© Kengo Kuma & Associates

Game dev meets archviz in innovative interactive virtual gallery

April 19, 2021
Kengo Kuma and Associates (KKAA) is an architectural design office run by award-winning Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Based in Tokyo, KKAA focuses not only on creating 3D CAD perspective drawings for presentation—it has an in-house CG team for just this purpose—but also on producing videos and interactive content. One such project, Multiplication, is a real-time interactive journey through a virtual gallery and a fantastical structure. 

To produce Multiplication, KKAA worked with historia, Inc., a software developer that specializes in solutions based on Unreal Engine. While historia's main business is game projects, its Enterprise division handles non-game projects in the automotive, architecture, and broadcast industries. 

The video below shows a sample journey through the interactive space of Multiplication. You can also download the executable experience from the historia website.

The Multiplication project was a true collaboration between the two companies. KKAA handled the planning, concept art, display design, 3D modeling, base lighting, and prototype of the walkthrough, while historia set the specifications, implemented the program, refined the graphics, added sound, optimized the scene, and produced the promotional video.

We caught up with KKAA and historia to ask them about how this unique exhibition came to be.

Tell us how Multiplication came to be a virtual project.

In 2020, we were working on a touring exhibition of Kuma Kengo's works, scheduled to show in several museums. This exhibition was to include some virtual components like videos and a VR experience created with Unreal Engine. So we had already begun working with Unreal Engine at that point.

In the meantime, we planned to submit a work to LIXIL gallery in Ginza, Tokyo for their recurring "Future of Creation" exhibition, something that was intended to be viewed live. KKAA had participated in this exhibition several times before, but this time, the gallery became unavailable to the public due to the current world circumstances. So, we decided we would still contribute to LIXIL gallery, but the contribution would become virtual, and we would create it with Unreal Engine.
© Kengo Kuma & Associates
We had gained a certain momentum from creating the Kuma Kengo Exhibition with Unreal Engine, so we were in a good position to make Multiplication virtual as well. We were also excited by the idea that, by going virtual with our LIXIL gallery contribution, more people would be able to experience it.
© Kengo Kuma & Associates
Since Multiplication was completed, we also finished assembling the Kuma Kengo exhibition which was held at The Museum of Art, Kochi in November, 2020 and also at Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum from January to March 2021. It will also be held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo from June to September 2021.

Tell us about the concepts behind Multiplication

Once we decided Multiplication would be a digital experience, we aimed to make it something that would be possible only through digital means, something users could interact with virtually, to build and construct and deconstruct themselves.
© Kengo Kuma & Associates
We found it was difficult to build the interactive elements using only in-house resources. We knew of historia because we often visited their blog to learn about Unreal Engine. We chose to collaborate with them in the hope that there would be a kind of "chemical reaction" that would expand what we could achieve with our own knowledge alone.

historia: When we were invited to collaborate with KKAA, we were so excited. Most of our architectural work is just visualizing architectural drawings, and this project was so much more. Since we also produce games, we were confident that our know-how would contribute to the project.

What are some of the benefits of presenting a design with Unreal Engine? 

The biggest advantage of Unreal Engine is that it can express spatial sequences. The fundamental architectural experience is "freely walking around in space," with each visitor seeing the space differently. This is what we hoped to achieve with the digital representation, too.
© Kengo Kuma & Associates
historia: We incorporated expressional devices into Multiplication so that people experiencing the work could become absorbed into its world―videos triggered at certain times, background music that flows softly in the space, sound effects of footsteps that play when you walk. The UI uses minimal and subtle effects, designed to immerse rather than distract.

To push the experience to one that only a digital representation could provide, we added an aspect where the user is actively constructing the space through their own operation. All of these mechanisms were implemented with the help of Blueprint scripts, and with shaders created in the Material Editor. 
© Kengo Kuma & Associates
Perhaps most importantly, Unreal Engine solved the problem of the tight timeline. If we had not used Unreal Engine to make the development process fast, we could not have raised the quality of the content to what we were actually able to achieve.

