July 18, 2016

Unreal Engine 4 Summits Mount Everest

By John Gaudiosi

Just over 4,000 people have successfully scaled Mount Everest, which at over 29,000 feet is the world’s highest mountain. Now anyone can summit the challenging peak without making the expensive trek to Nepal, thanks to developer Solfar’s Everest VR. And Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 is bringing every nook and cranny of the famous mountain to life in virtual reality.
The virtual reality experience takes a real-life experience that spans eight weeks and easily can cost over $100,000, and focuses on the key moments of the climb. The experience, which lasts a little less than an hour, begins with preparations at base camp before traversing the Khumbu Icefalls, scaling Lhotse Face, ascending the Hillary Step, and finally conquering the summit. 


“While it´s certainly true that you could record locations like Everest with a 360 camera, the resulting experience is a static, passive video experience that just doesn´t do justice to the inherent promise of VR,” Thor Gunnarsson, co-founder and business development director at Solfar, said. “By using a cutting-edge game engine like UE4 to recreate a synthetic 3D scene that you can actually interact with and move through, the experience comes to life. You feel truly present in the simulation. That´s what we want to bring with Everest VR.”

Gunnarsson said Everest VR pushes the envelope of real-time graphics. Using advanced stereophotogrammetry techniques, the Icelandic studio has created the definitive CGI model of Everest for high-end VR platforms. 

“Unreal Engine was instrumental in the creation of Everest VR in so many ways,” Gunnarsson said. “From its advanced rendering engine that allows us to deliver a near photo-real scene at 90 frames per second to its Blueprint visual scripting language that allowed our designers to prototype and iterate on the VR user experience without relying on a team of programmers, Unreal fundamentally accelerated our speed of development. And with a much smaller team than we would otherwise have needed if we had used other engines, or attempted to create our own.”

Running on Nvidia‘s GeForce GTX Titan X GPU at trade shows such as Game Developers Conference and E3, the experience churns through over 300,000 high resolution images of the mountain range. Solfar created a highly detailed 3D point cloud of the whole Everest area and then generated a 3D mesh and textures made to measure for the demands of a real-time VR application.

Unlike other virtual reality experiences like Crytek’s The Climb, Gunnarsson said his team focused on hand controllers like Oculus Touch, PlayStation Move, and the HTC Vive controllers to design the experience around.

“Gripping ascenders to hold onto the safety ropes as you walk across a ladder on the Khumbu Icefall, clipping onto a safety rope as you traverse a narrow ledge to reach the Hilary Step and climb it, or adjusting your oxygen flow to avoid hypoxia in the Death Zone are all key aspects of the experience, and require your hands to make it feel real,” Gunnarsson said. “We have UI solutions for a conventional game controller, which we may include for future releases, but for now we´re really focused on a VR experience that takes full advantage of hand controllers and on Vive, of room-scale tracking.”

Everest VR was designed with realism as a key pillar. Before embarking on development, Solfar spent time with RVX, the Reykjavik-based visual effects and animation studio responsible for the visual effects in Baltasar Kormákur´s Everest, which Universal Pictures released last September. RVX had real experience from the mountain, shooting high resolution photos that Solfar felt could be used to create a 3D scene in VR using stereo photogrammetry, a technique that uses actual photos to calculate the underlying geometry and applies those photographs to the resulting model as texture maps.

“That´s how we were able to achieve the photorealistic visual fidelity seen in the project,” Gunnarsson said. “The rest was a matter of doing as much research of the actual experience as we could, speaking with both climbers here in Iceland and people who have actually summited Everest. Dean Hall (designer of Arma 2 and DayZ) was a great help last spring when he visited Iceland, and was kind enough to share from his experiences of summiting Everest. He´s definitely the only game designer I know who has.”

But Solfar has an experienced ice climber and mountaineer in-house to collaborate with. The game’s lead animator, Óðinn Árnason, was instrumental in developing the more technical aspects of the gear used in mountaineering. 

“The rest we picked up from conversations with climbers and sharing some or our design ideas for their feedback,” Gunnarsson said. “We´ll continue to solicit that kind of expert feedback as Everest VR becomes available on the HTC Vive, which will hopefully continue to guide the quality of future updates on Vive and delivery to other VR platforms later this year.”

The Everest VR demo that Solfar has been showcasing at trade shows is truly impressive. Anyone with a fear of heights will find their knees wobbling as they look around the photorealistic terrain from an altitude that passenger planes normally navigate. It’s one thing to watch a movie or documentary about Everest, it’s quite another to feel like you’re actually there. 

“Virtual reality is uniquely able to immerse people in natural environments that they would otherwise never dream of experiencing in reality,” Gunnarsson said. “Everest is one of those destinations. By recreating key moments of the climbing experience in a first person immersive and interactive setting with near photo-real visual fidelity, we felt we could deliver a meaningful glimpse of this dream.”

Gunnarsson said his team has invested a lot of time in finding the right balance between creating an accurate simulation that was also accessibility. He hopes Everest VR will be one of the experiences virtual reality owners use to showcase this new technology to friends and family.

“Maintaining verisimilitude is important, but at the same time we're not setting out to create a hiking simulator or highly technical mountaineering game,” Gunnarsson said. “The trick is to find that balance. We give players a series of key experiences that really evoke those key moments of an expedition, and do this in a fashion that is faithful to the emotional experience climbers have of the mountain. Hopefully, we've done a reasonable job of striking that balance and delivering an experience that is awe-inspiring, but also fun. Unless you suffer badly from vertigo that is; there’s no guarantee of fun in that case.”

Gunnarsson said while the first-person perspective sequences deliver that critical sense of presence, his team is also creating a unique diorama mode that allows players to stand high above the mountain in VR and zoom into multiple levels of detail across the mountain range. 

“By exploring different climbing routes used to reach the summit, we aim to convey an understanding of some of the historical expeditions and dramatic stories that Everest has witnessed over the decades,” Gunnarsson said.