One of my oldest friends in the video game industry is David Warhol, who I first met nearly thirty years ago when I hired his company, Realtime Associates, to develop a video game based on the film Dick Tracy when I worked at Disney Computer Software. For as long as I can remember, David has had a keen interest in interactive storytelling and was always seeking to use technology to combine the best of what film and video games have to offer into a unique entertainment experience. Well, today he showed me his ultimate achievement, and despite having recently experienced high-quality mixed reality attractions at The Void and Two Bit Circus, I was blown away by the 360 degree, 3D, fully interactive cinematic experience he demonstrated to me.
As we entered his TheatriX facilities in Long Beach, California, he told me I was about to enter the world’s largest (and only) retroreflective theater. The venue was covered in retroreflective sheeting, a flexible material primarily used to increase the nighttime conspicuity of traffic signs, high-visibility clothing, and other items so they are safely and effectively visible in the light of an approaching driver’s headlamps. Here, however, the reflected light would be from two tiny projectors built into the headset worn by TheatriX participants.
In the other mixed reality attractions I’ve experienced, I had to spend several minutes gearing up with a cumbersome headset for providing virtual audiovisuals and a heavy backpack for carrying a portable computer. Yet the TheatriX visor that David handed to me was lightweight and took me about as long to equip as a pair of sunglasses. It was tethered to the theater’s computer, but David explained that the theater would soon be using tetherless belt clip systems.
As I looked through the visor, I found myself transported into a primeval world. A fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex towered over my head as giant dragonflies buzzed about. Now, I have been transported to fantastic worlds and surrounded by huge monsters before in my recent mixed reality experiences, but the difference here is that my fellow participants were not represented by computer-generated avatars — I could actually see the people in my group , thanks to the environment being created not by virtual reality or even augmented reality, but what is essentially a real-time 3D green screen.
The photo I took through the visor using my iPhone camera does not do justice to the quality of the immersion, but trust me when I say that the results are impressive. My issue with VR experiences has always been my concern with inadvertently crashing into furniture or other people, which is why VR location-based attractions require an employee to always be present to prevent and respond to accidents. Also, by being able to see real people instead of avatars, it made the experience seem less isolated and more social.
The technology behind this based on the thousands of tiny glass beads that are bonded to the retroreflective material. Instead of simply scattering light, as normal materias do, the retroreflective materials turn the light from the visor projectors around and send a large portion of it back in the same direction it came from, and into the visor wearer’s eyes. While the other participants are beaming images onto the retroreflective sheets at the same time as you, there is little visual spillover from their projections because their reflected images are too dim for you to notice. Your reflective image is much brighter to you (and will be even more so, when glasses coming off the line next month use an optic trick to return 100% of the projected light to your eyes). Currently, the reflected image does not extend to your full peripheral vision, but David tells me that enlarging the field of view that is simply a matter of grinding the visor’s lenses differently.
The next environment that David transported me into was a space station, and for this experience, he handed me a controller that allowed me to pick up objects and move through the scene. The objects looked convincingly three-dimensional when zoomed in through the stereoscopic visors, and I could see how the motion capabilities would be really cool for controlling a boat or other vehicle that was carrying everyone.
I asked David what he ultimately wanted to do with this technology. He explained that he saw TheatriX deployed as venues of two or more 26-foot dome theaters. Although the technology could support an unlimited number of participants, the more participants there are, the less interactivity each would have. So, he proscribes a maximum audience size of 15, with each participant equipped with a 3D visor and controller allowing them to participate in interactive stories, in which the entire audience moves around the theater, interacting with each other and the digital characters and world.
Rather than basing the experience on first-person shooters like most current virtual reality attractions do, David sees Escape Rooms as being a closer cousin to what he wants to achieve. Audience members would be able collaborate with one another, solving problems, dividing up tasks, and working together, changing to profoundly affecting the story and outcome. And with the lightweight equipment and relatively low operating costs that TheatriX allows, David sees it possible to create highly repeatable, mixed reality experiences ranging from 10 to 90 minutes.
It’s a grand vision, and based on what I experienced today, a very achievable one. I can’t wait to try it when it is fully employed — where can I buy a ticket?
Last week I was invited to a sneak preview of Two Bit Circus’ “micro-amusement park,” a carnival-themed high-tech entertainment center. Having experienced the company’s story-based escape rooms, I fully anticipated an immersive and fun experience, but I did not expect it to surpass the high bar set by The VOID’s “Secrets of the Empire” Star Wars virtual reality attraction. Color me wrong. Two Bit Circus surpasses The VOID in both breadth and depth.
For those of you who are not familiar with Two-Bit Circus, this location-based entertainment company was 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). Known for developing innovative technology-based entertainment for a variety of large-scale events and businesses like Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon and Intel, Gradman and Bushnell decided to open their own entertainment venue combining the nostalgia and spectacle of an old-time carnival with the latest in immersive technology combining arcade games, virtual reality, escape rooms, food, drinks and more in a 37,000 square foot brick building located in Los Angeles’ downtown arts district.
