January 20, 2011

Cowboys Stadium: Unreal Engine 3 Brings Architecture to Life

By John Gaudiosi

DALLAS, TX—One of the leading architectural firms in the world, HKS, has quietly been revolutionizing the way sports stadiums, luxury hotels and state-of-the art hospitals are being designed. The company recently signed a licensing deal with Epic Games to bring Unreal Engine 3 into the company’s development process, allowing the clients who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sports arenas and cutting-edge buildings to see what the final structure will look like in real-time 3D.

While most architecture firms still draw up 2D blueprints that require the buyers to use more than their imagination in envisioning the final building, HKS has a team of four architects dedicated to using UE3 to bring one-third of the company’s annual workload (roughly 60 of 300 projects) to life in glorious, lifelike 3D.

“There’s not much comparison between what we’re doing with Unreal now to how we used to show clients’ projects before,” said Bryan Trubey, Principal and Senior Vice President, HKS. “It’s like comparing a Model T to a space shuttle. We can show so much more in a really comprehensive way so the client can understand what they’re getting, and the message the space is trying to give to anyone who has the fortune to be in it later when they’re built. There’s just no way to do that as effectively as with Unreal technology.”

Cowboy Stadium

Anyone who has been to the trendy W Hotel in downtown Dallas has experienced exactly what that parent company saw when HKS modeled the hotel and the surrounding landscape using Unreal technology. Dallas Cowboys fans will have to wait a few years for Jerry Jones’ new $1 billion stadium to open, but it’s already a reality at HKS thanks to the Unreal engine. The same holds true for the Indianapolis Colts’ $500 million stadium, which opens 2009, and the Liverpool, England Soccer Stadium, which is still in the planning process.

“Unreal technology has been instrumental in selling the Cowboys, Colts and Liverpool projects,” said Trubey. “Epic’s technology allowed us to develop animations and walk-throughs that brought these structures to life in the presentations.”

The masterminds behind HKS’ innovative decision to leave the 2D world of architecture and jump into the 3D realm of gaming were Dave Chauviere, Principal and CIO, HKS, and Pat Carmichael, Manager of Advanced Technologies, HKS. Both men actually first attempted to bring their drawings to life with computers using id Software’s Quake II engine, but that technology just couldn’t handle the tasks.

Cowboy Stadium

Chauviere spent some time roughly translating HKS’ gorgeous Dallas headquarters into a 3D model using Quake II, which his son, Ted, had received for Christmas back in 1997.

“I did this building with all the doors, windows and petitions, and then Quake II just blew up because it couldn’t handle that many polygons,” said Chauviere. “The outside of the building looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. It had a reddish hue to it because I didn’t have any custom environments. It was the first time I experimented with taking game technology to architecture.”

After customizing his home PC with a new Voodoo card and motherboard, a father-son project, Chauviere bought Unreal in 1998 and decided to give that technology a try.

“The differences between the Quake II and Unreal engines were night and day,” said Chauviere. “The HKS building took 17 hours to render lighting with Quake II, which just wasn’t practical. The Unreal Editor was so much faster.”

Cowboy Stadium

Carmichael said they took the same geometry in Unreal Engine as they had rendered in Autodesk 3DS Max and achieved 90 percent of the graphic acuity but it was instant in comparison. Unreal was rendering and writing to disc 10,364 frames an hour compared to 3DS Max’ one frame per hour. The real-time walk-through was running at close to 30 frames per second, compared to 3DS Max’ rendering of approximately one hour per frame. At the time they were doing this, it was pretty revolutionary.

“The order of magnitude that Unreal opens up to us as architects is phenomenal,” said Carmichael. “Architects want every window and door operable and every driveway has to look accurate. I’ve had people walk up to the PC monitor with a color strip to make sure color-matching was dead-on. The light angles for shade and shadow have to be correct for the time of day and location that they tell us.”

As Epic has improved on its Unreal technology, HKS has continued to build its own custom tools that allows its in-house team to translate the 3D models of its building projects seamlessly into the UE3 world, getting the textures and lighting right. Carmichael said that over the next 18 to 24 months, as the company integrates the new Autodesk REVIT technology across all of its projects (this software translates 3D models into 2D drawings), UE3 will be used for real-time visualization for every building.

Over the next few months, 10 HKS employees will be using UE3 technology. Carmichael said the goal is to have all 200 design presenters using UE3 for pitch meetings within two years. HKS is currently working with NVIDIA and Intel to bring PC Express 2 into the fold, which will give Carmichael and his team system memory as well as video memory to bring these complex buildings to life.

“Architects want every detail in the building to be as accurately acute as the real environment as possible,” said Carmichael. “There are thousands of surfaces in a typical building that we do, especially with the scale of buildings that HKS does. We have to have a lot of different texture surfaces simulated in these environments, and it’s a lot of work.”