Ringmaster of the Nerd Circus

Inspired by steampunk culture, the maker movement, and his Atari-founding father, Brent Bushnell is ready to reveal his carnival of crazy contraptions and educational wonders.

Ringmaster of the Nerd Circus

“Watch your step!” says a mohawked man on stilts, a trio of juggling pins in hand. “There’s gravity everywhere.”

He greets the stampede of children and their families spilling into a World War II-era waterfront warehouse in the Los Angeles port town of San Pedro, which on this day has been transformed into a traveling nerd circus. Under colorful streams of aerial silk draped across the wood-beamed ceiling, tiny jaws drop at the high-tech toys and games that await them: a room full of laser beams to crawl through, Mission Impossible-style; remote-controlled quadcopters ready to be flown through a city of cardboard skyscrapers; a live-action version of the penny arcade classic Asteroids; computerized funhouse mirrors that morph users’ faces into icons from Albert Einstein to Eminem. On a side stage, as futuristic music thumps through the speakers, kids pose in the LED-powered accessories they’ve designed and assembled for a technology fashion show. There are dancing robots everywhere.

In the middle of this spectacle is Brent Bushnell, who’s wearing a collared shirt, Converse sneakers, a string of paper tickets around his neck and a red clown nose. The grinning thirty-six-year-old can’t seem to take a few steps without being stopped by either a staff member (one alerts him of a “roguebot,” the code word for a lost child), a schoolteacher wanting to thank him, or an awestruck fan. Crouching down with his hands on his knees, his crystal-blue eyes widen as a nine-year-old boy tells him about the robotics club he started in his garage. They call themselves Science Ninjas.

“I love science and I love ninjas!” Bushnell says, smiling.

The boy’s mother snaps a photograph.

Bushnell is one of the masterminds behind the STEAM Carnival, a Kickstarter-funded event put on by Two Bit Circus, the Los Angeles-based startup he launched with former roboticist Eric Gradman. The goal? To get kids excited about STEAM, an update on the academic disciplines known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math, but with an “A” added for art.

It’s an ambitious undertaking. STEM education advocates often cite troubling research revealing that by 2018 the United States may be short as many as three million high-skill workers, and that the World Economic Forum has ranked the country 52nd out of 133 nations in its quality of math and science education. But Bushnell, a computer scientist and the CEO of the company, believes there’s a way to draw young minds to these fields that are so often brushed off as too boring, too geeky, too hard.

Make it fun.

STEAM Carnival-goers try the High Striker, a twist on the classic hammer challenge that measures strength. LED lights shoot up and down based on how hard the hammer is struck at the base.
STEAM Carnival-goers try the High Striker, a twist on the classic hammer challenge that measures strength. LED lights shoot up and down based on how hard the hammer is struck at the base.

“Engineering is the new rock and roll!” says Bushnell, who’s kind of a Bill Nye for Generation Z. “This is a demonstration of what’s possible. We’re rebranding what it means to be a nerd.”

He looks up at yet another fan who has come to see him. It is his father, Nolan Bushnell. They both smile and high-five. The children enraptured in the tiny circuit boards and blinking buttons don’t seem to recognize this white-haired, bearded gentleman in a white T-shirt and red sunglasses, even though his bio would expand off the screens of their iPads: founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese and more than twenty other companies; employer and mentor of Steve Jobs; builder of robots; and creator of technology that lit the way for the video games of today.

Nolan Bushnell doesn’t mention any of those achievements here though. “Being known as Brent’s dad is much more fun for me,” he says with pride.

At seventy-one, the elder Bushnell still runs tech ventures and travels the world to speak about innovation and the future. But over the years, he’s also assumed a quieter role, that of a trusted adviser to his son.

Brent has joined a new crop of crusaders for an education revolution, one that shakes up the image of kids sitting in rows while staring at the clock as a teacher rattles off something from a textbook about the Pythagorean theorem. In his eyes, kids learn, grow and soar through play. What they need, he believes, are mentors and an environment that allows them to follow their curiosity — an environment like the one he and his seven siblings grew up in.

Looking out at the carnival and at the movement his son is creating, the elder Bushnell beams. “I think I did a good job,” he says.

