusement park, comes across as a modern-day Willy Wonka. But it’s not just his colorful sartorial sense that hints at the famous candy concocter, but a driving passion to create glee and wonder.

As half the dynamic duo (his partner is Chief Executive Brent Bushnell) behind the Los Angeles amusement park, Gradman is part host, part tinkerer — or as his business card actually reads: “mad inventor.” He and his team of 12 engineers are responsible for creating the multifaceted levels of interactive play that fill the 37,000 square-foot space in the city’s emerging downtown arts neighborhood. It’s the next incarnation of an old fashioned arcade, complete with state-of-the-art escape rooms and location-based VR experiences — and admission is free. Guests can explore a maze of attractions that include new high-tech twists on boardwalk classics, a robot-hosted cocktail bar and private experience rooms where they can journey from the Louisiana bayou to outer space.

Gradman, who in past lives has been both a computer engineer and a circus performer, delights merging traditional amusements with futuristic design. Part of Two Bit's charm is its mix of old and new; the tactile and the virtual. Woodgrain finishes and oversized, light-up buttons frame games of skill that are powered by algorithms and high-performance PCs. “We love developing new high-tech experiences, but we also love the feel of old school carnivals. Trying to square that circle is sometimes a little difficult,” he explains. “But when you get it right, you wind up with games that feel good in the hand and that are satisfying to play.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Two Bit Circus' location-based entertainment spaces, all powered by HP Z VR Backpack PCs or HP Z Workstations paired with HTC Vive headsets. In one of them called Raft, you're deep in the bayou and you can hear the sounds of frogs and birds chirping, but be careful where you step: The swamp is filled with hungry, other-worldly 'gators.

We sat down with Gradman on a recent Friday afternoon, an hour before Two Bit Circus' doors opened for another night of fun and mischief. As Guillermo del Pouro, the robot bartender was checking his stock (okay, that may have been someone else’s job), Gradman shared his journey from childhood inventor to computer engineer to amusement park reinventor.

What were you like as a kid?

I didn't play games much as a kid. I built stuff, like robots out of cardboard. Actually I've built robots my entire life. I went to USC, got a degree in computer engineering, I went on to get a master's degree, most of that time building robots at USC. After I left college, I worked for a rapid prototyping company building robots for the military.

You worked for the military? That seems like a big leap to what you’re doing now.

Yes, it is. When I was there I was learning incredible new skills from really talented people, but I found myself looking for a way to apply them that wasn't my day job. I was really fortunate that I met a bunch of other people, Brent [Bushnell, Two Bit Circus’ CEO] being chief among them who were sort of in the same position. We were looking for something else to do with the skills we had developed. Together, we started building crazy interactive art using whatever happened to be the newest tech at the time: The iPhone was new in the world, [now defunct] Microsoft Kinect was new in the world. We saw opportunities that no one was doing yet. We just loved making stuff.

Is it true you were actually a circus performer yourself?

It’s totally true. I say I went to graduate school but I actually skipped most of my classes because I was touring with a band and with a circus at the same time. I was an acrobat, an aerialist, a fire dancer, a clown. I actually had terrible stage fright until I was around 21 years old. Then I discovered I had a talent for fire dancing.

Most people can live their entire lives and never discover they have a talent for fire dancing.

I was at a party and somebody was doing it and I thought, "That looks cool, let me try." I picked it up and enjoyed it and so I just kept practicing. At a certain point I found myself wondering whether I would spend my life being a nerd — programming, building stuff, working for a bank, that sort of thing — or I would just give in totally and be a traveling performer. I love both, and I’m good at both. Turns out, I didn't have to choose. I now have a place where I get to combine everything that I love about performance and showing people a good time with everything that I love about technology development and design and engineering. I didn't have to compromise. I built my own job.

I dream of making this whole place part of a unified world, not just a story but to have all the pieces of tech talk to one another. 

What kind of VR can people experience at Two Bit Circus?

There are different tiers of VR, AR, and MR experiences being made right now. There are things that are clearly produced for the out-of-home environment, things that are designed for six people wearing backpacks traveling together, one person navigating a physical maze. It just wouldn't even be appropriate in your living room. And those things are developed by studios that take out-of-home entertainment very seriously. We're very privileged to be working with a number of developers to bring those pre-made, ready-to-go experience into the park. I would hate it if somebody came here, did some VR and said, "No, never again." I'm okay if they come here, do this, and then realize the experience at-home is inferior. It's always going to be better here because we can do things that others can't. We can have haptics, that's where people can feel as well as just see and hear. We have vibrating floors. We have fans in people's faces, we have all of these different techniques for increasing the immersion. That applies to VR, but it applies to almost everything else we do, we're trying to create an environment that transports people.

Why is the technology behind the fun so important?

Everything here is powered by computers. There are computers everywhere and servers talking to servers and game machines with fast GPUs. But we don't want people to see that. In fact, I want to hide all the technology. That means we better have machines that work fast, don't glitch out, don't reboot themselves spontaneously, don't overheat. Anytime we break that illusion of there being no computers, we fail a little bit. So we've had pretty good experiences so far, I mean when you pack a place with this many computers, of course there's always like 5 percent of stuff that's broken at anytime.

How do HP’s Z VR backpack PCs fit in?

We’re using HP  Z VR backpack PCs as part of a multi-person VR experiences, like one called the Raft. In this experience, a group of people step into a room. The room is beautiful by itself. It’s decorated like you're in a little shack in the middle of the bayou. You put on the headset and you're transported even further, all of the sudden you're stepping on to a boat on the bank of a river. If it weren't for the backpack, people would be tethered to the ceiling, you'd have people with cables getting tangled, people would be tripping all over the place. But the backpacks are super light and cool — cool in the sense that you don't feel like you have a nuclear reactor on your back. People are free to move around and roam and use their arms.

At night do you just lie in bed and think of new little things that you can invent?

Yeah, that's exactly what I do. I dream of making this whole place part of a unified world, not just a story but to have all the pieces of tech talk to one another. There's a lot of technology on the backend, a lot of careful programming that allows these disparate devices to communicate with one another. My goal is to have all the stories live in one place so they can be doled out to the devices as necessary. I love that possibility.

If we visit again a year from now, what will we find changed?

When you come back here, or perhaps to different, future location, I'd like to see having made the greatest strides is the depth of the metagame. The story within the stories. We say that we don't know how deep the rabbit hole goes because we're still digging it. I think a lot of people love that sense of discovery. People love that sense of mystery, of incrementally discovering more about the things that they love. Developing a metagame layer is a great way to get people coming back again and again, to discover more and more stuff, digging deeper.

Get location and hours for the Two Bit Circus. Pro-tip: The busiest times of day are when kids are out of school and in the evenings when adults get off work. The attractions inside are best enjoyed by adults and children age 7 and up. 

 

Read more about the mind-blowing world of location-based VR.