Category Archives: Virtual Architectures

First Look: Unreal Engine 4


Following Epic’s announcement that Unreal Engine 4 earlier this month I finally got chance to lock myself away for a few hours and have a look. If you are coming to Unreal Engine from Unity like me Epic have provided a useful guide Unreal Engine 4 for Unity Developers. I also found their video tutorials for Level Editing really useful. Following the tutorials I was quickly able to create an office scene using basic geometry and the Unreal Starter Content. After modifying the scene to include an extra office I added the garden with a patio, plants and rocks. As with Unity, adding a first person controller was a simple matter of dragging and dropping.


The wall lights were easy to set up and had a nice glow. I also included the overhead lights from the Starter Content but found they were a little distracting. Despite emitting the same colour as the wall lights their orange lampshades seemed to be overly reflective. Generally the lights could be a little dimmer in my scene but this can easily be changed.


What really made the scene for me were the real-time shadows and reflections. After positioning the external directional light to shine into the office four reflection probes were added to the scene. As a result the marble and wooden floors look fantastic. I was expecting a lot here and Unreal Engine really impressed me.


Another feature I was keen to try was Unreal’s visual scripting system Blueprint. As visual scripting isn’t included in Unity I wasn’t sure what to expect. After following the Blueprint tutorials I found it really useful for quickly creating simple interactions such as opening and closing the sliding doors of the offices and the rotating door to the garden based on the proximity of the player. Being quite process orientated I found visual scripting really intuitive. However, Blueprint also seemed a little quirky when trying more complex tasks. There is obviously much more to learn here but it has definitely encouraged me to consider seeking out something similar for Unity.


The buildings outside of the office were simple textured boxes that I created quickly in SketchUp and exported via FBX. On first import I experienced a few issues with missing geometry and collision. These issues appeared to be resolved by ensuring to explode any grouped geometry in the models prior to export from SketchUp. Whether this is best practice going forward I’ve not yet determined.


In summary my first look at Unreal Engine 4 was really encouraging and I look forward to working with it more. I did find the editor quite demanding on my current laptop’s system resources. I also wasn’t sure how to optimise my scenes fully and this will take further investigation. With a number of projects coming up I’ll be sticking with Unity for the time being. However, it was very easy to see why Unreal Engine would be such a popular choice for real-time architectural visualisation. Can’t wait to do something with Unreal and the Oculus Rift!


Unity 5 Released!

Great news today from the Games Development Conference in San Francisco. After almost a year since its first announcement the latest version of the Unity game engine has just been released.

From a real-time visualisation perspective the newly enhanced graphical features are the most exciting:

  • Realtime Global Illumination
  • Physically-based Shading – Makes materials look more true-to-life under a range of lighting conditions
  • Reflection probes – Adds better

Jointly these help enhance the realism of Unity scenes by more effectively simulating the way light interacts with materials and bounces off of them. This is demonstrated to great effect in Unity’s ‘Viking Village’ example:

These new features have been used to great effect by Alex Lovett in the development of his ‘Divine Shrine’ concept visualisation below. You can read more about the making of the project here.

Additional enhancements for Audio, in game UI and the Editor mean that Unity 5 is a massive leap forward over previous versions in all regards. This is brilliant news for the scores of indie developers who continue to make the most of Unity’s favourable pricing structure and ease in deploying projects to a wide range of platforms.

Over the coming months I expect to be working with the Unity engine extensively and can’t wait to explore Unity 5’s new features. Aside from the obvious benefit of the graphical enhancements I’m looking forward to experimenting with the ability to deploy direct to the web using webGL which should spare users the need to download an additional web plugin.

Unity 5 is now available for download from the Unity website here. Enjoy!

Unreal Engine 4: Free to Download and Great for ArchViz!

Yesterday Epic games announced that the latest version of their Unreal game engine would be free to download. This announcement came at the start week long Game Development Conference 2015 taking place this week in San Francisco. This is great news for indie game developers as it means there is now a second option alongside the Unity game engine which had already been free to download for several years. Even if you are a student or just curious about game development now is a great time to start out and give it a try.