There’s a term in the video game world known as “the pull.” It’s the mystical component that makes you want to play; need to play. All good games have it. Anyone who’s ever looked at the clock with equal parts bewilderment and shame after a string of self-promises to quit after finishing just one more level of Angry Birds has experienced the pull.

Broadening the definition, Nolan Bushnell believes that in order to raise creative, independent thinkers, one must “be the pull.”

“To teach is to have kids be knowledge seekers,” he says, sitting on a couch in a lounge area of the carnival, popping Flamin’ Hot Cheetos into his mouth one by one. “If they’re pulling in knowledge because they’re curious, it’s ten to twenty times more effective than if you’re pushing knowledge at them. Kids haven’t had the creativity squashed out of them like adults have. The objective of education should be to keep that creative spirit alive.”

Nolan, who has an intense gaze and a baritone voice, speaks in phrases that could be projected on a screen at a TED conference. In his philosophy, learning starts with access, both to information and materials. He pinpoints the start of his own career to the day his third grade teacher asked him to prepare a lesson on electricity for his classmates at Wasatch Elementary School in Clearfield, Utah. “I got to play with dry cells and wire and lights and electromagnets and it was like magic,” he says gleefully. “I started tinkering and literally have never stopped.”

His childhood was filled with wonder and mischief. He’d use tools lying around from his dad’s cement contracting business to build contraptions such as a red-and-white striped radio antenna on the roof of his house, as well as a remote detonation system in his garage. One year, on Halloween, he hid a speaker and a ghost made with a bed sheet in a tree in his front yard. When kids walked by, he pressed a button and the ghost would come swinging down with a “wooooooo!” Children ran home, screaming. “All the parents were very mad,” he says with a look of satisfaction.

It is Nolan’s sly boldness that also begins the legendary tale of Atari. In the 1960s, as an engineering student at the University of Utah, he snuck into the computer lab before dawn to play Spacewar! on the campus’ PDP-1 mainframe — a “minicomputer” about the size of three refrigerators. As he fired digital missiles on the screen, he wondered how he could bring this addictive, euphoric experience to the masses. In 1971, Bushnell and then-partner Ted Dabney reinvented Spacewar! as the first commercially-produced arcade game, Computer Space. While it never became a hit, they soldiered on and founded Atari, Inc. in the high-tech breeding ground of Silicon Valley. Within a year, they released a game called Pong, and a video game industry was born.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, while Nolan was working on a distribution channel for Atari games in the form of a family pizza joint — a place that would later become known as Chuck. E. Cheese’s — he was also raising a family. Wanting his kids to be “not just dreamers, but doers,” he and his second wife, Nancy, designed their home in upscale Woodside, California, to purposely spark innovation. They set up what Nolan called “blank places,” empty rooms equipped with tools and materials to build with — pieces of plastic, Styrofoam, wood, string and paper. “I’m probably one of the few parents who let their kids use hot glue guns when they were three,” he says.

Nolan Bushnell and son Brent Bushnell attend The 4th Annual Celebration of Life and Paying It Forward event, which benefits STEAM education. (Photo courtesy Steven Lam)
Nolan Bushnell and son Brent Bushnell attend The 4th Annual Celebration of Life and Paying It Forward event, which benefits STEAM education. (Photo courtesy Steven Lam)

With four brothers and three sisters, Brent was the third Bushnell child and, as Nolan describes, “curious from the day he was born.” Once, Brent turned one of the blank spaces into a Dungeons and Dragons lair. Another time, when he was in second grade and his brother Tyler was in first grade, the two boys filled the walls with level drawings for a video game they were building using HyperCard, an early Macintosh tool that made it possible to create programs without really knowing how to program. “That was their first all-nighter,” Nolan recalls. “Nancy said, ‘They’ve got to go to bed. They have school tomorrow.’ I said, ‘No. This is passion.’” When it came to video games, and the kids grew up on lots of them — Putt Putt, Freddi Fish, Pajama Sam and The Incredible Machine were a few favorites — Nolan’s hope was always to get them to “transition from being players to designers.”

The house had a television, though it was rarely turned on. “Dad always saw himself in competition with TV,” Brent says. “He felt that if we were watching too much of it, he was failing. We’re not sports fans, so on Sundays, instead of watching whatever sport you’re supposed to watch on Sunday, we would go to Fry’s Electronics, buy a bunch of stuff and build things.”

