Unreal Diaries: Virtual reality's value proposition

Epic Games lead engineer Nick Whiting discusses how UE4 can power VR experiences
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Virtual reality represents the confluence of many factors happening at just the right time, and the excitement continues to spread throughout the development community.

Following the debut of the Unreal Engine 4 Showdown demo for the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype and confirmation of UE support for Samsung Gear VR, Epic asks VR expert and lead engineer Nick Whiting for his thoughts.

“Compelling VR is comprised of three main ingredients: the audio-visual experience, the tracking of the player’s movement, and the content,” explains Whiting.

He adds that smartphones have driven up small-screen quality as costs have plummeted: “Current VR experiences owe their existence to smartphones.

“Advances in computer vision and sensor miniaturisation mean that it’s now possible to get sub-millimetre tracking on a desktop computer. That’s essential for the experience, because the simulation leads to sickness if it diverges from what the player is doing in the real world.

“The gestalt of all these factors is presence, where you actually feel grounded in the VR world. Up until this point, it hasn’t been technologically feasible or economically viable to put all the pieces together and offer a great VR experience to the masses.”

Giving teams a leg up

With Unreal Engine 4, Epic’s goal is to make the technological challenges of VR invisible to users.

“Devs shouldn’t have to worry about the technical details or tricks we do under the hood to optimise our rendering and latency for VR,” Whiting insists. “They should be able to focus on making a great experience. That’s what we try to deliver. We want teams to be able to download the engine, put on a VR device, and just start iterating on their ideas.”

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Whiting observes that as VR is relatively new, the community is still defining the language used to interact in a VR world: “How do players move around? How do we display information to the user? How do we give them feedback? There aren’t simple answers to these questions, so everyone’s throwing ideas at the wall, and seeing what sticks. We want to make sure that developers can go from zero to trying out an idea as quickly as possible.”

Aside from working on VR, Whiting helps lead the Blueprint team at Epic.

“Blueprint visual scripting basically lets you connect little boxes together in order to create behaviours in the engine,” he says. “Each one is very simple on its own, but when you start combining them, you have something much more complex – no programming required. In fact, our two most recent VR demos, Couch Knights and Showdown, were created entirely in Blueprints without a line of game code.

“We’re always pushing to make that system even more powerful. Nick Donaldson, one of our designers, built a small game in which multiple players could enter the same shared virtual space together, with their real-world motion mapped to their characters in the game, in under 20 of those functional blocks. That still blows my mind.”

Fostering the VR community

With big players like Facebook, Sony and Samsung championing VR, developers are compelled to take the risk of creating new experiences for their platforms.

“With several billions of dollars being thrown around in VR at the moment, I don’t think anyone can say it is going to fizzle away,” says Whiting. “Look at how many people are attending conferences around the world. It’s really captivated people’s imaginations.

“But without great software, the hardware is nothing. You have to have both sides of the equation. We work closely with not only Oculus, but Sony and other hardware providers to make sure that it’s as easy as possible to create great content. If we ruin it this time around, it might be a very long time before people are willing to give VR another shot.”

Unreal Engine 4 offers VR support out of the box and is available at unrealengine.com.

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