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‘New Hollywood’: Future of virtual reality at heart of Burbank tech event

Brent Bushnell, left, chief executive of Two Bit Circus, chats with tech talk facilitator David Murphy, chief executive of Tech Fire, on Wednesday in Burbank.
(Courtesy of the city of Burbank)

Small business owners got a glimpse into the future of augmented reality, virtual reality, gaming and entertainment on Wednesday during a city of Burbank Tech Talk event at Story Tavern on San Fernando Boulevard in Burbank.

Brent Bushnell, chief executive of Two Bit Circus, based in downtown Los Angeles, spoke about how his company has carved out a business niche with potential to grow substantially during the next decade.

“‘New Hollywood’ [is] a massive, macro-shift that’s happening,” Bushnell said. “You have a role to play; you’re part of the show,” he said. “‘New Hollywood’ has this whole opportunity to be the way in which we learn [and] train, in fitness and therapy.”

Bushnell, a quick talker with boundless energy, addressed the shift from “passive entertainment,” such as books, movies and television shows, where audiences are entertained at a distance, to active entertainment, where the audience participates in the action.

“People want social experiences in that immersive ecosystem,” said Dave Dorn, a graduate student at the University of Southern California’s Iovine and Young Academy and a co-founder of virtual realitystartup Evernever Games.

“They want to be able to play games with their friends … They want an interactivity that’s not the same as sitting in a room together and being entertained at,” he added.

Virtual reality, or VR, technology has yet to fully immerse itself into mainstream society, although Bushnell said he thinks that could change in the near future with devices like the Facebook-owned Oculus Quest, which launched earlier this summer.

Many early VR headsets were bulky and had to be wired to expensive computers, which limited their usability and practicality.

“VR has had this kind of ‘chicken-and-egg’ moment where it was really hard to get money to fund building new content because the distribution wasn’t really there,” Bushnell said.

“But if the distribution was really there, all of a sudden, people could start raising money and more content would pop in … I really think there’s a shot of that now,” he said.

Aaron Zuber, who runs a freelancing and post-production services company called A to Z Productions, said he wants to be ahead of the curve with these emerging technologies, which he sees as “different ways to tell a story,” he said.

“You could develop a project and say, ‘This is perfect for this medium. This is perfect for VR. This is perfect for [augmented reality],’” Zuber said. “It would be a huge leap because you’d be able to say you’ve already done this if somebody needs that service.”

In addition to its potential in the entertainment and gaming industries, Bushnell said he thinks VR could play a key role in education and health in the near future. This could give students immersive classroom experiences and access to the world’s best teachers, regardless of where they live.

Additionally, he referenced a study published in the journal Psychology Sports and Exercise, where VR users exercised longer with a decreased perception of effort and pain compared to those working out without VR.

Bushnell, who has a background in fiber optics and DNA synthesis, left ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and chose to pursue his dream of molding the future of entertainment alongside co-founder Eric Gradman in 2012.

He describes his company as a “high-tech circus” with a network of “micro-amusement parks” that resemble a futuristic arcade, complete with VR-enhanced escape rooms, immersive theaters where guests control the stage show as well as a restaurant and bar, where guests are served drinks by a robotic bartender.

“We were frustrated at the fact that everybody was on their phones and on Facebook, but not together — live,” Bushnell said. “Tech is very enticing and very good at what it does, but it does have this sort of ‘closing-you-off-from-the-world effect.’”

As virtual and augmented reality systems begin to open up new worlds, Bushnell encouraged business leaders in Burbank and surrounding areas to take advantage of them.

By following Bushnell’s lead, they, too, can use this ascendant technology to create a new reality for their businesses.

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