His father adds, almost boastfully, that he and the kids all have ADHD. “Sitting still is not conducive to learning,” he explains, citing studies that the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder fade when kids aggressively exercise before having to sit and focus. “We are evolved from the Paleolithic Era, where we were hunters and gatherers. Boys and men ran or walked for twenty to thirty miles a day.” He also says of the Bushnell clan, “We’re all dyslexics, too. It’s a way of thinking that I actually think is good for creativity. During the school years, you just have to do extra drills and practice to be able to read at level. I still can’t spell for shit.”

Nolan always felt that it is a father’s job to be a primary educator to his family, and he wanted his kids to not simply memorize definitions and formulas, but to “feel mastery” of whatever they were learning. He set up a very early computer network in the house and neighborhood children would often come over and play the adventure game Loom. “When the network would go down, they’d call me at work and I’d tell them how to fix it. If they called me again, I’d say, ‘You fix it.’ You constantly teach and then pull back. Teach and pull back.”

Never caring much whether the kids got perfect grades (they were mostly “B” students), Nolan instead encouraged them to start projects and businesses, which he believed would take them further in life. Of his father’s financial success, Brent says, “The difference between his money and my money was very clear.” He and his siblings filled their own piggy banks by becoming young entrepreneurs – launching a jewelry business, a lemonade and candy stand, and a mistletoe company during the holidays. When Brent and Tyler were in high school, they created a collectible trading card game called Worlds, which was similar to Magic: The Gathering, but based in outer space. They licensed it to the Topps Co., and scored a $15,000 advance. To meet the company’s deadlines, they’d sometimes ditch class to do game testing or make print runs at Kinko’s.

Brent won’t forget his father’s charging words. “Whenever we’d have an idea, Dad would say, ‘Great, do it. Make one dollar this weekend. Not a thousand dollars in a month. Not a million dollars in a year. Make one dollar this weekend. Take that first step.’”

Nolan wanted his kids to be adventurers, often piling them into a van for road trips or taking them to a Japanese restaurant and ordering a humongous fish that still gasped and wriggled on the dinner table. Holidays consisted of a mash-up of cultural traditions from around the world. During Christmastime, they would sing a Swedish drinking song and take shots of Akvavit, heat raclette cheese under a lamp and take turns swinging at a piñata. Nolan took the family to Europe for an entire year on one occasion, spending their days at museums and on excursions in London, Scandinavia, Rome and Southern France. “The world,” Nolan says, “is a very good classroom.”

The carefree days, however, screeched to a halt when the market for technology stocks crashed, and Merrill Lynch withdrew the public offering of Androbot, a company Nolan created that had plans to bring personal robots into people’s homes. For fifteen years, the Bushnells were entrenched in a legal battle with the investment house that led to the sale of their home and the loss of other private assets. In the late ’90s, the family packed up and moved into a modest, rented home in Los Angeles, and from there rebuilt their lives.

Nolan says he has no regrets about the ordeal. “The kids all benefited from not having such a silver spoon,” he says. To him, it was simply another opportunity to learn.

The music video for OK Go’s 2010 song “This Too Shall Pass” stars a massive Rube Goldberg machine that’s so intricate, imaginative and precise, you feel like you need to hold your breath through its entire three-and-a-half-minute run. In motions perfectly synchronized with the music, balls roll down tracks, a piano drops, a skeleton head swings around a tetherball pole, lamps turn on, umbrellas open and paper airplanes fly.

OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass,” the viral video that Bushnell’s company helped create.

The video, filmed in a single, unbroken shot, has been viewed more than 45 million times on YouTube. Shortly after it was released, educators started contacting Brent to thank him.

Synn Labs, the Los Angeles company he cofounded, had built the super-contraption, and everyone wanted to know more about it. Physics teachers started showing the video in their classrooms, and reporting that their students became energized in a way they’d never seen before.

“We thought, hey, maybe there’s something here,” Brent says.

Brent, who studied computer science at UCLA, had been building high-tech spectacles since 2008, when he first met Eric Gradman, a California native who was designing robots for the military and getting burnt out. “I’d come home at the end of the day and think to myself, what am I gonna do now? I’ve got to do something different,” says Gradman, who sports a signature red mohawk.

