You’re in an ancient, booby-trapped Peruvian temple, standing next to Indiana Jones. He wiggles his fingers, licks his lips, and prepares to ever-so-carefully replace a gold figurine with a sandbag. Just before the switch, he turns to you and asks if you’re ready — and when you answer, he actually understands what you’ve said and responds back.
This interactive character experience is the future being created by Limitless founder and CEO Tom Sanocki. The Seattle-based virtual reality company has created a platform for content creators to design characters that can respond to VR users’ speech and body language in real time, which runs on all existing VR headsets by major manufacturers.
Sanocki approaches the virtual reality market from a unique perspective, as an alum of both film company Pixar and game company Bungie, where he led character design teams. During his 11 years at Pixar, he was behind characters like Kevin the bird from the movie Up and Mater from Cars. After Pixar, Sanocki moved to Bungie, where he worked for nearly 4 years on real-time characters for the game Destiny.
“We know how film does something and we know how games do something on a pretty high level,” Sanocki said. “Having a sensibility from both lets you take all the lessons that film has learned in over 100 years of storytelling and all the interactivity lessons that games have learned in 20 some years and put them together. We can create the bridge between games and film, and VR is the perfect medium for that.”
Limitless will debut its technology next week at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, along with a VR experience produced on its platform by the company’s first publicly-announced customer, the VR film company Motional.
“We want virtual reality to feel like real life,” Sanocki said in an interview with GeekWire this week at the company’s office in Seattle. “In real life, if something engages with me, I want to engage back. But if I can’t talk to you, if you don’t look at me, if I can walk right up next to you and you don’t react, that breaks the illusion.”
“Whether in traditional films and games or in VR, building characters is a chance to build emotional engagement,” he said. “People care about stories and people care about people, about characters.”
The idea for Limitless came about when a friend from Pixar invited Sanocki to use a VR headset. At the time, Sanocki already had been thinking about founding his own company, but he wasn’t exactly sure what to focus on, he said. Once he tried the headset, though, Sanocki was sold on virtual reality.
“It became clear to me that VR was going to be the next thing to build a company around, the thing that was going to be big enough and good enough to go through all the work of starting a company,” Sanocki said.
In April 2015, Sanocki founded Limitless, with the intent to make a platform that would allow anyone to create interactive VR characters and stories, from film companies to advertisers to educators to regular consumers, he said.
“Just like we saw with YouTube and Twitch, we don’t know what people will do with new technology until they actually do something with it,” Sanocki said. “By providing a platform for people to put characters into their worlds — to have you be a part of their story, just like they’re a part of yours — people will use it for things we can’t predict now.”
Sanocki says users will be able to create their own custom animated characters or use existing characters from the Limitless marketplace after it launches.
While Limitless provides the character technology, users do all the storytelling, including script writing, acting, and animation. That’s how Motional’s VR experience,”Gary the Gull,” worked. Motional, whose CEO Mark Walsh is another Pixar alum, wrote a story about a seagull that chats you up on the beach in an attempt to snag your snacks. Gary the Gull asks questions and, using Limitless technology, understands user responses, reacting based on a preset script, depending on what users say and do.
Limitless has raised a small amount of funding, of undisclosed size, and is looking to raise more money in the future, depending on what happens in the VR market and how fast Sanocki believes that Limitless will need to move, he said. The company employs others who worked previously at Pixar and Bungie, though Sanocki declined to name them. However, he did say that his team’s experience in both film and games puts the company in a unique position as it develops the Limitless platform.
Limitless currently shares space in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood with Pluto VR, the virtual reality company started in part by PopCap co-founder John Vechey.
Here’s a video glimpse of the “Gary the Gull” experience created on Limitless’ platform.