Are there any specific tools in Unreal Engine that you found to be particularly useful?

First, Blueprint. We are not programmers, but with Blueprint we can control most movements without knowing any programming. 

historia: Us, too. We often work on short deadlines, and it’s vital to be able to swiftly create content with Blueprint, even if you already know how to program in C++.
© Kengo Kuma & Associates
KKAA: And tools related to landscape creation are very useful. We create buildings with DCC tools, but it's great that we can quickly create surrounding environments, especially natural environments, within Unreal Engine. It's also quite advantageous to us that the Quixel library is available for free. I really hope that such tools will continue to have their functionality expanded. 

Also, I'm really looking forward to Nanite and Lumen in Unreal Engine 5. We expect both of them to be of great help when creating complex architectural expressions.

historia: Another useful feature of Unreal Engine is that, through the Level Editor or Material Editor, artists can work intensively on refining the quality without any help from engineers. This type of environment is the most important thing of all for artists. This feature tends to be recognized as natural and usual if being used routinely, but actually, it’s amazing! 

And we are paying close attention to Nanite and Lumen, as well. They are likely to have a large impact on the way we create content in the future.

Did you discover anything new, collaborating with different industries this time?

The most important thing in this project was making sure the dynamic space construction would be a pleasant experience when played. So we were glad to get a proposal combined with professional insights from Unreal Engine experts at historia, created in relation to our concept and image of that movement from our architectural perspective.
Particularly, we were happily surprised at how the sounds of footsteps and building materials added to the experience. Through this, we were reminded that sound arises naturally in physical architectural spaces, and thus is one of the important elements for immersive spatial experiences. 

In addition to that, we were impressed with historia’s materials and lighting setups, which optimized the rendering load in such a way that many people could play simultaneously without compromising visual quality. These points were very helpful to us in learning to create our own interactive content.

historia: For us, we were able to work with a leading architectural studio, and gain firsthand knowledge of how they deal with architectural design. For the abstract space, KKAA provided us with the shapes and images of the essential concept, and then we programmed their movements and some of the arrangements. Through this process, we were able to understand that the buildings that KKAA works on are created not from the details, but from a very essential image. This was a stimulating experience because it is rare to put such a deep intention into each building in game production.
© Kengo Kuma & Associates
Will you present more works in this way? 

We are thinking of incorporating a lot of cinematic and game-like elements into future architectural presentations. To achieve this, it is necessary to actively collaborate with other companies. We will be able to create better works if we mix a wider range of technologies and people. 
If we work with historia again, we would like to create a work using a medium that more people can access, such as a smartphone application or VR content.

historia: Next time, we would definitely like to create a VR experience, preferably one specific to interactive content in the VR space, such as the abstract space of Multiplication. We, who usually make things in virtual spaces, tend to incorporate elements of the real world so that users can perceive each object as real, but we usually create games in virtual environments where you have no limitation of reality. The inspiration of working with KKAA is the expectation that we can produce a new VR experience with them, as it is just between the real world and the virtual world.

KKAA: So far, CG in the architecture industry has had a role supporting real architecture. It's like a communication tool to create better architecture. Of course that will continue, but at the same time, the concept of "space" is now being expanded. We guess there will be a day when "designing virtual spaces" with no accompanying physicality will form a new industry. Currently, the game industry is leading such a genre, but if we could enter the business with the knowledge we have developed as an architectural design office, that movement would be in an interesting direction.

historia: The creativities of our two companies fit together. With this interactive content, you can even experience the art concept of architecture. We guess this type of content has rarely existed in the world.

Having the common language of Unreal Engine has made this collaboration possible. With increased usage of Unreal Engine, we really look forward to the new values embodied by Multiplication being seen more and more in the world.


‘Multiplication’ project team members are Tomohiro Matsunaga, Yuya Mori, Shuntaro Tsuchie, and Shiho Yoo (KKAA) and Shun Sasaki, Makoto Kobayashi, Kenichi Makaya, and Taisei Katahira (historia).

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