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.
I’ve been a fan of location-based entertainment ever since I was a child ho bought a book at Disneyland on the making of The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and dreamed about becoming an Imagineer, one of the creators of Disney theme parks. Unfortunately, after joining The Walt Disney Company as its first in-house video game producer, I was unable to convince the head of Research and Development at Walt Disney Imagineering to bring me on to help make the theme park attractions more interactive. Since then I came close to working on location-based entertainment – including designing puzzles for an Escape Room start-up, but I never could make the transition from video game designer to theme park designer. So, I took comfort in the fact that the level of immersion and interactivity we achieved in video games couldn’t easily be replicated in real-life locations.
Well, I can’t make that rationalization any more, having just experienced The VOID at the Glendale Gallery, one of five locations that this franchise of mixed reality entertainment attractions featuring maze-like “stages” where groups of one to four visitors use a combination of virtual reality head-mounted display and computer backpack with motion tracking, haptic feedback and 4D special effects systems to explore and interact with a physical location overlayed with a virtual environment.
Last Wednesday I booked a 10:30am reservation for The VOID’s latest VR experience, Secrets of the Empire, a collaboration between The VOID, Lucasfilm, and Industrial Light & Magic’s immersive entertainment division, ILMxLAB. When I arrived, the employees verified my registration, had me sign a waiver, and put a bracelet with a QR code around my wrist. This bracelet, they told me, would be used to connect me to my VR experience.
My hosts then led me into a room to watch a briefing video of Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story assigning me to a stealth mission to infiltrate an Imperial base on the volcanic planet of Mustafar, which I excitedly remembered was the location of Darth Vader’s castle. My mission was to disguise myself as a stormtrooper, travel aboard a stolen Imperial shuttle to the Sith Lord’s base, and retrieve an important artifact housed in a container in the storage area. It sounded like a simple enough task to me! Let’s do this!
My next stop after the briefing ended was a room where I was outfitted with a custom-made Rapture headset with a 180-degree field of vision, custom optics, Bang & Olufsen headphones, and microphones so that group members can talk to each other. I also wore a vest with a computer in its back so that there were no cables tethering me to the experience, leaving me free to walk around as I pleased. I found the headset to be light but the vest to be fairly heavy. Both were easy to adjust, and eventually I almost forgot that I was wearing them. Once my VR outfit was secure, the employee scanned my bracelet and VR vest together, linking my accounts with my outfit. If I had been with a group, he would have had me “customize” my stormtrooper avatar by choosing what color I wanted my shoulder pads to be so that my teammates could identify me.
He then led me into a small room that was the entrance to the stage. He instructed me to flip down my visor and look at my hands. At first I only saw black through the goggles, but after he made an adjustment, I found that I was looking at what appeared to be my hands and arms covered in stormtrooper armor. I was impressed to see my virtual fingers move in synch with my real fingers (albeit with a slight lag), a level of detail that would prove useful in the middle of the mission. I later learned that my virtual arm motion was made possible due to a Leap Motion module mounted on the front of the Rapture headgear that tracked my hand and arm movement. Unfortunately, the range of tracking didn’t allow the system to render my legs and feet in the virtual world when I looked down, which did break the immersion a bit for me.
I suddenly heard a door “woosh” open behind me, and as I turned around, I saw a walkway stretched out before me, leading to an Imperial shuttle. When I walked into the shuttle, there was Rogue One’s K-2S0 droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) looming over me, looking as real as if the droid were actually standing next to me. He ordered me to sit down, and I was excited to feel the floor and seats vibrate as the shuttle jumped to lightspeed.
Soon the ship arrived on the molten planet of Mustafar, and the door opened again so that I could walk out onto a skiff waiting to take me to the based. As I boarded the hovering platform, I could feel hot air being blown against my face, and the floor vibrated again as the skiff moved slowly towards the base landing platform. Although I knew that I was really safe and sound in a small room, I felt as though I might actually fall into a fiery pool of lava if I leaned over the skiff’s edge too far.