Fueled in part by the do-it-yourself ethos of the Maker movement and steampunk — a subculture that romanticizes Victorian-era steam-powered machines — the two men would use their science skills to create hands-on games, unveiling them at a Los Angeles social gathering called Mindshare. (“A drinking club with an art problem,” as Brent describes.) Participants had to pound on buttons and tumble like ninjas with complete strangers. The six-player arcade game table was a particular hit. Since most people come to events in twos, threes or fours, it forces them to meet someone new. Brent has been invited to four weddings of couples who met at Mindshare. “It’s awkward to say, ‘Hey, can I buy you a drink?’” Brent points out. “But it’s really easy to say, ‘Ahhhhhh, next time, I’m going to kill you!’” The crowd ended up being the perfect test audience for what was to come. “Kids and drunks are about the same in terms of how they play games — how violent they are with stuff, how intolerant they are to instructions,” Brent jokes.

Along with four other self-described geeks, Brent and Gradman formed Synn Labs, bringing to life a string of mind-blowing novelties that have been branded in advertising history — a giant Willy Wonka candy machine they built for Toys ‘R’ Us, an organ made out of cars for DieHard batteries, and a stunt that involved tipping a Chevy Sonic off a hundred-foot tower for a Super Bowl commercial.

Eric Gradman (left), CTO officer of Two Bit Circus, and Bushnell share a laugh at the STEAM Carnival.
Eric Gradman (left), CTO officer of Two Bit Circus, and Bushnell share a laugh at the STEAM Carnival.

Eventually, Brent and Gradman broke off from the company to start their own, Two Bit Circus, housed in a cavernous, brick-walled space in Los Angeles that once served as a power plant. As Brent prototyped and developed new amusements such as a futuristic racing simulator and a party game involving glowing globes, he couldn’t help but think of his childhood, the days when he would spend all his time happily building, messing up and starting again. “I asked myself why I became an engineer,” Brent says. “It wasn’t like I woke up one day and wanted to learn how to program. You get there because you’re curious and want to accomplish some task. This is how school should be.”

He started giving talks in classrooms, explaining that science has allowed him to be a kid for life. He mentored children, teaching them how to program. He volunteered with the Girl Scouts, showing them how to make their own fashions out of LED lights. Through these projects, Brent says he saw kids learning, and a desire to continue learning. “Do I have some sort of STEM assessment that can demonstrate that they’re going to be engineers? No,” he says. “Did I see it in their eyes how excited and proud they were of their creations? Absolutely. I know that we’re on to something.”

His boldest idea yet has been the STEAM Carnival, a “circus of the future” filled with lasers, fire and robots. Unlike the carnivals of the old days, when game science was kept a mystery, Brent wanted a “How It Was Made” poster to accompany every activity. Along with science, technology, engineering and math activities, he wanted to add art projects to the equation. In education reform circles, there’s been a recent push to transform STEM into STEAM as experts believe exposure to art helps students develop the risk-taking and creative problem-solving skills they need to come up with innovative solutions. Brent also sees art as a trojan horse that can turn kids on to more intimidating subjects.

To fund the STEAM Carnival, Two Bit Circus launched a Kickstarter project, complete with a snazzy video featuring a cameo by Nolan. They raised more than $100,000. During the event’s inaugural weekend in late October, fifteen thousand people walked through the doors.

Today, Brent and Nolan are working to crack through the school ecosystem in parallel and intersecting ways. Nolan’s most recent business venture is BrainRush, an educational software company based on the idea that many curriculum lessons can be turned into mini-games. He believes it will fundamentally change education and will be his biggest success yet. “As I get older, I ask the question, ‘What would I like my legacy to be?’” he says. “And one of the answers comes back: I would like to impact education in an extremely positive way.”’

Brent is pushing to work game-driven STEM lessons into private school classrooms and afterschool programs, the places where he believes “the revolution can start.” He’s also making new amusements for the STEAM Carnival, which will travel to several additional cities next year.

At the end of the night, for the grand finale of the carnival, Brent steps into Dunk Tank Flambé, a spectacle that involves giant tanks of propane connected to fire valves inside a stainless steel cage area. Wearing a metallic fireproof suit, he pumps his fists and waves at the thunderous crowd. This is science. No, this is rock and roll.

Someone throws a ball at the target, and flames burst from the chamber.

The man is on fire.