NXT BLD is a new conference in London specifically aimed at the discussion on emerging technologies and their applications in the fields of architecture, engineering and construction. Organised by AEC Magazine, the first event was held in the British Museum on the 28th of June 2017. Videos of the event presentations have been released and provide some useful insight into the ways in which technologies like VR are being used within industry. I found the following talk by Dan Harper, managing director of CityScape Digital, particularly useful:
In the video Dan discusses the motivation for their use of VR. Focused on architectural visualisation the company often found that the high quality renderings they were producing quickly became outdated due to the fact that render times were not keeping pace with the iterative nature of the design process. They found that the real time rendering capabilities of game engines, in their case Unreal, helped them iterate images more quickly. Encountering similar challenges with the production of 3D models they realised that having clients inspect the 3D model could be used not only for communication but also as a spatial decision making tool. Supported by 3D data, real-time rendering and VR, which provides a one to one scale experience of the space, value can be added and costs saved by placing a group of decision makers within the space they are discussing rather than relying on the personal impressions each would draw from their own subjective imagining based on 2D plans and architectural renderings.
Innovation of the design process with VR not only makes it less expensive but also makes the product more valuable. With reference to similar uses of VR in the car industry Dan identifies opportunities for ‘personalisation’, ‘build to order’, ‘collaboration’, ‘focus grouping’ experientially, ‘efficient construction’ and ‘driving margins at point of sale’. Case studies include the Sky Broadcasting Campus at Osterley, the Battersea Power Station redevelopment and the Earls Court masterplan. These use cases demonstrate that return on investment is increased through reuse of the 3D models and assets in successive stages of the project from concept design, investor briefings, stakeholders consultation right through to marketing.
Videos of the other presentations from the day can be found on the NXT BLD website here.
Back in May at GDC 2017 Epic Games presented a revolutionary pipeline for rendering visual effects in real-time using their Unreal Engine. Developed in partnership with visual effects studio The Mill, the outcome of the project was a short promotional video for Chevrolet called The Human Race (above). While the film’s visual effects are stunning the underlying innovation isn’t immediately apparent. The following film by The Mill’s Rama Allen nicely summarises the process.
Behind the visual effects The Mill have an adjustable car rig called The Blackbird. Mounted on the car is a 360 degree camera rig which uses The Mill’s Cyclops system to stitch the video output from different cameras together and transmits it to Unreal Engine. Using positioning data from the The Blackbird and QR-like tracking markers on the outside of the vehicle as a spatial reference, the Unreal Engine then overlays computer generated imagery in real-time. Because all of this is being done in real-time a viewer can interactively reconfigure the virtual model of the car that has been superimposed on the The Blackbird rig while they are watching.
For the film industry this means that CGI and visual effects can be tested on location. For audiences it might mean that aspects of scenes within the final film become customisable. Perhaps the viewer can choose the protagonists car. Perhaps the implications are wider. If you can instantly revisualise a car or a character in the film why not an entire environment? With the emergence of more powerful augmented reality technologies, will there be a point at which this becomes a viable way to interact with and consume urban space?
The videos The Human Race and The Human Race – Behind The Scenes via Rama Allen and The MIll.
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!
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.