February 16, 2011

HumanSim: Virtual Heroes Makes Serious Games

By John Gaudiosi

RALEIGH, NC--Raleigh, NC - Virtual Heroes is serious about videogames. The company, which was instrumental in developing many of the vehicles, weapons, and training applications for the U.S. Army’s _America’s Army_ game, has expanded its reach from military to health applications with the development of HumanSim. Powering the technologies of these serious games is Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3, which Virtual Heroes has been using since 2004.

“We’re taking Unreal Engine 3 to places it’s never been before,” said Jerry Heneghan, Virtual Heroes founder. “Unreal technology allows us to create high-fidelity virtual worlds that offer instruction but are fun, immersive, and engaging to play. It’s hard to create top-tier serious games, but Epic’s technology makes our job easier. Our agreement with Epic enables us to provide our clients with the most advanced interactive technology at a price point that works for our market niche. We can also license Epic's Unreal Engine technology to the U.S. Government for them to create serious and/or educational games within the government itself. This is a huge leap forward for advancing serious games.”

Serious games are one of the fastest-growing segments within four markets: commercial games for entertainment, learning simulations, “serious games,” and virtual worlds for collaboration, which are all still growing at exponential rates. The Serious Games Initiative, a Washington-based effort that works to develop and track the field of serious games, currently estimates that the market for serious games is $100 million, and predicts that it will grow to be a billion-dollar market within the next decade.


Heneghan said the power of Unreal Engine 3 has allowed his team of developers, which includes scientists, Hollywood veterans, educators, instructional designers, and game makers, to focus on other aspects of the game. “We have other problems to solve besides rendering, networking, multi-core CPU/GPU usage, user interface, and level scripting. Epic ensures we are using the latest state-of-the-art technologies built into Unreal Engine 3, and they provide an awesome support network to help make us efficient,” explained Heneghan. “Unreal enables us to focus on linking learning objectives to demonstrable performance parameters in the context of 3D learning scenarios while providing a meaningful assessment on the learner’s proficiency.”

“From a technology standpoint, Unreal Engine 3 is a big advantage because of the amount of people who are working with it,” said Virtual Heroes' technical director. “With everyone from artists, level designers, programmers and the mod community developing on it, if you run into a problem, it’s likely already been fixed by someone else. You can look up information online. It’s not just the rendering technology. It’s the tool palette and the ease of production that the Unreal Developer Network provides. Other engines don’t have that at all.”

Virtual Heroes has worked with and is working with a variety of government and commercial health-industry clients, including Duke University Medical Center, George Washington University Medical Center, National Institutes of Health (NIH), Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Durham Veteran’s Administration Hospital, the Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), Kaiser Permanente, NeuroCog, and nContact Surgical.


The HumanSim technology offers both a civilian and military dimension. It combines the most advanced digital game technology (Unreal Engine 3) with a high-fidelity, physiologic-pharmacological model for unprecedented experiential learning. Virtual Heroes plans to build upon the introduction of HumanSim with the development of a portfolio of realistic, engaging, medically accurate, professionally certified simulators suitable for training civilian and military medical personnel.

Heneghan added that Unreal Engine 3 also makes it easier to attract top talent to his studio in North Carolina. Students in schools are now being exposed to Unreal as part of the curriculum, especially since the release of the free Unreal Development Kit (UDK). They’re able to get their hands on Unreal Engine 3 mods before stepping foot into the workplace. And that’s great news new for this growing organization, because the serious games sector is rapidly expanding and new clients are eager to take learning simulations, serious games, virtual worlds, and interactive visualization to the next level.