Real-time round-up: the metaverse and emerging 2022 trends

Now that we stand on the cusp of the metaverse, we’re at an era-defining crossroads: who will be the architects of this new world?

At Epic, we believe it should be built by all of us, creators included. We’re building an ecosystem of creative tools that are open and accessible to empower everyone to have a stake in the metaverse.

It’s too early to say exactly how the metaverse will take shape, but we see it as a shared social 3D world with persistence, discovery, moderation, and commerce. It will be an evolution of the internet as we know it, and its foundations will be built on real-time 3D technology.

In a recent poll conducted for us by Forrester, 85% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that real-time technology is very important to the future of their company, while 82% share the same level of conviction that the metaverse will expand how they interact with customers.*

In this post, we’ll give you a glimpse at some of the stats from 2021 that reveal a boom in real-time 3D technology adoption, as well as what 2022 might hold in store for the biggest trend in tech.

Building a metaverse ecosystem

An increasing number of people are enjoying virtual worlds in a social context. They’re not just playing games in these worlds—they're experiencing music in new ways, watching films, discovering art, and hanging out with friends.

At Epic, the numbers reflect this. There are now over 500 million Epic Games accounts, with 2.7 billion friend connections across Fortnite, Rocket League, and the Epic Games Store.*

As the appetite for 3D experiences grows, so does the need for creators to build them. We saw a huge uptick in the number of people downloading Unreal Engine last year, with total downloads increasing nearly 40% since the end of 2020.**

While Unreal Engine is the gateway for many creators, the technology sits at the heart of an entire ecosystem of engine-agnostic creative tools and services that are open and accessible for anyone to use. Our vision is that this interconnected hub of applications, platforms, and marketplaces will provide everything creators need to build the virtual worlds of the future.

MetaHuman Creator is a case in point. Revealed last February, this free cloud-based app empowers anyone to create photorealistic digital humans, complete with hair and clothing, in minutes. To date, over one million MetaHumans have been created.*

In July 2021, Epic joined forces with Sketchfab, a platform designed to publish, share, discover, buy and sell 3D, VR, and AR content. Its viewer enables users to display 3D models on the web, to be viewed on any mobile browser, desktop browser, or virtual reality headset. Content creators are making the most of this amazing resource—the number of Sketchfab members recently passed the seven million mark.**

As well as providing open access to tools like MetaHuman Creator and Sketchfab, there are hundreds of thousands of high-quality assets available through the Unreal Engine Marketplace and Quixel Bridge for easy content creation. Unreal Marketplace customers grew by over 50% in 2021.** The top five most-downloaded Marketplace assets, in order, were the Modular Lost Ruins Kit, Defect Ultimate Props Bundle Vol.1, Stylized Forest, Underground Subway, and the Action RPG Multiplayer Starter Template.**

Twinmotion, ArtStation, RealityCapture, the Epic Games Store, and Epic Online Services are some of the other key components that make up the Epic ecosystem. Along with Unreal Engine 5, these creative tools and services will bring people together in collaborative, shared spaces in 2022.

UE5 next-gen games

If you want a taste of the latest and greatest virtual worlds, video games are a good place to start. We’ve already started to see some amazing next-gen games from creators in UE5 Early Access including Black Myth: Wukong, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chernobyl, Dragon Quest 12: The Flames of Fate, and Senua's Saga: Hellblade II.

In fact, 48%* of announced next-gen games are being built on Unreal Engine, and our community scored some huge wins at The Game Awards 2021, with 19 Unreal Engine-powered games nominated across 21 categories. Unreal Engine titles took home nine wins–including Game of the Year.

At the end of 2021, we got a glimpse of what the future of storytelling and entertainment could look like. The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience is a boundary-pushing technical demo set within the world of Warner Bros.' The Matrix.

It starts out with a cinematic that features exceptionally realistic digital humans before morphing into a fast-paced interactive experience of car chases and third-person shooter action. The whole thing takes place in a huge, bustling, and explorable open-world city that—like the simulated world of The Matrix—is incredibly rich and complex.

The experience is a tangible demonstration that UE5 offers all the components you need to build immersive, open-world, ultra-high-fidelity environments. What’s more, it illustrates that the blurring of boundaries between film and games is now a real possibility. True convergence between these two art forms has been speculated upon over the past decades, and technology has finally advanced enough to enable it.

Since its release two months ago, the demo has been downloaded more than six million times across PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. If you’ve not explored it yourself, you can still do so.

Virtual production and in-camera VFX

In 2020, there were fewer than a dozen in-camera visual effects (ICVFX) stages up and running. Today, Epic is aware of more than 250 ICVFX stages across the globe.*

The technologies and workflows that were once the preserve of big studios with multi-million dollar budgets have become democratized, giving rise to a new wave of content creators. Often releasing material on streaming platforms like YouTube, these creators are breaking records and garnering plaudits for their imagination and innovation.

