Two Bit Circus: Making Engaging STEAM Experiences

Phillip Keane | Comments | March 2, 2018

SOLIDWORKS World is not just a great opportunity for showing off new software features and industry use cases, but often provides a great platform for showing off more fun and artistic things related to all-things STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math). And this year at SOLIDWORKS World 2018, we saw some more delicious STEAM-flavored projects.

This particular dose of STEAM comes from a Los Angeles-based collective of engineers, roboticists and other assorted “mad scientists” named Two Bit Circus. The group’s goal is to entertain with engineering and create experiences that make people go, “Wow.” And, of course, like any good STEAM project, it hopes to inspire future generations of makers, engineers and artists by showing that artistic creativity is an essential part of STEM.

Fun Experiences

SOLIDWORKS World 2018 saw a keynote speech on the “Art of Engagement” from Brent Bushnell, cofounder of Two Bit Circus. He kicked off his talk by explaining how his company had evolved from a pair of pals creating fun experiences at parties into its current state as a proper company with a commercial and nonprofit wing.

A fun experience at a party, with minimal rules. Because “everyone knows what to do in a room of laser beams.” (Image courtesy of Two Bit Circus.)

Early incarnations of the company designed experiences such as a room filled with lasers that participants needed to avoid—Mission Impossible style, a raincloud that rains tequila, and a huge Rube Goldberg machine used in a music video for a band called OK Go.

After a few of these fun earlier projects, the team drew the attention of Chevrolet, which asked the duo to create a spectacle involving a crane, a car and a bunch of shipping containers. After this newfound corporate attention, Bushnell and cofounder Eric Gradman decided that there might be a business opportunity available here, and set about forming the company with the aim of both entertaining and promoting STEM interest. And the best way to do that, they reasoned, was to create their own circus.

“We started a circus with a focus on using engineering to kind a reimagine entertainment,” explained Bushnell. He described one project in which his team used CAD to design a 360-degree camera rig that would be attached to an IndyCar during a race. The camera outputs were sent to a virtual reality (VR) set that would enable a user to experience a race as seen by the driver.

A 360-degree camera rig.(Image courtesy of Two Bit Circus.)

“We did the same for the NFL,” continued Bushnell. “For a bunch of nerds who don’t like sports…we’ve done all the sports stuff.”

Immersive Circus

Bushnell talks about how immersion in media has increased over the years, starting with books and movies (which are passive experiences), and then moving onto interactive games and modern VR. But despite the awesomeness of VR, Bushnell insists that real life is a far better medium for fully interactive, high-resolution, interactive experiences. And so that is what Two Bit Circus focuses on—creating experiences that move the user away from being a traditionally passive consumer of media into a modern, active, creator role.

As an example, the team recently launched STEAM Carnival, a traveling showcase of high-tech entertainment and workshops created to inspire invention. Exhibits at the show included Tesla coils, a flaming dunk tank, lasers and robots (all of which should be mandatory at any event, in my opinion).

Tesla fun. (Image courtesy of Two Bit Circus.)

Cultivating Creativity

To conclude his keynote, Bushnell offered some final observations on how to cultivate creativity (in both kids and adults).

His first tip is to get random inputs. “Get as many different experiences into your life as possible,” suggested Bushnell.

Once you have aggregated your experiences, he suggested you take some time for reflection. “Take time to do nothing,” he continued. “Give it [your mind] the opportunity to find connections between those ideas.”

He then emphasized the importance of taking notes with a pen and paper. “The act of writing it down helps you to remember better….”

Bushnell listed access to tools as an important enabler of the creative process. “You can start with an idea and then bring it to the tool, or you can actually start with a collection of tools and say, ‘Hey, what kind of cool problems can we solve with this?’”  On rapid prototyping and the actual development process, he notes that “the act of iterating and tweaking it is when you get to do a lot of the real learning.”

Finally, Bushnell talked about the significance of mentorship in the creative process.

“If you’re not a mentor, be a mentor. It’s an awesome thing that we need in the world,” he emphasized

Nonprofit

Mentorship and education are clearly a big part of Two Bit Circus’ credos, as evidenced by its Two Bit Circus Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating the next generation of inventors, advancing stewardship of the environment and spurring community engagement. The foundation offers STEAM labs to schools, as well as lab training for both teachers and students. In addition to the lab program, the foundation offers a professional development program. To date, over 1,200 teachers have attended the program’s workshop, which is designed to incorporate the maker movement and the engineering design process into an integrated approach to curriculum development.

The foundation website also contains teaching resources for STEM teachers and students ranging from elementary school to high school.

Future Projects

Two Bit Circus is currently in the process of building a series of micro-amusement parks. The parks are the result of a successful Series B funding injection, and will offer a carnival midway, a VR arena, a robot bartender, and a reimagined video game arcade).

Robotic bartender. (Image courtesy of Two Bit Circus.)

“In the past, Two Bit Circus’ installations have been temporary and held primarily at large events and conferences. We’re thrilled to build our first permanent location in our backyard,” said cofounder Gradman. “Our band of scientists, artists, storytellers and performers are excited to bring to life a world of year-round fun.”

The first park will open later this year in downtown Los Angeles.

If you can’t wait until opening day, you can get a digital taste of what Two Bit Circus is all about by going to its virtual reality gallery armed with your favorite VR headset.


About the Author

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Phillip Keane is currently studying his PhD at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His background is in aerospace engineering, and his current studies are focused on the use of 3D-printed components in spaceflight. He previously worked at Rolls-Royce and Airbus Military and served as an intern for Made In Space and the European Southern Observatory.

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