This installment of our LA Creator Photo Series takes you inside Two Bit Circus.
Two Bit Circus was founded in 2012 by Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman. Gradman is a roboticist, inventor, and former circus performer. Bushnell is an engineer, entrepreneur, and son of Atari founder, Nolan Bushnell.
Later that year, Bushnell and Gradman brought on Nancy Bennett to run production. Bennett was an entertainment industry veteran with 27 years of experience in film, television, and music. The next year they achieved a major milestone together, successfully completing a Kickstarter campaign that has become the company’s signature event, Steam Carnival.
Two Bit Circus operates as two teams in a huge artist compound in Downtown LA. The Big Top is a big warehouse full of parts, toys, games, experiments, designers, engineers and professional jugglers. This is the team behind the Steam Carnival and various out-of-home brand activations and inventions. They call themselves imagineers for hire.
The company has been working in VR since the beginning when they were prototyping VR installations for Dave & Busters four years ago. But in 2014, Bennett was named Chief Content Officer and began building out a dedicated virtual reality team. Today, that team has over 20 employees and an impressive lineup of VR brand activations. You may have read a couple stories here about haptic installations they produced for Verizon with the NFL and IndyCar in 2015.
In 2016 they teamed up with Samsung to simulate an in-game basketball experience for the Rio Olympics. They also produced a NAS concert for KCRW’s Sound in Focus and a couple pieces with Google Daydream including NFL Immersed and rag & bone. In addition to all of that, they’ve been working with various YouTube creators to educate and explore new capture techniques using Google Jump.
Meanwhile, Nancy Bennett has become one of the VR industry’s most respected creative leaders. We spoke with her at length about her experience building the team and what it has taken to stay ahead of the curve in Los Angeles, the epicenter for VR content creation. Nancy actually prides her team on not getting too far ahead of themselves, but rather keeping up with the industry as it evolves. She credits Two Bit Circus’ success to the balance they’ve struck between innovation and demand.
For the Two Bit Circus VR team, everything comes down to setting goals and problem-solving against them. For example, when an agency wanted an IndyCar simulator, they knew they wanted to shoot in 3D 360° with a haptic seat to maximize immersion. None of that technology existed out-of-the-box at that time but they knew it was all possible. So they built a custom camera and pneumatic cockpit. Since then they have built numerous 2D and 3D cameras, custom stitching hardware, 360° live-streaming software, and stabilization and rotation tools for drones, dollies, and underwater camera rigs.
Their most well-known tech was built in 2015 when they set a goal to provide concurrent experiences for large groups of people. No one had ever synced VR headsets together to allow for simultaneous viewing. They so they built their own SyncStart tech to enable simultaneous group viewing.
Bennett says they have no desire to launch their own stitching software, or provide cameras for the rest of the world, or build sync boxes (which they get asked all the time). But since they’ve gained such a deep understanding of the technology, now that others are building their own cameras and writing their own stitching software, Two Bit Circus can focus on the interactions between all these elements.
In addition to their technological prowess, what sets the VR team apart at Two Bit Circus is decades of filmmaking experience under one roof. Bennett believes the reason they’re thriving in a city like Los Angeles is that tech and content creation have come into one column and that’s how they approach the work. Disciplines that used to be split between an agency’s producers, copywriters, designers, and technologists are quickly coming together. She says “Technology is where the creative is and you can’t speak to them as separate parts. That’s were the coolest stuff is going to happen.”
Looking ahead, the Two Bit Circus VR team is excited to continue pushing the boundaries of content creation. When we visited the studio, the team was working on a behind-the-scenes project for a major film studio combining interactive VR, 360° video, and photogrammetry. Expect to see more original IP from the studio, music projects, and international expansion. Bennett’s advice for anyone looking to get into VR in 2017 is “Just do it.” Set a goal for yourself and problem-solve against it. And if you need someone to look up to, look no further than Nancy Bennett and the VR team at Two Bit Circus.