As you can see from their ‘sizzle reel’ the graphical capabilities of the engine are fantastic, and this has made it very attractive for real-time architectural visualisation. This is demonstrated brilliantly in Dereau Benoît’s brilliant ‘Unreal Paris’:

Another great example of the lighting capabilities in particular is the following test by French artist Koola.

Finally take a look at German firm Xoio’s great looking ‘Berlin Flat’:

With ready support for Oculus Rift and Leap Motion the engine is really promising. In order to encourage new users Unreal are even offering development grants of between $5,000 and $50,000. Although I have a number of projects coming up I can’t wait to start experimenting with the engine to see how the workflow compares with Unity. If you are as curious as me why not go ahead and check out Unreal Engine 4 and let me know how it goes. For their part Unity are promising big news later today at GDC. I’ll keep you posted.

HTC Vive: Rethinking Reality

HTC ViveOn Monday at the Mobile World Congress HTC announced their new Vive VR headset. Developed in collaboration with games company Valve, best known for their games Half-Life and Portal, the headset is expected to be released before the end of the year, with developer kits available this Spring.

The teaser video isn’t giving anything away. However, the HTC VR ‘Re Vive’ website promises a number of features:

  • A separate 1,200 by 1,080 pixel screen for each eye
  • Screen refresh rates of 90 frames per second
  • Accurate head tracking with a gyrosensor, accelerometer and…a laser position sensor (???)
  • Room scale tracking (15 feet sq) with a pair of base stations
  • VR game controllers with positional tracking

I’ve signed up for a demo as I’m particularly keen to find out more and experiment with the room scale tracking feature. It sounds very much like the equipment is aimed at the high-end gamer. If HTC and Valve can deliver though I don’t doubt that this will be a great piece of kit for creating all kinds of immersive and interactive experiences. Find out more at the HTC Re Vive website.

Google Earth Pro is Free to Download

I recent learned via the Google Earth Blog that Google Earth Pro is now free to download. I hadn’t used Google Earth for some time so I decided to try out the Movie Maker feature which is Pro only.

With movie maker it is possible to record live navigation with the mouse although this doesn’t tend to give a very smooth or or professional result. Using a specially designed 3D mouse such as the Space Navigator works much better. For my test I opted to make my video from a quick tour I created zooming into the Tower of London from orbit. This was achieved by selecting a sequence of points for the camera to visit. Movie Maker was then used to convert that tour to video. This took about 30mins to render with a fade in and fade out added in Adobe Premiere.

The attribution details at the bottom of the screen can be a little distracting because they change as the view moves between imagery from different satellites. It would be possible to crop these out but Google do insist on particular guidelines for permission to use their imagery and attribution. The are also occasional issues where parts of the 3D geometry flicker due to caching. Nevertheless, the results are very good for a quick and easy visualisation!

The combination of satellite imagery and 3D geometry are great for engaging viewers and giving a map context. Other features like a recorded voice over and the ability to highlight areas of interest can also be useful depending on the context. A comparison of features between the free and Pro versions of Google Earth can be found here, along with the link to download it.

VUCITY: Approaching real-time city information

On Tuesday I was invited to visit Wagstaffs Design in London to take a look at their latest product VUCITY. Powered by the Unity game engine, VUCITY offers an interactive 3D model of London that can be deployed to a touch screen table, video wall, tablet or desktop computer as required. The standalone application enables users to rotate and view the entire scene and zoom down to the scale of individual buildings.


