AEC Leader Turns to Unreal Engine for Interactive Presentations
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 27, 2018 |

Gamers are being introduced to increasingly realistic and immersive environments for what is essentially a fun hobby. Why, then, can’t industry do the same for clients and the public? Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the sheer amount of data associated with complex computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM) projects. Turning a massive assembly or architectural model into an interactive world is time- and labor-intensive.

HNTB has been using Unreal Studio and Unreal Engine to create interactive presentations for AEC. (Image courtesy of HNTB.)
HNTB has been using Unreal Studio and Unreal Engine to create interactive presentations for AEC. (Image courtesy of HNTB.)

For this reason, developers of game engines have begun targeting the industrial space with software capable of easily translating CAD and BIM data to their engines to create more dynamic presentations and virtual environments.

How well do these tools work? To answer this question, spoke to Austin Reed, 3D visualization team lead for HNTB Corporation, who is now using Unreal Studio from Epic Games, makers of Unreal Engine, to create interactive presentations for HNTB’s clients in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) space.

Rendering Interactive Presentations

With offices across the United States, HNTB has designed numerous projects in the AEC and civil engineering space, including roads, bridges, airports, stadiums and railways throughout the country. For this reason, the corporation attempts to be an early adopter of advanced technologies, both in the actual design of projects and how it presents them to clients.

In staying ahead of the emerging trend of interactive presentations and virtual reality, HNTB began to create such dynamic assets using legacy tools that weren’t necessarily designed for turning CAD and BIM data into such interactive content.

“HNTB would create realistic animations in Autodesk 3ds Max and render them with Chaos Group’s V-Ray. Our primary workflow would be to model every object by hand in 3ds Max, generate our vegetation with iToo Software, and use our large render farm to render out thousands of frames at around 15-30 minutes per frame,” Reed said.

HNTB has created a VR experience of the city of Jacksonville, Florida, with the potential to help promote Jacksonville as a “smart city.” (Image courtesy of HNTB.)
HNTB has created a VR experience of the city of Jacksonville, Florida, with the potential to help promote Jacksonville as a “smart city.” (Image courtesy of HNTB.)

To create interactive presentations, however, HNTB had to find a new tool. “We have been using Unreal Engine 4 since it was released to the public,” Reed said. “Our goal when we chose UE4 was it had to be nearly identical to V-Ray. After a few days of playing with Unreal materials and their integration of PBR as well as their lighting system, we knew we could achieve the look our clients have come to expect from us.”

Unfortunately, using UE4 meant “manually importing everything into Unreal.” Before the release of Unreal Studio, this was a cumbersome process.“The manual import was initially hard on us because data placement and object pivot points would need to be specifically placed inside of the original DCC application (3ds Max) or shifted to origin (0,0,0) before being able to be brought properly into Unreal,” Reed said.

Unreal Studio

Given the difficult nature of this process, HNTB became a participant in Epic Games’ beta program for a new tool it called Datasmith, which eventually formed the basis for Unreal Studio. By performing some defeaturing, taking away some complexity, and mapping materials, among other operations, Datasmith made it possible to quickly and automatically convert data for use in UE4.

Unreal Studio builds off of the original Datasmith tool with a number of assets, including 100 substances from Allegorithmic for common architecture and design materials, as well as industry-specific templates for interactivity and VR. Using these assets, it’s possible to more quickly create an interactive experience for AEC or engineering purposes.

“Since the inception of Unreal Studio, we can now import our data into UE4 and know that everything will be aligned and placed exactly where it should be with only a few minor adjustments,” Reed said. “Datasmith allows us to be more flexible with late additions or changes that our client or teams propose because we know we can easily render out the animation in minutes and not hours—or better yet, have the client put on a VR headset and explore their project freely.”

The interior of the proposed Silicon Valley station of California’s high-speed rail. (Image courtesy of HNTB.)
The interior of the proposed Silicon Valley station of California’s high-speed rail. (Image courtesy of HNTB.)

One standout project that has relied on Unreal Studio is the design of a high-speed rail VR experience for the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), as part of CHSRA’s initiative to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles using high-speed rail. For this massive program, HNTB will act as program and construction manager, meaning that it will oversee design, construction, quality management, and many other operations for what will, by 2033, be California’s first high-speed rail system.

To communicate to project stakeholders and others what traveling on high-speed rail is like, including visits to different stations along the route, HNTB worked with Autodesk and WSP. WSP used 3ds Max Interactive to create a VR experience; however, because HNTB uses Unreal, the team had to scrap everything WSP did in 3ds Max Interactive and redo it in Unreal, including the interactive components made via Blueprint in UE4.

“During the actual development of the high-speed rail VR experience, we were able to use Unreal Studio to quickly iterate through several design revisions the architect, Marcy Monroe, noticed while reviewing her design inside of the Unreal Editor, with her working remotely in Oakland and our team in Kansas City,” Reed said.“We would jump back into 3ds Max, make the required revisions, and push them back into Unreal via Datasmith.”

Reed said that both CHSRA and the Governor of California have seen the VR experience, and that it was well received by both. “Unreal Studio has given us a competitive edge because of the speed we can iterate through changes our clients throw at us,” Reed said.“Now that Unreal Studio is available to everyone, it will become less of a competitive edge, but more of a motivation for us to continue to push Unreal in more creative and interactive ways.”

Unreal and the Future of AEC

Though Unreal Studio has advanced since the initial release of the Datasmith tool, it is still in beta. Reed explained that, throughout this entire beta series, Epic Games has been responsive to its users.

“Unreal Studio continues to improve with each release,” Reed said.“Our scenes come across much faster and cleaner than the initial releases we worked with. The ability to go back to our DCC and make an edit to a single object and reload it via Datasmith makes working with Unreal more enjoyable. We really appreciate how the Unreal Enterprise team does a great job of listening to its customers and understanding our pain points and coming up with solutions quickly.”

When Unreal Studio comes out of beta later this year and, perhaps, when other gaming engines follow the trend of industry adoption, it’s possible that more AEC and engineering firms will be able to adopt real-time rendering for various applications. At first, those applications may be limited to presentations and other immersive experiences, but there may also be yet-unthought-of uses as well.

“Architects, engineers and construction firms will be able to use Unreal Engine to create VR and AR tools to better design the buildings and transportation projects of tomorrow,” Reed said.“The major benefit of VR is the ability to visualize ideas in true real-world scale prior to construction. It also helps diminish potential design flaws that might have gone unnoticed in typical 3D renders, animations or blue prints. This ultimately saves money for all companies involved and cuts down on wasted material.”

He also spoke to the way that access to such technologies will affect the overall design process. “Finally, we will see more designers and contractors being able to collaborate virtually in their proposed environments. The design process will become more open and interactive, allowing everyone to share their ideas with each other and helping us achieve safer and more interesting designs moving forward,” Reed added.

To learn more about Unreal Studio, visit the product page. To learn more about HNTB, visit the company website.

Epic Games has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Michael Molitch-Hou

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