Takenaka is Japan's largest architecture, engineering and construction firm, having built landmark structures such as the Tokyo Tower, the Tokyo Dome, the Fukuoka Dome and the Kobe Meriken Park Oriental Hotel, among others. This is the story of what convinced Takenaka to adopt UDK as a tool for architectural visualization.
Tracing its roots back to the year 1610, Takenaka Corporation is one of Japan's leading major general contractors with a history rich in tradition that spans over four centuries. Boasting a progressive spirit, Takenaka has conveyed the ancient traditions of shrine and temple building into the current age, while also adapting quickly to Western architecture at the beginning of Japan's modernization in the late 1800's. Now, thanks to the pairing of a company of Takenaka's pedigree with UDK, a revolution is about to begin in the presentation of architectural design.
During the design of large-scale construction projects such as building complexes, hospitals, or schools, it is imperative that architects provide their client with a clear image of the finished product. Until recently, this kind of presentation has generally been conducted using blueprints, relief models or a type of CG imagery known as parsing. In the past few years, following advancements in PC performance, virtual reality presentations emerged. These allow architecture to be designed in 3D spaces that provide interior access and enable viewers to feel as if they are actually on the scene. However, due to a lack of expressive capability, this technology initially failed to render images consistent with actual construction or equal with parsing in terms of attractive appeal.
Takashi Katagiri, manager of Takenaka Corporation's Office of Design Management, had held high hopes for the possibilities offered by VR presentations, only to be disappointed by the low level of expression realized. After working with architecture presentations for the company for almost 30 years, Mr. Katagiri was searching for a new method — one that could build the structures drawn on blueprints in virtual spaces that users could move through freely using a graphics quality so advanced it could be mistaken for the real thing. The answer he found was in video game technology.
"The quality of graphics found in games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 was at a much higher level than what we had seen in VR presentations," said Mr. Katagiri. "After conducting all kinds of research, we realized that we should also be able to render designs at a cutting-edge level of quality using what is commonly known as a game engine. Although there are many kinds of game engines, we chose the Unreal Engine due to its track record, visibility and high quality performance. Because we were basically starting from square one, it was also a big plus that we could download UDK for free and try it out ourselves."
Mr. Katagiri organized a special team to put UDK to the task of creating a VR presentation for a hospital project that happened to be waiting in the wings. This particular design was for the construction of a new hospital ward adjacent to an existing one. The team had three main areas of concern: (1) ensuring that the flow of construction vehicles did not endanger inpatients and outpatients; (2) avoiding procedures that might cause stress to patients during the construction period; and (3) preserving and/or transplanting rows of trees located on the hospital grounds. Designing a VR presentation with UDK made it possible to realistically depict the old ward surrounded by trees and flowers, express changes in the landscape in real-time, and to follow the progress in the construction and flow of work vehicles. Producing a graphics quality on a par with next-generation game consoles and incorporating a feature allowing users to move to any vantage point in real-time, the team could freely select a series of time and check the view from a hospital window of their choice.
While working on the hospital project, Mr. Katagiri also initiated the rendering of Takenaka Corporation's Tokyo headquarters in VR. He did this to raise awareness of the effectiveness of UDK-built VR presentations within the company — to help everyone recognize that this was a vital presentation tool to be used from now on. He believed the most persuasive way to establish this technology would be to express the design of a building all employees were familiar with.
"The entrance to our Tokyo Main Office is designed in a way that fully reflects the style and attention to detail possessed by Takenaka employees. By rendering the front of the building in VR to demonstrate the expressive power of this technology, I was sure that all of my co-workers would understand," explained Mr. Katagiri.
For reference, please see Takenaka Corporation’s Tokyo Main Office
The actual production work was done by two employees over the span of roughly one week. Mr. Katagiri, himself, walked around the inside of the building carrying a microphone to record automatic doors, elevators, and other sounds in the area surrounding the reception desk and then enter this data into the VR demo.
"When we started the production work, we were especially grateful for all of the Lightmass features," Mr. Katagiri said. "Until now, it has been difficult to adjust light sources because you have to burn them into models using a program such as Max. But with UDK, you can use an editor to make adjustments and watch the results in real-time. It also required a lot of hard work to realistically express a wide range of other architectural elements in CG, such as reflective and semi-transmissive surfaces and coarse and uneven walls. However, with UDK, it is a great help that we can now use the material editor to organize different materials visually. Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) is also very useful in that it allows a small team to create realistic images. Even if we don’t have a full-time designer at our production site, we only have to set a model and it will express depth for us."
The technology employed by the Unreal Engine has been honed and polished to create video game fantasy worlds that feel real. The fact that this toolset is now being used in architecture presentations to replicate the real world through CG invites the unusual impression that reality and fantasy have somehow merged together.
Although born out of an imaginary world, industry professionals now recognize that this game engine can be used effectively in the very real world of construction. Judging from an example such as this, it appears likely that the Unreal Engine will be used in a wide range of other fields in the future.
Mr. Katagiri told us, "Even when we first tried using UDK to create a presentation, it was nowhere near as difficult as I imagined. It took almost no time at all for us to put together a working model. I do feel that it would be challenging to master the entire wealth of features it possesses, but I now know that we can use UDK to render high quality VR even across a short production schedule. In the future, I would like to identify other effective applications for UDK, such as introducing augmented reality elements and devising features that work in tandem with building information management systems and planning data."