Interactive AEC Data Becomes Unreal with Unreal Studio
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on March 06, 2018 |

Though high resolution images and videos can communicate architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) projects in vivid detail, there’s just something about interacting with a digital object that makes it that much more tangible. The physical world around us is interactive, so why shouldn’t our media be?

ItooSoft’s RailClone and ForestPack Pro are converted into appropriate UE4 assets. (Image courtesy of Epic Games.)
ItooSoft’s RailClone and ForestPack Pro are converted into appropriate UE4 assets. (Image courtesy of Epic Games.)

Well, creating interactive media from CAD, building information modeling (BIM) or other file types meant for fabrication in the real world isn’t so easy. The worlds of CAD and BIM don’t occupy the same space as software made for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and other interactive media types.

However, with the realization that technologies like AR and VR likely better serve an industrial audience than a consumer one, we’re starting to see an increasing amount of overlap between interactive media and CAD. Here to drive that trend is Epic Games, makers of the Unreal game engine.

The company has just announced the open beta for Unreal Studio, a new software that helps bring interactivity to CAD and other industrial data. To learn more, spoke to Marc Petit, General Manager of Unreal Engine Enterprise at Epic Games.

Interactivity in CAD

Viewing and rotating a 3D architectural model is useful, but becoming fully immersed in a model provides an even richer experience. Most CAD tools, however, don’t make touring a model an intuitive and engaging experience. Even powerful BIM viewers can’t be described as all that interactive. In contrast, gaming engines are designed for a high degree of interactivity.

Petit pointed out that the use of gaming engines in industries such as AEC is on the rise. For instance, a recent report from CGarchitect found that 20 percent of the over 2,000 visualization experts surveyed use Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) in production and that it is the most highly used real-time solution in architectural visualization.

As Epic Games learned of the increasing use of its real-time rendering software in this space in December 2016, the company began speaking with AEC users to better understand how Unreal could be improved to fit their needs.

“They said they’re doing it because it’s worth it, but that it’s so painful because it’s hard to get the data into the engine. They also have to relearn a new material system and a new lighting system,” Petit said. “So, often those people run low-margin service businesses and it was not really scalable.” 

In May 2017, the company announced an open beta program with its Datasmith toolkit, which makes it possible to take data from packages like Autodesk 3ds Max and use it in UE4. To convert the data “automagically,” as Petit said, Datasmith performs some de-featuring, taking away some complexity, maps materials and executes other operations before it can work viably in the game engine. As a result, the overhead needed for data preparation is eliminated.

In the video below, you can see an architecture project visualized in 3ds Max converted for Unreal. The task of manually converting the data would have normally taken four weeks, but with Datasmith, the process is performed in just one day.

A total of 15,000 people registered for the beta and 76 percent said that they would use the tool in production, once it was out of beta. Well, it’s not quite out of beta, but it has been spun off into its own software. With Unreal Studio, the Datasmith toolkit is combined with a number of other tools to create a solution that enables users to painlessly apply CAD data in an interactive environment.

Unreal Studio

In addition to Datasmith, the heart and soul of the software, Unreal Studio will also feature a number of assets, including 100 substances from Allegorithmic for common architecture and design materials, as well as industry-specific templates. This will make it possible for users to more quickly create an interactive experience using their AEC or manufacturing assets. 

The import dialog in Unreal Studio working with interior design work created by Litrix. (Image courtesy of Epic Games.)
The import dialog in Unreal Studio working with interior design work created by Litrix. (Image courtesy of Epic Games.)

“If you bring an engine or a motorbike into Unreal Studio and you’re an engineer wanting to do design reviews, we kind of know how you want to interact with the CAD data: you want to take things apart, look through a part, measure features, etc.,” Petit explained. “We provide templates for that. We’ve done the same for architecture. We provide templates with all of the setups you need to navigate your building in VR already made for you.”

The templates are all modified using Unreal’s visual scripting editor, Blueprint. Because there’s no scripting, the software is entirely visual, though it’s possible to look at the source code, learn from it and customize it.

Scripting and Python are used to organize, optimize and clean up geometry with scripted workflows. (Image courtesy of Epic Games.)
Scripting and Python are used to organize, optimize and clean up geometry with scripted workflows. (Image courtesy of Epic Games.)

“Datasmith gets the data into Unreal Studio in the right form. You make it look good using the Allegorithmic materials. Then, with our templates, you kind of create the interaction and application that you need,” Petit said.

The type of interactivity possible with Datasmith is shown in the video below, which was filmed during Unreal’s presentation at SIGGRAPH last year. Twinmotion demonstrates a tool in which an airport environment can be manipulated to show changes in weather, people, time of day and more.

It’s essential for those in the AEC industry to be able to work with BIM and other data. Templates will include some of the most requested features at launch, but will grow as users provide feedback on them. In the meantime, those familiar with 3ds Max, such as a firm’s visualization specialist, should be comfortable tweaking the templates to meet their needs. Through the tool’s metadata pipeline, any information that isn’t directly incorporated into a template is still accessible via scripting.

HOK Architects Worldwide, Esri R&D Center Zurich and Epic Games showcased how such data can be incorporated into an urban planning application. In the video below, the team members illustrate how over 25,000 objects and 100 million polygons are exported from Esri’s CityEngine into Unreal using Datasmith. Photoreal information related to a cityscape is combined with smartcode data, which can be used to highlight various neighborhoods. The real-time rendering of Unreal then makes it possible to populate a city in order to convey the urban planner’s design story to stakeholders.

While Revit has built-in solutions for interactive content and VR, including the Twinmotion example shown above, Unreal Studio also uses mechanical data with similar real-time rendering as architectural models. Epic Games was able to take a motorbike fully modeled in SOLIDWORKS and translate it into a VR environment, where parts can be exploded to show how the pieces fit together and interact with each other.

To further aid users new to Unreal, tutorials related to Unreal Engine fundamentals and industry-focused training materials have also been released with Unreal Studio. Community discussion boards and one-on-one ticketed support are included in the beta as well.

Unreal Studio will be available as a free open beta until at least November 1, at which point Epic Games plans to make it available for $49 per license per month. To sign up for the beta, visit the Unreal Studio site. You can also watch a webinar unveiling of the software here.

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