At one time, using real-time technology in film and television production was considered experimental. Now, it’s being adopted across the entire workflow and used for a multitude of content. Real-time workflows are impacting projects at every stage of the creative lifecycle, from conceptual writing and location scouting to production design and final-frame visual effects.

In 2021, there were nearly 1.5 times the number of new film and TV projects using Unreal Engine as in 2020.**

Some of the recent and upcoming blockbuster films that have used Unreal Engine—either for previsualization, stuntvis, virtual location scouting, and art department and/or in-camera visual effects—include Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad, Free Guy, Mortal Kombat Legends: Battle of the Realms, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Dune, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and The Matrix Resurrections, with many more ahead in the 2022 release slate. 

Animation studios around the world have seen the benefits real-time workflows bring to live-action film production for tasks like previs, and capitalized on those advantages in their own pipelines. 

In an animation context, the ability to render frames in fractions of seconds and produce content much faster means you can change your mind without hours or days of re-rendering, make creative decisions on the fly, and iterate to find the best version of your story.

We’re increasingly seeing talented animation studios using Unreal Engine to produce a diverse range of animation styles, with some notable recent projects including Super Giant Robot Brothers, We Will Be Monsters, Yuki 7, and THE EYE: CALANTHEK.

Architecture and automotive real-time innovation

Beyond film and TV, real-time technology continued to have a transformative effect in industries like automotive and architecture. There has been a huge shift in architecture professionals experimenting with Unreal Engine as a rendering platform over the past two years. 50% of survey respondents are now using it, an increase of 60%. Toward the end of last year, Twinmotion downloads reached the one million mark.

We’ve seen a progressive rise in the number of digital twins of cities being created using Unreal Engine. The digital twin plugin and sample project created by WSP and Microsoft that links Microsoft's Azure digital twin hub with Unreal Engine had over 38,000 downloads combined last year.**

In the automotive industry, interest in real-time workflows continues to rise unabated. In our recent poll conducted by Forrester, 78% of auto respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they'd like to use real-time technology for concepting, design, and marketing.*
© 2022 Rivian Automotive, LLC. All rights reserved.
The top five auto brands are working on deep Unreal Engine platform integrations.* The Rivian R1T is now rolling off assembly lines with an Unreal Engine-powered Human-Machine Interface (HMI) driver display, and in 2022, the GMC Hummer EV will hit the streets with Unreal Engine in its digital cockpit. What’s more, forward-thinking automakers like the BMW Group are already embracing the metaverse.

Live events, broadcast, and fashion

Last year, broadcasters worldwide utilized the power of Unreal Engine to deliver engaging and entertaining content. With many live events disrupted due to the pandemic, producers used Unreal Engine to deliver fully virtual events instead, such as the Madison Beer concert and the Tomorrowland festival. Many events that did take place in-person were produced using real-time graphics for on-stage performances, such as the Guns N’ Roses ‘Not In This Lifetime’ tour.

We also saw the fashion industry sashay into the metaverse in 2021, with Balenciaga and Gary James McQueen pioneering new ways to bring haute couture to their fans, along with the rise of new digital-first apparel brands like RTFKT.
Last year, more luxury fashion brands started using virtual production techniques to launch their collections. In the coming year, the industry is set to have something of a virtual production revolution with a number of exciting shows planned that will be powered by game engine technology.

What lies ahead for 2022?

Peering into our crystal ball, we’re anticipating the development of the following key technology trends in the coming year.

Transmedia campaigns—in which brands reuse the same digital assets for multiple marketing activations—and even bring them into the physical world, will increase. We already saw the beginnings of this in 2021 with Balenciaga’s Fortnite crossover experience and Ferrari’s test-drive on the Fortnite island.

Cloud solutions will become a driving force of the real-time 3D revolution. The pandemic of the last few years has precipitated rapid growth in demand for cross-team and cross-border remote collaboration. With Unreal Engine now running on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure, and soon to run on Google Cloud, working on real-time projects from anywhere will become a viable alternative to on-premises content creation.

With people starting to come back together for events in person, we’re likely to see more and more augmented or mixed-reality graphics used to enhance live event content. This type of augmentation is growing in popularity and is increasingly being adopted in sports stadiums to deliver a unique fan engagement experience—as seen with the Carolina Panthers’ impressive spectacle late last year.

We also saw a significant uptake in the use of LED volumes utilizing nDisplay in broadcast studios in 2021, enabling broadcasters to produce content with visual quality normally only seen in Hollywood movies. Expect more of this in the coming year.

Last but not least, the metaverse. Anyone paying attention over the past few months will have seen the headlines. Far more than a buzzword, the metaverse is a tangible prospect, parts of which already exist.

In 2022, we’ll see the concept of the metaverse continue to develop. At Epic, we’re bringing together the technology, tools and services for creators to make amazing experiences. Empowered by this creative arsenal, we believe everyone can play a part in building beautiful, dynamic, socially connected worlds.

*A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Epic Games. Data correct as of January 2022
**Data from period January 1 to December 31, 2021

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