Immersive Design Studios takes Unreal Engine 4 beyond gaming

Immersive Design Studios takes UE4 beyond gaming

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We’re a Montreal-based design studio with a focus on creating custom immersive environments for cultural and corporate events. We were highly anticipating the arrival of Unreal Engine 4 this fall, and have been using it ever since in all of our projects. In this post we’ll share a little bit about our company Immersive Design Studios, how we got involved in using game engines for our architectural and immersive installations, a recent case study using Unreal Engine 4 for a luxury real estate client, as well as how we plan on using the engine in the future.

Our story

We began our careers in our native Belgium in 2000, with a largely art and architectural-based practice. At the time, we were operating as an artists’ collective - bringing together experts on a per-project basis. In 2000, we were working on an architectural model for an exhibition in Germany, and we wanted to give visitors the impression of walking through a scale model of the building. We were trying to come up with an original way of doing this, and thought of using a game engine to create rendered images which we would then project on surrounding walls. We quickly found a gaming specialist who worked with us for two weeks to develop the walkthrough renderings. When the exhibition opened, everyone was fascinated with our use of gaming technology, more so than with the actual physical architectural model. Users loved the fact that it wasn’t a pre-rendered video, but that they could choose where to navigate in the architectural model. This was a turning point for us, when we realized that game engines had huge potential in architecture and immersive design.

From there we started developing projects in Montreal around the time that the Société des Arts Technologiques (SAT) was opening, a cultural incubator and exhibition space focused on digital arts. We obtained a grant to develop a project with them, exploring ideas of common ground between virtual and real environments. This was our first big mandate using a game engine; at the time, we were using Quake. We teamed up with programmers and were able to use the open source code to start modifying the engine to suit our needs.

Since it wasn’t very common to use a game engine for non-gaming applications, we had to deal with some preset issues that seem funny in hindsight, such as masking and eventually removing the ever-present gun in first-person shooter games. It was challenging to modify the frenetic pace and remove the violent aspects from the engine, but in continuing to adapt the code to suit our needs, we were able to slow things down and build an environment that was better suited to our art installations.

(Realtime Unreal - Installation at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2011.
(Realtime Unreal - Installation at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2011.)

After developing projects that would augment real buildings with virtual architectural spaces we obtained prestigious museum grants in the US, creating immersive installation pieces for the Museum of the Moving Image and the Experimental Media and Performance Art Center in New York. Through these projects we started meeting museum investors and sponsors, such as Deutsche Bank. They were very interested in our work, and saw that there was tremendous potential to use it in the context of their large annual conferences. Deutsche Bank was our first Fortune 500 client, and opened the doors to the world of creating immersive large-scale corporate events.

In all of these various applications over the years, the use of the game engine has been ever-present. Our vision is to combine the powerful tool of the game engine and connect it with public space; thereby creating a collective experience. By merging the use of game engines with our backgrounds in art and architecture, we have been able to make seamless visual connections between real and virtual worlds, literally expanding fields of possibility.

How we chose Unreal Engine 4

In terms of specific engines, we had been working with Quake 3 for years, from the 2000s until earlier this year. Although it had served us well, we had maxed out its potential. We experimented with Unity but it wasn’t right for us, and Quake 4 was inhibiting with very high costs to obtain the source code. So we were faced with this need to transition to a new engine, but options that were either very expensive, very difficult to use, or too open-source and unstable.

When Unreal Engine 4 launched it was a huge breakthrough for us - it’s unparalleled in terms of artistic rendering quality, and has amazing usability. Compared to other engines, we find it much easier to work with. It doesn’t feel like you need team of 100 people to figure it out, as it’s scalable for much smaller teams. We also love the fact that we can work directly in the source code to adapt it to to our needs. So from both a technical strength perspective, as well as an aesthetic one, it’s ideal for us.

Case Study - Luxury real-estate sales centre

Immersive real estate sales center - work in progress using Unreal Engine 4 - Bedroom.

Immersive real estate sales center - work in progress using Unreal Engine 4 - LivingRoom.

Immersive real estate sales center - work in progress using Unreal Engine 4 - Bedroom2
Immersive real estate sales center - work in progress using Unreal Engine 4 - interior views.

Mandate

Earlier this year, we won a mandate to create an immersive real estate sales center in what will end up being the world’s tallest residential tower, scheduled to be completed 2016. Our client wanted to create a unique sales environment that would reflect the sophisticated nature of the architecture, all the while creating a memorable one-of-a-kind experience for potential buyers of the development’s units. The developers were impressed with our portfolio, and particularly interested in our museum work, as they wanted to take an artistic approach to the project.


