3D animation of any kind can be a long, slow process. Limitless aims to change all that. We spoke to Tom Sanocki of Limitless to explain.
Hello there! Tell us who you are and what you do at Limitless Ltd.
I’m Tom Sanocki, and I’m CEO and Founder at Limitless Ltd. I focus mainly on running the business and the public face of the company, with occasional dips into design from time to time. Plus everything else!
Limitless Ltd, is working on a VR animation suite that lives in the cloud. Can you tell us what it’s intended for, and how it works?
VR is really hard to build, and it takes a long time even for professionals. The software takes months to learn, you have to do so much of your work on a flatscreen, and you’re using a user interface designed for mouse and keyboard. This is holding back our industry’s mission to make amazing VR experiences, the ‘killer apps’ if you will. If we can make VR content faster to build and easier to learn (let’s shoot for minutes, not months), then we’ll be able to iterate faster. If we try out more ideas faster, and build everything in VR, we’ll be much closer to discovering those amazing VR experiences that convince consumers to buy VR headsets.
You’ve just added Gary the Gull and Reaping Rewards to Viveport, which are both short, interactive VR experiences. Can you tell us the origins of each?
We built Gary the Gull and Reaping Rewards as promotional pieces – to “show rather than tell”. We wanted people to see a real example of our character technology in action – short but complete, and something they could imagine wanting to build themselves. This follows a long tradition from companies like Epic and Pixar — for example, Pixar made their early short films when they were a hardware company and wanted to show how well the Pixar Image Computer worked. We also wanted to use our character technology ourselves first, so we could feel the pain of development and have a visceral understanding of our customer’s pain points.
Your career in visual effects and animation started at Pixar. What lessons learned there do you use today?
Keeping it simple. Pixar has a wonderful philosophy of finding simple technical solutions to artistic problems whenever possible, and respecting the need for full control by the artist. Pixar also has a great tradition of courage when it comes to embracing technical challenges. It’s hard to see now, but early films such as Finding Nemo were full of giant technical and creative challenges. Cars was supposed to be a ‘straightforward’ film but still had major challenges like shiny reflective surfaces, talking cars, runtime model performance, and huge environments. Pixar’s culture was excellent in teaching how to avoid fear, embrace the challenge, and find a clean and simple way forward. I saw many examples of how the right people with the right attitude could not just solve hard problems, but solve them in ways that were so simple and elegant it felt impossible.
Traditional animation can take a long time, and Limitless aims to dramatically reduce that. Can you break down what Limitless does specifically?
The biggest and most important thing is time from idea to result. If you want to move a character from point A to point B, you just do it instantly using your hands. If you want the character’s arms to hit a certain pose, you put them there. Instant feedback and intuitive UX — getting the computer out of the way so you forget there even is a computer. You also get big benefits from working in context — adjust lighting and environment around your animation or vice versa. And you absolutely need to share with your team because the best VR is built collaboratively. By running on the cloud we make it easy to share among your team so everyone can work together.
Where does Limitless fit in the traditional animation workflow?
There are several ways to use it, and we’re seeing different people find different ways to use it. Most people start with prototyping to get an idea up and running fast – because in VR you have to experience it in VR to know whether it’s good or not. Fast prototyping is one of the most important and hardest problems in VR today. Customers are also using it for character animation, often in conjunction with other packages as is standard in the professional community. And we’re excited to see how people use it in the future as we add more support for interactivity and sharing.
How important is VR to Limitless? How about the room-scale VR that Vive offers?
VR is absolutely critical. Being inside a scene and interacting with motion controllers is the core of what we do. Some people talk about AR and MR as being more important than VR – whether that ends up being the case or not, VR is the place to solve the hard problems with interaction and content, and you can do that today. Even though we support multiple ways of working people love room scale VR, walking around your experience is amazing.
Currently Limitless is available to select studios. What’s the ultimate plan for it? Will it remain a business tool only, or do you think you’ll allow animation enthusiasts to use it as well?
We are targeting professionals today, starting with major studios so our team can stay focused. But something that fascinates us is the question of who is a professional. Video editing used to be super expensive and specialized – highly trained people needed expensive video editing machines which literally had a custom keyboard. Now you can edit video on your iPhone. We are really excited that people are finding our software fast and easy to learn, because if we continue to make it easy we’ll expand the pool of VR professionals drastically. Then even more creatives will build revolutionary VR experiences, whether they’re full-time professionals or part-time prosumers.
Limitless uses the Vive controllers to track movement, but those are limited to your hands. Are you planning on adding support for things like the Vive Tracker and Valve’s ‘Knuckles’ controllers for full-body and/or fine detail movement?
Absolutely. We are incredibly excited by the Vive Tracker and Valve’s Knuckles controller. We’re focusing on the Vive controller to start, partially to focus but also to force us to build UX that is simple and intuitive with a minimum of input, just like the iPhone build an entire UX around one or two fingers.
There are some other ‘VR animation’ apps out there (or coming) including Mindshow. How do you see Limitless as differing from the competition?
Limitless is focused on professional 3D content, especially character-driven animation. We’re good friends with Mindshow and love what they’re doing to enable consumers to make movies in VR. So we’re in different markets — professionals versus consumer. The types of content professionals build is very different types from what consumers build, so the workflows and tools end up being very different. Ultimately we don’t see other companies as competitors; we’re all growing the VR ecosystems in our own individual ways.
You’re part of HTC’s ViveX accelerator program. For other developers out there, can you elaborate on how helpful it’s been to you? How have you benefited?
ViveX has been a great way for us to become more involved in HTC’s strategic initiatives around VR. We’re particularly excited to work with HTC to bring VR to a bigger audience that goes beyond core gamers. We’re big fans of ViveX and hope we can help other batches in the future.
Thank you for talking with us, Tom!