When Epic Games’ Unreal Engine emerged in 1998 as an engine for the first-person shooter video game Unreal, it was lauded as a breakthrough in the field thanks to its power and portability. Twenty-two years later, that same technology is being used to create lifelike backgrounds in feature films and television, and is even revolutionizing the automotive industry. But how is technology that once powered 3D gaming advancing the world of cars and transportation?
That’s one of the topics Unreal Engine’s video series, The Pulse, will cover in an episode hosted by Jalopnik editor-in-chief Rory Carroll launching on October 20. But to dig a little deeper before it debuts, we spoke to Doug Wolff, Business Development Manager for Unreal Engine Enterprise with a focus on the manufacturing sector. “That’s a lot of words,” he admits, “but in a nutshell it means I help large automotive companies on-board Unreal Engine and use it to solve complex problems of their business.”
Because Unreal Engine was originally used to build video games, it excels in two major ways: creating interactive 3D experiences quickly, and being extremely adaptable. “If you mix these two principles,” Wolff explains, “Unreal Engine provides a very compelling mechanism for automotive companies to visualize and evaluate any kind of data.” This gives designers, marketers, and consumers more power across the entire auto industry.
When you think of traditional car design, you likely imagine a giant hunk of clay being carefully sculpted into a car. And while clay is still the go-to medium for automotive design, Unreal Engine has emerged as a useful augmentation to the classic method. Clay is an expensive and relatively slow process, but with Unreal Engine designers can do some crucial pre-concepting. “You can fast-fail some ideas and make sure only the best get chosen to be made into clay,” says Wolff. “You can use augmented and virtual reality with Unreal to actually project ideas onto the clay … You can visualize how the car moves and behaves, how the systems interact with the driver.” Using both traditional and digital design methods together leads to faster decision making, and the ability to run through many more concepts.
And this isn’t far-out future talk. Major brands are already using the tech to help guide their design. “Daimler uses Unreal for collaborative engineering design review,” says Wolff. “They all put on VR headsets and join a collaborative space to discuss engineering designs, with the components floating in front of them like holograms.” According to Wolff, this is not an isolated practice, as other big auto players are leveraging Unreal in the virtual space. “BMW uses Unreal extensively,” he explains. “They have a configurator experience at dealerships, which is great. They also have a full Virtual Garage where they can look at design and engineering models which integrate VR and AR with a physical prototype.”
So Unreal Engine can help with design, but how does it impact the consumer? It’s all about personalization, especially at the point of purchase, which could play out as “an interactive configurator on the web or in the dealership,” says Wolff. But the tech could also allow a customer to instantly see a personalized, in-engine video of the exact car they just bought. “It is that immediacy and democratization of data,” says Wolff, “that will prove the long-term impact.”
And it’s that flexibility of design we touched on earlier that will impact consumers in the long run. Unreal Engine allows for increased ideation around a concept, and Wolff believes that more iterations of a concept lead to better design, which in turn lead to more revolutionary concepts. “Being able to actually design the user experience of the car,” Wolff says, “from how it drives to how the door opens and how the in-car entertainment responds to a human … is a game changer.”
Human-machine interfaces (HMI) — which are literally the interfaces we use to interact with machines, like control panels and touch screens in modern automobiles — are one of the next great frontiers for the automotive industry, and Epic Games is committed to enabling this innovation. To that end, they recently announced a new HMI initiative where they will work with the industry to develop new HMI workflows and features within Unreal Engine.
In some ways, consumers’ access to more realistic depictions of automobiles in video games over the past 20 years actually influence what consumers want from their real-life rides. “If you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s,” Wolff explains, “a bunch of what a car meant to you came from influences in film and TV.” In other words, if you watched a popular primetime show where your favorite high-tech crime fighter drove an all-black muscle car, maybe you’d grow up to want an all-black muscle car for yourself (with or without the wisecracking artificial intelligence). “As you move into the late 1990s and beyond,” Wolff continues, “the recreation of cars in video games is so realistic that people can trace the origins of their love for certain cars to their time with those games.”
As consumers grow up driving their favorite cars in games powered by Unreal Engine, they begin to expect a more direct relationship with their purchasing options, configuration, and features for their vehicle. And as the technology continues to impact and expand its capabilities in the automotive field, the future for car designers, sellers, and consumers looks more and more Unreal.
To learn more about the digital transformation of the auto industry, register now for the October 20 episode of Unreal Engine’s The Pulse video series, hosted by Jalopnik editor-in-chief Rory Carroll.
Giaco Furino is Senior Writer for G/O Media Studios.