IMEX America speaker Brent Bushnell on Immersive Group Experiences

According to a widely accepted theory that has been around for at least half a century, the skills, aptitudes and even interests of just about every human being are all due to which sphere of their cerebral cortex is dominant.

By Rowland Stiteler for the MPI Blog

Brent Bushnell is exclusively represented by CAL Entertainment

According to a widely accepted theory that has been around for at least half a century, the skills, aptitudes and even interests of just about every human being are all due to which sphere of their cerebral cortex is dominant.

If the left side of the brain is dominant, the person is likely to be good at mathematics, engineering, accounting—the people who tend to be highly disciplined, highly organized and can easily relate to information that can be expressed in a long column of numbers. If the right side of the brain is dominant, one is likely not necessarily very organized, but capable of great works of art—the playwrights, the poets, the sculptors and the grand, imaginative thinkers.

But then there are people like Brent Bushnell, CEO of a Los Angeles-based enterprise called Two Bit Circus, which he describes as “a big band of nerds” following a concept that he jokingly says is “offensively ridiculous.”

In fact, the nerds do extremely creative and artistic things with their highly left-brained backgrounds. Bushnell, an MPI keynote speaker at IMEX America in October, was trained as a computer scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado.

Along with business partner Eric Gradman, who has a masters degree in computer science from the University of Southern California, Bushnell has been using science mixed with art for years now to stimulate the learning and cognitive skills of audiences ranging from young students to senior citizens.

Following their Two Bit Circus philosophy, Bushnell and Gradman created a concept called STEAM, which seeks to enrich what has come to be called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) education. The idea is that the arts stimulate and energize students to achieve success in learning itself, enabling them to reach new heights in the so-called STEM fields of study as well.

Bushnell and Gradman launched the STEAM Carnival, a traveling, re-imagined version of a carnival midway designed to stimulate students to hone their skills for the study of the entire spectrum of disciplines, from the arts to accounting.

Bushnell is also an advisor to Anti-Aging Games LLC, an entity created by his father, Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari Inc. and the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre chain. The games are designed to use artistic approaches to stimulate memory skills.

Bushnell and Gradman also partnered to form Syyn Labs, a team of self-described nerds whose backgrounds include varied fields of study in the worlds of technology, engineering, computer science, robotics, architecture, science, the performing arts and more. Syyn Labs first gained notice for its production of OK Go’s award-winning viral video “This Too Shall Pass,” which has garnered more than 50 million hits. Syyn Labs has since been commissioned to cultivate multi-faceted programs for Google, Sears, Disney XD, LACMA, Wonka, Microsoft, Target and Endemol USA.

As part of his presentation at IMEX America, Bushnell will share his passion for immersive experiences, both as they relate to virtual reality entertainment—a passion for Bushnell these days—and to educational and thought-stimulating conferences and seminars, something for which he has become a connoisseur as well.

“I will be talking about how appetites for entertainment are changing and people want to be more immersed in it,” he says. “People want to be more active participants as opposed to passive observers. And that is extending not just into theater or a night out with your friends, but to conferences and other events as well. And the best conferences that I have been to recently really embrace that concept of immersive interaction and celebrate it, and they offer the participants a way to engage in that manner.

“Today’s conferences are less about talking, talking and then a cocktail party and everybody goes home. It’s more about doing stuff that you might not be able to do every day. It’s more about doing things in small groups of two or three or four or five people and having extremely interactive experiences.”

As an example, Bushnell cites the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York, a highly immersive, 500-attendee conference.

“It’s just an incredible experience,” he says. “It’s not a conference, it’s an adventure. It’s a whimsical journey. ”

And the key element to the success of the conference, he says, is the intimate size of the group sessions, sometimes one on one and rarely more than a handful of people gathered to share information.

“The beauty of lots and lots of very small groups exchanging thoughts and then forming new, small groups to discuss other topics is that as an attendee, almost no one’s experience at the conference is the same. Individuals can then get together with other attendees to share their experiences and thoughts,” he says. “One of the things that’s really neat about that is that we’re not just interpreting the same presentation—we are both sharing novel experiences with each other. That’s a powerful connection—really special stuff.”

As a conference speaker, Bushnell never misses an opportunity to advocate the concept of more immersive, experiential events, challenging event planners to tap their creativity to design more engaging experiences.

“The future of this immersive experience concept is almost unlimited,” he says.

In a TEDx talk in January, Bushnell told the audience about his passion for a new form of immersive entertainment, part of what he calls “the new Hollywood,” in which participants are engaged not just in virtual reality involving the senses of sight and hearing, but the senses of touch, taste and smell, as well—a total creation of an alternate reality designed to entertain and inspire.

“Real life is the most high resolution,” he told his audience, and the immersive entertainment media that most closely simulate real life are the most effective.

Bushnell says Two Bit Circus has taken its immersive experience road show to events ranging from bar mitzvahs to the Super Bowl. (Two Bit Circus operated virtual reality booths in which people could become an NFL football player on the field.) Two-Bit Circus will open its own venue in Los Angeles in early 2018, he says.