Interview: Epic Unreal Engine GM, Ray Davis
Tom's Hardware: Specifically what role does Epic play in Henry? When you say that it was built on the Unreal Engine, how much of it, what parts, and why?
Epic's Ray Davis: In the case of Henry, we've been fairly hands-off -- the team at Oculus has done all the hard work of creating the experience. We've always intended to make sure Unreal Engine 4 has all the ingredients and tools readily available so that anyone can pick it up and immediately make something without having to reach out to us for support. The team they've built at Oculus Story Studio has an incredible mix of talent and it's humbling to see what they've been able to create while using our technology as a foundation. That being said, we've always been close partners with Oculus and have worked hard to ensure that UE supports their latest hardware while also integrating their production feedback back into the engine for future development.
Tom's Hardware: Does Epic’s Unreal Engine always play a role in animation like this, and if so, can you give some other examples?
Epic's Ray Davis: It's true that in the past, UE was primarily known as a tool for games development, but these days it's really morphed into a tool for anyone looking to create real-time digital content. Virtual reality has been a huge driver of convergence across multiple industries, and we're seeing both game and film developers alike flock to the same toolsets to create these innovative new experiences. UE4 has all the tools and features to support high fidelity rendering for VR and all the other modern platforms, so in some respects it's not too surprising that we're seeing more and more teams outside of traditional games development adopt the technology.
Tom's Hardware: How different is an immersive VR experience from a development/gaming engine standpoint than a typical 3D game that you’d play on a PC? Where do those differences emerge, what sort of processing power is required to do all of the work?
Epic's Ray Davis: From a raw technical perspective there's not a huge difference in building digital content for a game versus building an immersive VR experience. Probably the biggest challenge to speak of is in regards to performance as there are steep requirements for building modern VR. Fortunately that's one area we focus on specifically with UE so that developers are able to squeeze as much content as possible into their experience.
Naively, almost every VR experience tackles the stereo rendering requirement of VR by using brute force and simply rendering the scene twice, but there's actually a tremendous amount of optimizations you can take advantage of to reduce that overhead and squeeze even more into your experience.
With UE, we're continuing to solve those hard engineering problems so that creatives can leverage while being almost entirely oblivious to them - they're just focusing on making their crazy idea become reality.
Tom's Hardware: Is this a different team involved? Were different aspects needed for UE4, or was it just using the standard engine?
Epic's Ray Davis: There are no special versions of UE4 to provide different sets of functionality so everything you need to make a VR short film like Henry is in the same engine everyone can download for free. It's critical to keep the fundamental tools and features tightly integrated under a single package, otherwise developers end up wasting their time trying to hunt down add-ons and other tools to help them build their experience.
This approach also means anything you build for any platform is immediately usable for any other project and platform, which in turns generates a ton of value for the UE development community. Building compelling content for VR is a tough challenge and we work hard to equip developers with every advantage we can!
Tom's Hardware: Why do you think Oculus chose Epic?
Epic's Ray Davis: To truly tell a compelling story, I believe there is a high requirement when it comes to the visual fidelity, and with UE that is one of the clear advantages to teams looking at using the technology. Also, with every creative endeavor you often need to work through many iterations to finally realize the vision and create a magical experience, and that's an area we've specifically focused on when it comes to Unreal Engine.
Throughout my career as a programmer I always stuck with the mantra of "what can I do to enable the creatives on the team" knowing that anything I do to improve their productivity means that they'll be that much more empowered to build something truly innovative. UE takes this idea to heart with the emphasis on systems like Blueprints, which enables anyone to create an entire experience within the engine without writing a single line of code. This level of productivity is a huge win for any team, and I imagine this factored heavily into Oculus' decision to use UE4 for their project.
Tom's Hardware: Broader level, then, do you see VR as a more potent intersection point for gaming and movie/story creation than what we’ve traditionally seen? I know there have been attempts to bridge these worlds, but honestly those have not been terribly successful. Watching Henry I could see that being a series of short films/stories for kids, and then also turn into a VR game with that character.
Epic's Ray Davis: Modern VR is absolutely creating a convergence between movie/story creation and gaming for a myriad of reasons. From the film side I believe there is an eagerness to find new mediums to tell new stories while also looking for new types of stories that can only be told with a new platform such as VR. The games industry has always been hungry to adopt interesting new technology, and while it's not clear the VR is just about games, it is clear that there will be some fantastic new gaming experiences exclusive to VR.
The cross-over really comes down to the requirements of building VR, whether it's a game or something else, and I think this is a case where all the features and systems we've been building for games over the last decade really start to shine. Complex systems such as physical interactions, artificial intelligence, and advanced audio processing are all areas that have mostly been driven by games development over the last decade, but which are all integral to building a compelling VR experience.