Gary the Gull is an interactive short film featuring a feathered conman—a dirty, two-faced lunch-stealing swindler. Ok. I’m not really angry, partly because both Gary and my picnic lunch aren’t technically real, but the people behind Gary the Gull want to make you feel like it is, and doing it by involving you directly in the cinematic experience.
Born out of a cooperation between two companies, Limitless and Motional—both new companies sporting ex-Pixar talent—Gary the Gull employs a number of techniques and reactive choices within the narrative to make you feel in control. Voice recognition, nodding your head yes or no, and getting up to shoo the swindling bird from your seaside all play a role in how you experience the short VR film.
The short VR film was only about 5 minutes long, but it hid a number of decision points where I would directly effect Gary’s behavior, a total of 6 things I could do or say that would slightly change Gary’s dialogue and even get him to fly off without my lunch in his belly. Although 6 decisions doesn’t really sound like much for a quick interaction with an anthropomorphic bird that had a single objective—to steal my lunch—the narrative is woven in such a way that makes you feel like it doesn’t really matter what you say or do anyway. Gary has clear intention, and you’re his mark. Only shooing him away physically will get him to relent.
To get a better idea of what I saw in Gary the Gull, I sat down CEO of Limitless Tom Sanocki, a veteran of Pixar and Bungie. The ‘Limitless VR Creative Environment’ is a technology platform targeting content creators who want to build the sorts of interaction seen in character-driven experiences like Gary the Gull. Companies like Motional Entertainment, a content creation studio lead by ex-Pixar writer-director Mark Walsh, provide what they do best: story, animation and direction and then collaborate with Limitless to build voice/gesture-responsive story structures.
“This is the beginning of the bridge between games and film, Sanocki told me. “The things that work best in VR are the things that reach into a space and make you feel like you’re there. And when you feel like you’re there you want to have influence on the world. If there is a set of headphones, I want to be able to pick it up because I can do that in the real world. And when there’s people around, I want to engage them. I want to be able to change their story and I want them to be able to influence mine. That is really the promise of VR. You’re in these space. The characters are what we care about at the end of the day. People are what matter to us. That gives us the chance in VR to create something that takes the storytelling that we’ve learned through TV and film over the decades and merge it with the rich interactivity we get in games and create something that where you feel you’re in the space and you can change the stories of the people around you and they can change yours.”
But how can we articulate character to make them more real, more responsive to us as humans? Sanocki responds:
“The thing’s that exciting is that we don’t have all the answers yet. But the thing that’s going to make the characters real is to make them feel believable in the context of the story we have. In these early stages as we’re still figuring out virtual reality and interactive character in VR is very new. The characters that will be successful are the ones that are working within all the constraints we have—where the technology is and crafting stories around that. We don’t need to achieve the perfect AI character that feels perfectly believable. We just need to build great interactive experiences with characters that fit their story. And that is what we’re going to discover.”
Gary is the sort of character you should shoo away, but won’t because his infectiously transparent want to hoodwink you out of your property is the big entertainment factor. He doesn’t really care what your name is when he asks you. He doesn’t even care when you don’t answer him. He’ll smooth it over with a set of replies to move his intentions forward. And that’s something people actually do, albeit it with a wider range of responses and behaviors. While it’s obvious that you can’t populate a whole world with Garys, you can tell a pretty convincing story, one we hope will grow in length and complexity as more demand comes in for interactive VR films.