Limitless wants to be the Pixar of virtual reality entertainment. That’s why it has raised a round of seed funding of roughly $1 million as part of its quest to create the Limitless Creative VR Environment, which will enable artists to uniquely craft characters for VR interactive movies and worlds.
The funding comes from Masi Oka (best known as the actor who played Hiro from Heroes), Gaea, the Venture Reality Fund, Colopl VR Fund, Social Starts, CRCM Venture Capital, Sparkland Capital, Mission and Market, Nick Rau of Nielsen, and Jay Rifkin of OceanView Media.
The Seattle company is the brainchild of former Pixar and Bungie alumnus Tom Sanocki. He wants to see artists create VR entertainment with characters as deep as Woody from Pixar’s Toy Story.
Sanocki wants VR to grow up quickly as a new kind of interactive and immersive entertainment medium. That way, it can get on with becoming the medium that everyone wants it to be and grow into a $30 billion industry by 2020, as envisioned by tech advisor Digi-Capital. The platform from Limitless is a kind of foundation technology, enabling a VR user to hold a conversation with a virtual character.
“We believe fundraising is about finding good partners, and we are very excited at the great people we have in our seed round,” said Sanocki in a statement. “We are working with the leading VR funds, a combination of U.S. and international tech VCs, game-focused investors, and experienced angels. The incredible response to our first customer’s project “Gary the Gull” at the conference increased interest in our platform and helped us bring new investors and customers. Consumer VR is just beginning, and we are excited to power the next wave of compelling VR content into people’s homes and imaginations.”
The Limitless platform can be used to create VR worlds in video games, films, and other interactive media that we don’t really have a name for yet. So far, the quality of characters isn’t very good, and the process for creating them can be cumbersome, said Sanocki in an interview with GamesBeat. He illustrated how those characters can be made better through a demo created by his friend and customer Mark Walsh, a former Pixar filmmaker who is now an independent VR film creator at Motional. Walsh created a short called “Gary the Gull,” which is included at the bottom of this story.
During an interview last March, I looked at Gary the Gull while wearing a HTC Vive virtual reality headset. Gary, a seagull character, came up to me on the beach, and he clearly intended to steal food from my cooler. He asked me what my name was, and when I spoke and moved my head, he didn’t quite realize I was talking to him. So he said something like, “Don’t like to talk much?” Then he tried to get me to look in different directions. When he perceived with the motion-sensing indicators from the Vive that I had turned my head, he raced for the cooler and tried to steal something from it.
In the demo, the idea that I was communicating with Gary made the experience seem more interactive. You can imagine how that conversation could go in the future, Sanocki and Walsh said.
Limitless wants to make it better, faster, and cheaper to create immersive experience where the characters respond to voice recognition, gestures, gaze, and other human input. Sanocki said that it would take perhaps five or 10 programmers a long time to otherwise accomplish the same thing.
Sanocki knows because he was an award-winning character lead at Pixar for 11 years. He created Kevin the bird in the movie Up and Mater in the movie Cars. He helped ship seven films at Pixar, including Finding Nemo and The Good Dinosaur. Then he spent four years as a character and cinematics tech art lead on Destiny.
Limitless wants its platform to be hardware agnostic, so it will work with all the VR headsets coming out.
One of the little tricks is figuring out where someone is looking. If you are looking at my mashed potatoes on my plate, I might offer some to you, Sanocki said. That is one of the conversational options that is possible in VR.
The platform includes the Limitless Real-Life Code for VR characters, which provides a kind of real-life emotion engine for developers and storytellers. It allows characters to respond to voice, gestures, gaze, and other cause-effect rich input. It also includes Limitless VR character integration so that it works with underlying game engines such as Unity and Unreal. Limitless has applied for patents on its technology.
Rifkin and Oka have joined the Limitless advisory board. Limitless’ technology is being targeted to film and game developers initially, as well as other vertical markets including education, advertising, and travel.
Marco DeMiroz, a general partner at The Venture Reality Fund, said in a statement, “We have been big advocates for both Tom and Limitless, and we’re proud to invest in his vision to build a platform for the creation and publishing of immersive characters in VR. Emotional engagement with characters is crucial for an immersive experience and storytelling of all kinds. The extensive creative background of Tom and his team at both Pixar and Bungie gives them a unique perspective on what game designers and storytellers need to create intelligent and immersive characters in this new medium. We’re excited for what they will do next.”
Sanocki added, “As film and game studios plan out their next VR projects, we’re excited for them to use the Limitless VR Creative Environment to develop exceptional Pixar-quality VR characters that create emotional connections through how they respond to the viewer.”