After docking at the base, I boarded an “elevator”, which I activated by pulling on a real physical lever placed in the room in the exact location of the virtual level. The elevator’s movement, however, was an illusion that was completed by another vibrating floor under my feet. I reached out to one elevator wall and touched the real physical wall of the stage, but when I reached into the opposite wall, my arm went through it. This, I guessed correctly, would be the direction of the elevator exit when we reached the bottom floor.
K-2SO cautioned me over the headsets to be discrete as I explored the base so as not to attract attention from the real stormtroopers. I soon walked into a storage room where blaster rifles were hanging on a wall. (In real life, they were actually just wooden guns with triggers, but through the visor, they looked like the real thing). I didn’t need any instructions to know to pick one up. However, apparently I was expected to try shooting my blaster immediately, because when I didn’t after a minute or two, a blaster went off behind me, setting off alarms and causing K-2SO to admonish me for not being discrete.
As I moved through the base to shoot at storm troopers, the area seemed much larger than the VOID’s floor space at the Glendale Gallery. Apparently, the company’s founder is, like me, a magic enthusiast who used hiss knowledge of direction to employ illusion-based techniques used are redirected walking, which is used to give the illusion that the user is traversing a larger path in a straight line, but is actually walking through a curved hall. Redirected walking, in combination with backtracking to previous locations in which the same physical hallways and walls represent different locations in the virtual space, provides the illusion that I was traversing a location larger than the stage itself.
My rampage came to a halt when I ran came to an impassable closed door. Thankfully, K-2SO was there in a control room behind a glass window to give me a code for opening the door. This involved me remembering a series of colored button he lit up on the control panel before me and then pushing them in the same sequence. This Simon-like puzzle seemed out of place in an action-adventure, and I surmised that it was used to slow me down so that I would be separated from another group that was in another part of the maze. A minor problem is that the virtual reality buttons were a couple of inches to the left of where the real buttons were, but it wasn’t enough of a discrepancy to repeat back the three sequences required to open the door. (I also learned later that there was an alternate way to open the door for those who prefer action to puzzle-solving, and given that I was doing this as a “solo” experience, that alternative should have occurred to me.)
When the door opened, I found myself staring out over a balcony overseeing a lava lake with a seemingly infinite amount of stormtroopers firing at me (although I’m sure their numbers were limited by the amount of time I was allocated to be in that part of the attraction). I shot from inside the corridor for cover, until I felt a gentle push at my back. I realized my earlier hunch was correct, and a VOID employee was nudging me forward into the next “room” so that he could close the physical door and separate me from the group behind me. (My guess was that the employee was with me, but invisible the whole time, not just to make sure I was progressing ahead of the next group of customers, but also to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself or vandalize this very expensive set-up).
After a couple more “shooting gallery” experiences, I found the artifact in the storage room, leading to the inevitable boss battle. You don’t have to think too hard about who the boss enemy was. Thankfully, the Force was with me, and I made my escape.
So, was it worth it? Well, I was amazed by the level of immersion, but the graphics, displayed on a 2K resolution OLED, weren’t quite as good as those of today’s AAA video games. The overall experience cost $30 for 30 minutes (including mission briefing and gearing up), so it is more expensive than going to the movies or even to a theme park. When I returned to the lobby, VOID also tried to hit me up for more money to buy a digital ($10) or framed ($15) photo of me in my VR gear, but I declined. But when I got home, I received an email from VOID with a Wanted Poster of me with a photo of my character as if taken from a security camera. It also listed my crimes as done in the game, as well as the bounty the Empire placed on my head.
Again, was it worth it? Even though I can see some improvements that could be made in the Secrets of the Empire experience, its production values far exceeded my expectations of a shopping mall “theme park” experience, and I had a blast. I just learned that Disney and The VOID are expanding their partnership to bring a Wreck-It Ralph experience to locations this fall as well as an unnamed Marvel experience in 2019, and I can’t wait to try both to see the next advancements made by the VOID and its collaborators.