Currently VUCITY covers 80 square kilometres of Central London, from Earls Court in the west to the ExCeL exhibition centre in the east, and from Old Street in the north to Battersea in the south. The project is a joint venture between Wagstaffs and Vertex Modelling who are able to provide high detail 3D models of the London area. Created from high resolution imagery the models boast an average accuracy tolerance of 40mm compared with full measured surveys. This degree of accuracy is particularly important for viewshed analysis and visualisation proposed as a possible application in Wagstaffs’ promotional video:

Over time Wagstaffs are seeking to integrate a range of data including data on demographics, property prices over time as well as live data streams for transport. The inclusion of real-time data is possibly the most exciting aspect of the project but also holds the biggest challenge. This is a fantastic project and I’ll be following it keenly. I thoroughly recommend heading over to the Wagstaffs’ website to check out VUCITY and their other great projects today.

Crowdfunding: Help Olly Make Games At The NFTS

Exciting News! I’ve been offered a place to study the MA in Game Development and Design at the National Film & Television School (NFTS) later this month. In order to be able to take my place I still need to raise £4,500 by the 16th of January. In a last effort to achieve this I’ve started a crowd funding campaign Help Olly Make Games At The NFTS with hubbub.

Please don’t hesitate to check out my campaign page as I’m offering a range of rewards including posters, exclusive prints of game artwork and even introductory workshops creating game environments. I’d also be very interested in speaking to any companies who might be interested in sponsoring me in return for work. If you’d like to discuss further don’t hesitate to contact me.

It goes without saying that participating in this course would be like a dream come true for someone who grew up as an avid gamer. Not only will I learn advanced techniques in 3D modelling, animation and programming but I’ll also be given the opportunity to work with film makers and sound designers and learn a wider range of skills in interactive story-telling. This will provide me with all the skills and connections necessary to allow me to develop, lead and successfully promote digital projects in a range of different contexts whether that be games, architectural visualisations, exhibits and interactive artworks. This opportunity is really important to me because I have a firm belief in the value of this technology as a means for engaging the public in a way that can both entertain, stimulate debate and promote participation in a wide range of social contexts. Any help you can provide by pledging your support or spreading the word would be much appreciated.

The Game Project

As part of my application I had to propose a game. I was really encouraged by the quality, high production values, innovative gameplay and strong narrative focus exhibited in previous projects from the NFTS course. Many of these games have gone on to receive nominations for gaming awards and further funding. Such games include Off Grid, Pixel Rift, and Sandman which are all very different but each share that NFTS signature care for quality gameplay and thoughtful story telling.

For my game I’d really like to explore my interests in psychology, technology, architecture and cities by developing a story based on the ideas of supporters and critics alike concerning the current movement in urban planning for Smart Cities. To that end I proposed the story of an architect struggling to create the perfect city. While dealing with intrigue amongst the powers-that-be the protagonist starts to lose their own grip on reality as the city they are creating starts making decisions of its own. In this way I hope to set the stage for a conspiracy adventure played out equally across the futuristic spaces of the newly sentient city as well as the warped spaces of the increasingly paranoid architect’s imagination. I hope this will offer novel and exciting opportunities for gameplay within an environment inspired equally by the corporate and avant-garde architectures of today and of the past; the paradoxical and labyrinthine spaces depicted by artists like MC Escher and Piranesi; and the near-future science fiction of writers like J.G. Ballard. In order to immerse the player in the experience I’m really keen to make the game compatible with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset because I love the idea of immersing the player in the role of the architect protagonist.

At the same time the story simply that of the architect, but equally that of the city. I’m keen to see if I can incorporate elements of the ‘Science of Cities’ that I’ve been learning in my studies at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) to create unusual puzzles and challenges for the player. Most experimentally I’d like to attempt to use live data generated by actual cities and social networks within the game. Although this is the most challenging and speculative part of my proposal it would be fascinating to see if I could use these techniques to break down the boundary between the game and everyday life by bringing the actual city into my game. Whether I can achieve this and what form that might take I can’t be sure at this point.

This is just the barest sketch but I hope that sounds exciting. I would really appreciate any help you can offer in making it happen. Please don’t hesitate to get involved with my campaign Help Olly Make Games At The NFTS and follow my progress on twitter @virt_arch.

Any and all help is appreciated!