Although admission to the venue is free, individual games cost between $1 to $3 to play, while the virtual reality and story room attractions cost between $7 and $25 to experience. I had already purchased $50 worth of Two Bit Circus’ virtual currency, called “bits,” online, and when I approached the greeting desk, I was issued a digital tap card loaded with my bits and then asked to sign a waiver before trying any of the virtual reality attractions.
Like any first rate amusement park, Two Bit Circus is divided into several themed locations. My first stop was The Arkane, an arcade area behind the welcome desk filled with pinball machines, multi-player digital games, and arcade cabinets. Some of these are classic games like Ms. Pac-Man and a four-player air hockey table, but the rest are original games, including Button Wall, a game developed by Two Bit Circus in which two players use their arms, legs, heads, and any other available body part to smash a series of buttons while trying to block their opponent from doing the same. Being a party of one, I tried my hand at a Two Bit Circus’ trackball-based game Wiffle Waffle, where I spent a tasty few minutes launching waffles at targets for points.
All well and good, but I was here to experience the virtual reality offerings. I next headed over to the Arena, which featured a variety of single player and multiplayer virtual reality set-ups. To the left there was a cluster of VR pods, with motion seats manufactured by D-Box. These motion simulators offer three immerse experiences, the most popular of which was a four-player VR version of the Battlezone tank simulator, complete with a leaderboard to encourage competition. Another offering was Space Flight: An Orbital Emergency, an experience offering stunning views of Earth in zero gravity… until disaster strikes. However, with this venue being a micro-amusement park, I paid $7 of bits for a time slot with Rabbid’s Coaster, a 3-minute madcap, trackless roller-coaster ride through a desert canyon accompanied by a wacky cartoon rabbit. It was more of a passive experience that didn’t make use of the armrest controllers, but I found it to be fun baby-step before trying out the more interactive VR attractions.
Next, I reserved a time for a single-player experience at one of the Flex VR stations, where for $10, players use a tethered VR headset and hand-held controllers to play one of three games: Beast Pets, a first-time, family-friendly VR activity involving baby dragons that act like flying puppies; Space Pirate Trainer, a sci-fi shooter for wannabe pirates; and the one that a Two Bit staffer recommended to me, Beat Saber a rhythm game in which I was to smash the colored boxes hurtling toward me in time to the music. The wand controllers I was holding looked like red and blue lightsabers through the virtual reality goggles, and I had a blast as a dancing Jedi for the ten minutes I played the game.
I was now ready for a multiplayer VR experience, so I next reserved a time slot at the Hologate, where two-to-four players used tethered 90 frames-per-second headsets that make every motion feel real, with no lagging, buffering, or motion sickness. As usual, there were three choices of games to play, each being $10 for ten minutes: Cold Cash, a family-friendly shooter where the weapons are virtual snowballs, Samurai, where players join together to fight an onslaught of enemy robots with a variety of weapons; and the game I chose, Samurai: Arena, a head-to-head version of Samurai. My three competitors and I materialized into an alien landscape when we put on our headsets, and we used hand-held gun controllers to blast an imposing number of Asian-themed creatures running and flying toward us. Not only was it a thrilling experience, but I was proud to land the top spot on the leaderboard.
For those who feel intimidated playing cooperatively or competitively with strangers, next to the Arena were four private, karaoke-style lounges called “Cabanas” where for $120, three-to-six friends can spend an hour enjoying catered treats and a wide selection of VR games ranging from the family-friendly Cow Milking Simulator to games for older players, like Cyberpunk Motorcycles. But that was more than my bit budget allowed, so I headed over to the Story Rooms that I originally knew Two Bit Circus for.
These Story Rooms are impressively designed rooms that allow groups of guests to play out a given scenario together. The “Lost City” room is a Raiders of the Lost Ark escape room experience for four-to-six adventurers to spend an hour puzzling to find the ruins of an ancient temple and locate its missing treasure. I’m told that the room, which costs $35 to book, features an ore cart on a mining track and a very scary mummy. Another room, Space Squad in Space, is a Virtual Reality experience in which four-to-six spacefarers take the controls of a Star Trek-style spaceship and work cooperatively to complete a mission. This one is $20 for 30 minutes and uses episodic content so players can advance through multiple levels to encourage repeat gameplay experiences.
Again following a Two Bit staffer’s recommendation, I joined a group of three other explorers for the $15, 15-minute story room The Raft, taking us on a harrowing trip down a haunted river in the bayous of Louisiana. As I donned the VR headset, I was tickled that my companions took on the appearance of backwater bayou-dwellers. The haptic floor was transformed into a creaky wooden raft, with an enormous gatling gun on each side, which we used to fend off a variety of supernatural creatures, including giant walking trees and an especially terrifying monster at the end. Not only was the experience, developed by Starbreeze Studios and Red Games, impressively immersive, but the shooting game itself was well designed, with the added element of the need to use the raft’s sole fire extinguisher for putting out fires set by the bayou beasties.
