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March 21, 2017

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Boundary blurs between virtual and real worlds

TIM Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games, wants to make his Unreal game engine a “real” part of daily life by extending the boundary into Hollywood and other industries requiring digital content.

Epic Games, which has investment from Chinese Internet giant Tencent, was a major feature at the recent Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, attracting attention for its new virtual reality titles and “beyond game” business expansion.

Star Wars warriors, concept Chevrolet cars and digital Shakespearean characters are now all rendered and powered by a game engine.

Sweeney calls it the “new renaissance” of the industry.

“This is changing the economics of entire industries — the way that companies design, test and market their products,” he said. “It is laying the foundation for a digital content industry that spans games, films and manufacturing.”

Hardcore technologies including real-time rendering, motion capture, eye-tracking and augmented reality were on display at the conference, which is one of the most influential events in the industry. The technologies are used in design and visualization, automotive and interactive marketing, education, media entertainment, medical and retail sectors.

Virtual and augmented realities continue to play starring roles in the game industry. They are key technologies already being shared in gaming, entertainment and lifestyle applications.

Epic’s Unreal engine is used outside the games industry by the likes of BMW, MacLaren, film production and digital entertainment firms.

Under a project called Raven, Epic makes it possible for content creators to blend real-time visual effects with live-action shots. The company revealed a new partnership with Chevrolet and post-production firm Mill that enable car manufactures to preview photo-realistic cars in real-time.

A basic car-sized machine with sensors and bar codes will look like a real vehicle viewed through a camera. The engine renders it in real-time, with adaption options like color, model and design. Epic’s game business revenue is expected to double in the next five years and non-game revenue is forecast to grow 10 times or even higher in the same period, said Sweeney.

Industries covering commercials, architecture, design, film production and healthcare will use born-in-game technologies such as the rendering engine, said Sweeney, who was given a Game Developer Conference Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the industry.

Eye-tracking sensor

Sweden-based Tobii showcased eye-tracking technology, which gives players accurate “understanding” and real interaction through visual focus. The eye-tracking sensor is undergoing testing to integrate it with HTC’s virtual reality consoles, offering players more complete and immersive experiences.

The eye-tracking sensor is already used in smartphones, including Huawei’s flagship model, in Dell’s high-end computers and in other consumer electronics. The company is testing a glass-size prototype featuring eye-tracking, which will have applications in the education and medical sectors, said Stephan Floyd, head of content and public relations.

Several startups like Vicon also demonstrated motion capture services, which covers cameras, sensor, software and up-to-the-minute system status. It’s now used in game and film production sectors and is expected to expand to advertising, medicine and education.

Google demonstrated the latest games based on the new augmented reality technology Tango. People can watch as virtual objects and information appear at top of surroundings by holding smartphones based on Tango. The technology is developed for multi-sectors, like games, mapping and navigation. For example, people can see real-time decor effects and purchase furniture and other home design items. The system is operated by a Lenovo device supporting the Tango augmented reality technology.

Integration of games, film and design industries will improve the quality of games in image and rendering with “photo-real pixels” and will shorten the development process. In China, consumers are spending time and money on games, especially drawn to those of high-quality imaging and entertainment experience, said Shen Li, vice general manager of joint development product center of Tencent, China’s biggest game firm.

Virtual and augmented reality technologies were among the hottest topics at the San Francisco show.

More than 39 percent of developers are working with those technologies, according to Game Developer Conference figures.

Brendan Iribe, co-founder of Facebook’s Oculus, said the two major drivers of virtual reality development are content and the low barrier of devices. Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook for US$2 billion in 2014, cut the price of its virtual reality device from US$798 to US$588 and introduced more free games.

Epic also released a high-end action virtual reality called Robo Recall. In Epic’s view, the high-end of that market is lucrative and filled with “imagination spaces.”

The next-generation of virtual reality will offers consumers more advanced and comfortable experiences, far beyond just “knocking keyboards or holding game controllers” with helmets, said Sweeney.


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