Video game enthusiasts may be familiar with the ‘Unreal’ franchise. First appearing in 1998, the first-person shooter from developer Epic Games was an instant hit, praised among other things for its rich, atmospheric graphics and sophisticated level design. Both of these were enabled by the ‘Unreal Engine’, a development toolkit released alongside the game. Its impact is difficult to understate: the platform has brought thousands of titles to life, licensed out by numerous external developers to create experiences which even casual gamers will know. Epic itself still powers titles with the engine, such as the free-to-play ‘Fortnite’, a cultural phenomenon now boasting more than 350 million registered players.
In other words, Unreal Engine is an enterprise unto itself, with Epic now readying the release of its fifth iteration. In 2015, the company made an important change to the engine’s business model: costly licence fees were abolished in favour of a free-to-use model, with commercial use of creations permitted through royalty deals.
Doug Wolff, a Business Development Manager for Unreal Engine Enterprise, recalls that once the engine was made available for free, the response unearthed something of a surprise. “As expected, the reaction was huge, and lots of people began making games with it,” he says. “However, what was unexpected was the number of people who began working on non-game projects, such as car configurators.”
It wasn’t long before automotive players began reaching out to Epic for help with the engine, and thus was born the Unreal Engine Enterprise team, specialising in support for companies outside the video game industry. Five years on, and virtual configurators have become a common feature of dealerships and online showrooms, used to show off different finishes and interior options in an age where customisation is king. Interest from the automotive sector is now so high, says the group, that later this month, experts from BMW Group and Ferrari will appear on ‘The Pulse’, a new video series examining applications for game engines.
Nowadays, several major names are making Unreal Engine a part of their design and engineering processes, drawn in particular to the ease with which software and technology can be connected to the platform. Toyota, for example, has used it in combination with virtual reality to validate ergonomic designs: using an HTC Vive headset, a user is placed in a virtual cockpit, and through use of tracking gloves, the company can evaluate how easy it is to reach buttons and controls. The simulation can also measure the visibility of other road users through the vehicle’s windows.
Elsewhere, Daimler has used Unreal Engine to create Daimler Protics, a multi-user, online environment where engineers can upload computer-aided design (CAD) data for real-time, 3D visualisations. Complex ideas can then be quickly shared between colleagues and even partners. Once again, real-time technology makes an immersive experience possible.
In examples like this, says Wolff, Unreal Engine can harden the automotive industry against the disruptive waves of digitalisation already seen in other industries. “Once a car company has a game engine,” he says, “its engineers have instant access to data, which in turn enables rapid prototyping. Rather than clay models and physical prototypes, they’ll be able to produce multiple digital prototypes.” Done well, this can lead to a much improved product for a customer, with designers able to work through several iterations much more quickly. Additionally, this means automakers can improve vehicles, functionality and services at a much faster rate. At a time when increased speed to market is an essential concern for automakers, the benefits are clear.
What’s more, the industry’s pursuit of connected, autonomous, shared and electrified (CASE) mobility means automakers are partnering with a more diverse range of suppliers than ever. These include companies not traditionally associated with vehicle manufacturing, such as AI experts and other tech ventures. Unreal Engine, says Wolff, creates a digital space where ideas can be shared in ways where those who lack engineering expertise can still participate. In turn, this allows a wide range of players to make meaningful design contributions. For a future as uncertain and fast-moving as CASE mobility, where one bright idea could break open a wealth of opportunities, this could prove invaluable.
“If you come from a purely creative background, or a field like user experience, it can be difficult to take part in the design and engineering process,” he explains. “But now, it’s possible for companies to take ideas and build prototypes which might otherwise take years of research. Suddenly, people can take bold ideas to an engineering team, like, ‘What if there was a holographic display above the centre console?’” Unreal Engine, he adds, can even be used to build impossible concepts that still answer important questions, such as what vehicle occupants may find compelling, and what may work in future as technology becomes available.
The example of integrating user experience expertise into the design process is particularly relevant as vehicles themselves undergo digitalisation. The proliferation of connected services and advanced infotainment offerings means that software will likely become a deal-breaker when buying a new vehicle. The long-term rollout of self-driving technology will only accentuate this, as drivers are freed up to interact in other ways with the car.
“From a software point of view,” says Wolff, “we’re moving towards a point where what runs on a vehicle is not unlike what runs on your phone. The difference is how it is presented: instead of on a screen in your pocket, it could be on screens that wrap around the dashboard, or even all around you.” As the much-anticipated smartphone-on-wheels concept is gradually realised, uncovering what works in terms of presentation and interaction will be essential work for automakers—work that will be virtually impossible to perform effectively outside of the digital world.
In the same vein, Epic Games recently announced a new human-machine interface (HMI) initiative, combining new partnerships and workflows toward the development of automotive HMI, infotainment, and digital cockpit experiences.
To date, suggests Wolff, digitisation processes in the automotive industry—from CAD models to crash test simulations—have worked largely in the service of the physical. This is understandable for an industry that for over 100 years has refined the production of extremely complex products. The adoption of game engines, he says, can serve the increased need for digitisation without interfering with established processes.
“It is becoming increasingly important for digital to sit alongside the physical,” he concludes. “The concern we hear from teams is, how does this work? Does my hardware engineer need to be a software engineer as well? And the answer is no; we’re not advocating for companies to author engineering services in Unreal Engine. Rather, experts can continue to use the tools they know, and what they produce can be quickly accessed by anyone on their desktop, rather than via an expert system.” Much like game engines have brought light and clarity to the video game sector, they could well do the same for the automotive industry as it moves further into the most transformative period in its history.