Virtual reality populated with smart digital beings is on the way

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Things are moving superfast in the VR space these days. At a time when consumers have scarcely done a trial run of several VR stories and experiences so they know their dislikes and preferences, developers are already forging ahead with “what consumers will demand” – such as the development of VR characters that respond intelligently to humans in virtual reality.

Advocates for VR storytelling are now going so far as to talk down the magic of movies as we have always loved them. Instead of simple “stories controlled by the director with the audience watching passively”, they will be become ones in the audience “must participate and influence the story”.

In a major step towards achieving this goal, at least three companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) technology to create VR characters that can interact with humans in virtual reality. One such company that this month announced a huge monetary boost to furthering its pursuit of virtual reality worlds populated by intelligent computer-generated beings is Unlimited, a VR startup founded a little more than a year ago in April 2015. Created by Pixar and Bungie alum, Tom Sanocki, and based in Seattle, the startup has closed its first round of seed funding which was oversubscribed and raised close to $1 million.

In a similar vein, Limitless launched the Limitless VR Creative Environment platform earlier this year, which enables content developers to create interactive VR characters that respond to voice, gestures, gaze and more. The technology is being targeted at film and game developers initially, as well as other vertical markets including education, advertising, and travel.

Gary the Gull is the first project using the Limitless VR Creative Environment. It was created at Motional Entertainment and directed by Mark Walsh a former Pixar writer-director and animation supervisor. Enter Gary’s beach and he’ll talk to you and try to steal your food in a cooler on the sand. Oculus VR’s Story Studio is also working on creating interactive VR characters. The studio’s short Henry, about a sad and lonely hedgehog, is the company’s first attempt at creating AI characters. The short places viewers in an interactive world where the main character senses and reacts to the user’s presence. Emotional responses from the users are elicited by having the character’s sad eyes focus directly at them during pivotal moments in the story.

Founded in 2010 and headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Rival Theory has developed RAIN, an artificial intelligence engine for creating intelligent virtual characters. RAIN is one of the most widely adopted AI engines used by top studios to create characters in Unity. Rival Theory’s second product is Sentio, a platform for interactive digital characters that have long-term memory, self-driven behaviour, and the ability to follow users throughout different apps and games and across all their devices. Never mind government surveillance, soon your game will know you intimately!

Thanks to platforms like Limitless and RAIN, it won’t be too long before you will be able to tell your own interactive stories in which you are the protagonist bravely taking on a world of intelligent virtual characters. Perhaps, too, you will be able to create your very own movie magic for a global audience to watch and engage with. Given how quickly the technology is advancing, perhaps that’s not such a fanciful prospect as it might first seem.