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Unreal Engine and its Impact on Architectural Visualization

For decades the Unreal Engine has been a bit out of reach for the architectural visualization industry. The good news is, that’s all poised to change.

When most people hear “Unreal Engine” their thoughts shift immediately to large, gun-wielding virtual bad guys and the even larger, gun-wielding virtual good guys who vanquish them. The Unreal Engine was initially developed by video game developer Epic Games for use in the software they were working on in the late 90’s. Since then, Epic has continued to evolve the most oft-used backbone of the video game industry and are now on their 4th generation of the engine that changed everything.

Recently, the Unreal Engine has broken away from its shackles and is no longer tethered solely to the video game software industry. Architects, designers, and 3D artists have started utilizing the capabilities of the Unreal Engine for work on architectural visualizations that offer the most immersive interactive experience available in the industry. You probably won’t win many clients by putting them behind the wheels of a virtual Panzer, but being able to showcase architectural designs in real-time is a game changer - and one that is becoming more common in design offices worldwide.

The architectural visualization industry always moves along a bit further behind the swell of technological innovation. This is as much a result of the cost of implementing the most advanced techniques as it is the jack-of-all trades nature of being an architect. Most firms don’t have the financial resources to hire anyone other than purebred architects, who must understand the many complexities of design and construction in addition to the demands of learning software, and having the free time to implement it.

However, the technology that has been powering the video game industry for decades is finally making its way into design studios because it is becoming cheaper and easier to work with. The newest generation of architects understand this, and have progressed through school with an intimate knowledge of real-time rendering, experiential visualization, and even virtual reality. Also, you no longer need a server room as big as a traveling circus big top to run such resource hungry operations.

Another factor in the emergence of experiential architectural visualization is the ever-ubiquitous Unreal Engine 4. 3D visualization artists are becoming versed in Unreal the same way they’ve become fluent in Rhino, VRAY, and Photoshop. It is quickly becoming the fourth pillar in visualization software, and offering a powerful tool to craft interactive scenes that highlights architectural design and structural ingenuity. By having these capabilities at their fingertips, architects can do less of what they struggle with the most: talk. They can simply sit back in their Eames chairs and watch their clients’ jaws drop under the mat black sheen of an Oculus Rift headset.

Ultimately, that is what the Unreal Engine 4 means to an architecture studio: happy clients and ensured trust. These days, studios and firms don’t have to go out of their way to hire teams of visualization artists. In most cases, they can use services such as Easy Render to bring on artists as they need them, rather than spending the resources to have on in the office at all times. This gives even the most modestly-sized firms the opportunity to produce cutting edge visualization experiences while being able to focus on the thing that matters most: the design.

Taking things even further, Unreal Engine allows visualizations to embed building technology information in a way programs like Revit only dream of. Imagine handing a contractor a virtual reality headset in the comforts of his construction trailer, and having them move around a virtual tour of the unfinished building with information about windows, framing schedules, assemblies, and inspector notes available at the press of a button. It truncates the line of communication between the architect and the builder, offering a streamlined experience that puts even more power in the hands of the designer. The words ‘design intent’ get thrown around architecture studios on an hourly basis, and using Unreal Engine architectural visualizations go a long way to reinforcing that design intent.

As architects and designers discover the untapped potential of real-time rendering, the Unreal Engine will continue to creep its way into studios everywhere. Large firms have been using it for years now, but before long it could be as commonplace as finding a cleverly spread stack of design magazines. This development is a boon for design communication, as architects will be able to rely on technology to power the visualizations that tell the story for them. This means more money and energy is spent on the design, and the end result becomes all the better for it.

10 years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find an architect who could tell you who Epic Games were and why they were so important to their future success. These days, the Unreal Engine represents the next wave of technological advancement in the building design industry. With it, architects will wield the power of imagination and bring their clients (and the public) into the intellectual space they so frequently occupy alone.

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