Immersive sales center walk-through demo - work in progress.

Goals

From the outset, our goal was to create an entirely user-centric and exploratory experience, beyond a simple visit to a model unit. With the immersive sales center, users begin their visit as they might approach their future home in real life, by driving up the driveway towards the residential tower, where they are greeted by a virtual receptionist. From the moment the journey begins, the user is in control of where they choose to go, whether it’s to check out a large unit on the 80th floor, or a smaller one on the 10th, visit the gardens and basketball courts, or spend some time at the spa. The entire experience is dynamic and surprisingly life like, due to the highly realistic quality of the renderings - you really feel like you’re there, checking out the incredible views, and the luxury finishes in each room.  In each space, we’ve added  transparent layers of augmented reality, allowing visitors to play around with different finishes in the kitchen, or different furniture arrangements. We’ve also integrated high resolution playback features, integrating video content within the experience, as well as the ability to play live Apple TV as the user explores the living room environment. The creation of an immersive sales center (as opposed to a model unit) makes for a very personal visit and allows the flexibility of showing and selling many different types of units and environments, before they are built.

Immersive real estate sales center - work in progress - projection environment.
Immersive real estate sales center - work in progress using Unreal Engine 4 - exterior views.

Use of Unreal Engine 4

When we started the mandate, we weren’t sure what engine we were going to use. We started working in Quake 3 and Unity, neither of which were ideal for our needs. In digital architectural modeling, 3ds Max is the norm, but it is very limited in terms of its applications, and very slow to work with. So we were eagerly anticipating the release of Unreal Engine 4 to see if it would be a good fit. We were very pleased to discover over the course of the last few months that it’s an ideal engine for our purposes.

What has transformed the experience for us is ease of usability, the rendering quality and the ability to create organic effects seamlessly. We love the Blueprint feature, Unreal’s visual coding language that allows us to program interactive and visual features and prototypes without getting deep into the source code. This allows our tech artists to be more independent - for example in this project with the Blueprint system they were able to create effects like wind blowing through trees outside the residential tower, realistic-looking water fountains, and trigger reactions as users move throughout the space.

First client impressions

Our first deliverable for this project was to create a rendering of an existing real model apartment. Since our client is not based in the same city as us, at first we were nervous to share initial screenshots of our work, afraid that they wouldn’t capture the full realistic qualities of the work.  So we chose to send a short demo recording instead, and our client was instantly impressed with how realistic it was, even down to little details, like capturing a life-like reflection on a table, or real-time reflections in mirrors. Our client instantly understood that we were working with a superior tool to create a leading-edge experiential environment, which will in turn allow them to achieve their sales goals.

Leading up to the 2015 Launch

Panorama View
Immersive real estate sales center - work in progress - projection environment.

With the sales center scheduled to open in 2015, we’re now in the process of adapting  the project for its eventual installation on a large-scale curved screen. Using Canvas, our proprietary GPU-based image processing software, we’re integrating it with Unreal Engine technology in order to be able to seamlessly warp and blend in the game engine, with no frame delay.

Future Applications: Unreal and Canvas

Canvas GPU image processing software in action at a pre-game NHL show during the 2014 playoffs in Montreal.
Canvas GPU image processing software in action at a pre-game NHL show during the 2014 playoffs in Montreal.

In the course of the last year we’ve been developing our Canvas software to create 3D projections on ice at pregame shows at hockey arenas, currently one of the largest projection surfaces at 6K resolution. We’re looking forward to taking this a step further with Unreal in the coming months to create interactive pre-game content. With the use of tracking technology on the hockey players, we’ll be able to create impressive interactive projections, such as players leaving a blaze of virtual fire behind them as they skate, or creating the illusion that the ice is breaking behind them as they move… the possibilities are only limited by our imagination! With such a large projection surface, there is huge potential in using Unreal and Canvas in arenas around the world.

Conclusion

We’ve benefited so much over the years from adapting existing engines to suit our specific needs, and would encourage other industries to do the same. We believe that there are so many possibilities for Unreal to be used beyond games, whether in architecture, entertainment or educational simulations.

It’s been a pleasure working with the Epic Games team so far. We loved showing them around our beautiful city during the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS) this past November, and look forward to future successful collaborations.  

To stay up to date with Immersive Design Studios, check out their Blog, LinkedIn or get in touch!

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