What is the Best Real-Time Engine for Architectural Visualisation?
The latest research being carried out in the Precon R&D lab is into real-time engines and the best options available for producing real-time architectural experiences.
Historically we have always favoured pre-rendered stand-alone animations, this is because it is a more cost effective approach to produce highly detailed and photo-real outputs, but are things likely to change in the near future? let’s investigate…
What is Pre-rendered Footage?
All of the ‘sit down and watch’ animations we produce are created from pre-rendered footage. The viewer is effectively watching a series of still images or frames very quickly (25 per second). The production of these frames is typically created across several computers (known as a render farm) and then outputted afterwards as a single movie file. You can then watch the final output in a media player such as: Quicktime, Windows Media Player or Flash, either locally on your computer or online.
Real-time footage lets the viewer interact and walk around a virtual environment, just like in a computer game. The viewer is still effectively watching a series of frames but these are being produced instantly by the individual computer you are using. Processing for this is typically done on the graphics card (GPU) as opposed to pre-rendered footage which is predominately calculated on the processor (CPU).
Architectural real-time footage is therefore typically ‘less pretty’ than pre-rendered footage as models and textures need to be lower quality (i.e. lower resolution) for the frames to be produced so quickly.
Interactivity using Pre-rendered Footage
Interactivity can be introduced using pre-rendered footage, by producing a flash style hot-spot driven tour. Here the user can click hot-spots within a image that then trigger a pre-rendered animation path to play. You can see a great example of this here: http://www.preconstruct.com/interactive/Saraya/saraya.htm). This example was developed to work across various platforms: a version optimised to work online, an offline higher resolution version for use in a showroom, and an iPhone App.
Improvements in Real-Time Technology
Real-time solutions have obviously drastically improved over recent years, due to technological advancements in both hardware and software; nowhere is this more evident than in the computer games industry. The Unreal game engine, for example, was original developed for the first person shoot ‘em up ‘Unreal’, back in 1998 . The engine is now on it’s 3rd generation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreal_Engine_3) and works across multiple platforms including: PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii, Android, and OpenGL based operating systems used on devices such as the Apple Mac and iPhone. The Unreal Engine is behind award winning games franchises such as ‘Gears of War’ and ‘Mass Effect’, both of which have received millions of sales.
Real-Time solutions for Architectural Visualisation
Popular computer game productions have extensive budgets and therefore hundreds of artists and developers working on them. This large scale approach is not normally feasible within the scale of architectural projects, so producing affordable and impressive architectural real-time is indeed a ‘real’ challenge.
One interesting solution clearly aimed at architects is Twinmotion (http://www.twinmotion.com) . Their website includes several video testimonials from various architects and users of Autodesk’s Revit will no doubt be interested in the new plugin supporting direct import of revit models. LUMION from Polytown, also looks like a promising development http://promos.polytown.com, inparticular it seems well equipped to cope with large rich landscapes, that include planting and water effects etc.
These real-time solutions geared specifically towards architecture, often have the advantage of inbuilt libraries for the creation of things like: planting, furniture and architectural materials.
Experimenting with Unity
One particular piece of software that we are excited about is Unity http://unity3d.com/unity/. It is not geared specifically towards architectural visualisation but functions as a rather more flexible game development tool. This flexibility has given us much more control than other solutions, allowing us to create custom interactive elements such as: menus, buttons, and the ability to click on specific objects or buildings to find out more about them. Unity also boasts a superb array of output possibilities including: accessibility online through web-browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Google’s chrome; standalone desktop applications; and mobile platforms, such as iOS used by Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
So it is with Unity that we will continue our R&D into creating cost effective real-time architecture. We feel it’s flexibility and multi-platform support currently outweighs the benefits offered by more architecturally focused products. However, as discussed real-time technology is fast moving, so be sure to watch this space and in the meantime, keep it real.