Exposing the World’s First Autonomous Race Car with Unreal Engine
Michael Alba posted on January 27, 2020 |
A look at how AltSpace developed their interactive application for Robocar.

Epic Games has sponsored this post.

Rendering of the Roborace Robocar. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)
Rendering of the Roborace Robocar. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)

Engineers, architects and other professionals are finding increasing value in visualization. Realistic 3D renders are a highly effective way to showcase a design, but static images may be falling out of favor. Interactive 3D experiences go one step further to bringing a design to life. Perhaps the quickest way to produce these experiences is by using a game engine.

Game engines, such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, have stepped out of their initial domain and found a warm welcome from the architecture and engineering community. That’s because these engines offer an easy way to set up 3D environments and add custom functionality. Imagine a video game where your goal is to walk around a realistic model of a race car to study its design—press X to pop the hood or Y to ghost the chassis. Sure, it’s not Fortnite, but it’s a powerful way to serve a professional need.

To demonstrate the ease and utility of this process, engineering.com has released a four-part series on Unreal Engine for Engineers. Now, this article will present an example of engineers using game engines in the wild. Here’s how AltSpace, a professional visualization firm, recently used Unreal Engine to create an interactive 3D touch table presentation for the world’s first autonomous race car.

Roborace and Robocar

Roborace is a novel evolution of motor racing that takes the driver out of the race car. Instead, Roborace puts software in the driver’s seat with the goal of creating the world’s first autonomous race car championship. The contestants aren’t adrenaline-fueled drivers, but rather caffeine-fueled software engineers.

To keep things on an even playing field, Roborace contestants all use the same vehicle, computing hardware and base API. The only variable is how the teams implement their autonomous driving algorithms, which control a custom car called Robocar. The world’s first purpose-built autonomous race car, Robocar’s sleek and aerodynamic form looks like it was cribbed from a science fiction movie. That’s no coincidence: Robocar’s designer, automotive futurist Daniel Simon, has designed vehicles for Hollywood sci-fi movies such as Oblivion and Tron: Legacy.

Robocar is the world’s first purpose-built autonomous race car. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)
Robocar is the world’s first purpose-built autonomous race car. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)

To help stir up interest in Robocar, Roborace wanted to create an interactive experience that invited viewers to peek under the hood of the autonomous race car. They turned to AltSpace, a professional visualization firm based in London and Moscow, to develop a touch table presentation of Robocar.

“The creators of the first autonomous racing car series in history were looking for a competent contractor passionately committed to motorsport, which they found in the face of our team,” said AltSpace CEO Igor Voloshchuk. “The task was to create a touch table application for events which would acquaint the viewers with the car’s secrets: its inner essence, implemented innovations, and principles of work.”

The Robocar Touch Table

With a team of professionals skilled in engineering, physics, architecture, programming, art, modeling and more, AltSpace and its “will to merge high-end graphics with innovative engineering” was a natural fit to design the Robocar touch table.

Robocar designer Daniel Simon interacting with the Robocar touch table. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)
Robocar designer Daniel Simon interacting with the Robocar touch table. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)

To develop its computer graphics projects, AltSpace relies on a variety of software tools. The company uses Autodesk 3ds Max for scene set up, animation, rigging and polygonal modeling for soft bodies such as car seats, wires and tubings; Corona Renderer for shading and rendering; and Autodesk Fusion 360 for hard-surface CAD modeling. To tie it all together and add interactivity to their projects, AltSpace uses Unreal Engine 4.

“Using Unreal Engine has played a crucial role in AltSpace’s development and opened an opportunity for creating touch table apps for Roborace as well as Formula E,” commented the company.

AltSpace relied heavily on Unreal Engine to develop the interactivity needed for the Robocar touch table. Working closely with Simon in parallel with his design of Robocar, AltSpace completely recreated Robocar in digital form from sketches, models, drawings and photographs. Since the application needed to show off every aspect of Robocar, the digital recreation needed to be both comprehensive and photorealistic.

A look inside Robocar with AltSpace’s touch table application. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)
A look inside Robocar with AltSpace’s touch table application. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)

“The touch table application allows studying the entire car layer by layer,” AltSpace explained. “The observer can break down the car and study all its engineering projections: a general overview, an engineering view of the chassis, the drive train, all the way to the NVIDIA processor which is a collection of all the sensors.”

The app underwent three iterations over a period of ten months, with AltSpace developing custom pipelines to maintain the quality of the graphics alongside the interactivity provided by Unreal Engine. In the final application, users can quickly switch between viewing modes of the Robocar, seeing it at the top level or unveiling the systems underneath. This interactivity was programmed within Unreal Engine using the built-in Blueprints visual scripting language.

“We see technologies such as Unreal Engine as effective tools for creativity that act as a platform for us to create picturesque yacht, space, architectural and motorsport projects,” said Yaroslav Goglev, Tech Lead at AltSpace.

Here’s a video that showcases AltSpace’s CAD modeling process during a similar project for Formula E, the electric vehicle racing championship where Roborace got its start:

Realer Realism

The Robocar touch table application was a success both for Roborace and AltSpace, who won second place in the manufacturing category of the debut Unreal Awards. As the visualization company moves onto exciting new projects, it’s doing its best to keep up with exciting new visualization technologies such as real-time ray tracing, a rendering technique that can achieve extreme photorealism.

Progressive stages in CAD modeling for Robocar. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)
Progressive stages in CAD modeling for Robocar. (Image courtesy of AltSpace.)

“Real-time ray tracing is the graphic feature that we are currently looking into. We are improving our skills at working with it while integrating it into the projects made on Unreal Engine and moving the image even closer to realism,” AltSpace noted.

To learn more about AltSpace or see the company’s 2019 showreel, visit altspace.com. For more information on Unreal Engine, or to download the software, go to unrealengine.com.

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