Although I proved to be the least accurate shooter of the group, my fellow rafters invited me to join them in another story room, but I had to decline because I was on a mission to sample each of Two Bit Circus’ types of experiences. Instead, I used $7 of my remaining bits to go into the adjoining VR Maze, a modular six-meter by four-meter physical maze designed by Asterion VR that is transformed into a virtual environment through HTC Vive VR headset and a backpack PC. My choices for this 5-minute experience was either to battle fierce “rabbids” that are preventing a spaceship from launching or enter the Minotaur’s maze to fight off venomous spiders and arrow-shooting skeletons. By now I had progressed far beyond Rabbids, so I chose to engage the Minotaur.
I had tried out The VIBE’s “Secrets of the Empire” virtual reality experience and thought that was the pinnacle of immersion, but I have to admit, when I stepped out from a castle hallway onto a treacherous wooden balcony along the castle’s outer wall and felt wind blowing in my face and the piercing of arrows fired from an army of skeletons across the rocky chasm, it was far scarier than anything I experience in “Empire”. There was even a swinging pendulum trap and a series of floor pits that I had to navigate before reaching the Minotaur.
By now I needed a drink. The steampunk robot bartender, name Gearmo del Pouro, wasn’t on duty that night, so I got a pint of Guinness from a friendly human hostess. I also sampled some of the gourmet carnival-inspired food prepared by a chef specifically for Two Bit Circus. The baked corn dog and garlic fries I picked up from the food counter were an especially good deal for $5. As I was returning from my repast, I saw a face that I recognized: that of Walt Disney Imagineer and Jim Henson puppeteer Terri Hardin. I knew her from an article she wrote about working on Disneyland’s Captain Eo 3D attraction, and so I introduced myself to her. We both raved about the wonderful experience that Two Bit Circus had created.
However, it wasn’t the virtual reality experiences that interested her, but the digital take on traditional circus games along a section I hadn’t visited yet, The Midway. “Big Top Balloon Pop” is a game for up to four players where contestants have to color match balls fed to them and toss them at colored balloons in front of them to pop as many balloons as possible, while “Media Pollution” is movie/tv themed photo booth where large television screens are placed in front of people’s faces for taking selfies. “Rail Race” involves contestants pumping up and down on a train motor, racing to get a digital train across a track.
Some of the games are surprisingly physical. One such game is “Demolition Zone,” < in which two players swing a padded “wrecking ball” toward a projection-mapped screen showing a virtual skyscraper in a race to destroy a building faster than their opponent. But there are also games like Skee Ball for those who enjoy the carnival classics,
If this sounds so far like simply a high-tech Chuck E. Cheese for adults, this rabbit hole goes much deeper. The overall goal is build social games and experiences that aim to inspire, engage and reinvent the way people play. A big example of this is Club 101, Two Bit Circus’ 100 seat, interactive game show theater. I didn’t have a chance to see it for myself, but I understand that cafe table has a touchscreen console that will allow the audience members seated there to communicate with the live host and other guests during the hour-long show featuring bar trivia, games, and interactive performances. There’s no admission price, either: guests simply walk in and pay for games, experiences, or drinks.
As I was taking all this in, I ran into Aaron Pulka, Two Bit Circus’ Head of Production. I asked him how long this took to put together. Pretty fast, it turns out. He told me that when he joined the company 16 months ago, the venue was just a collection of ideas, and the following months were spent curating which ones to pursue so as to achieve the right balance.
While many of the games were developed by Two Bit Circus, others were created by third-party vendors. For example, the arcade features cabinets that can load up games developed by indies using Two Bit’s API with a Unity plug-in to help game developers create a stable of games that can be rotated in and out over time or even switched up depending on whether the venue rented out for a corporate event or a kid’s birthday party.
When I said that it must take a lot of computer servers to run all this, Aaron explained to me that entire space runs on software called Walnut, which ties in with that API. The software can also be used to control the entire building, including lights, sounds, tap cards, everything. Wait! What? Well, it seems this rabbit hole goes deeper than you would imagine.
Two Bit Circus’ goal is to create a giant, living meta game that ties together through communal gameplay, secret quests, and live actors, where guests may show up to play an arcade cabinet, but could soon find themselves pulled into a real-life story that will allow them to uncover hidden mysteries. Calling a secret number on a pay phone in the building might lead a guest in one direction; dropping some bits into a certain arcade game could lead another to a multipart quest that takes multiple visits to complete. Supposedly, there are secret passageways and hidden rooms throughout the facility, and as guests discover them through the metagame, the different threads will tie together into one overarching narrative.
That sounds like heaven for gamers like me. While Two Bit Circus may not have the budget of a Disney or a Universe, they make up for it in imagination and audacity. The next time I have thirty dollars to spend, I’m not heading over The VOID to spend thirty minutes playing Secrets of the Empire again. I’m heading over to Two Bit Circus to spend an entire evening playing a variety of equally sophisticated games that will lead me on a grand,far-reaching adventure in an ever-changing landscape of immersive entertainment.