Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 powers the new Chevrolet Car Customizer.
The same video game technology that powers Microsoft Gears of War 4 and the new version of Epic Games Battle breaker game is also used by Chevrolet.
But the automaker isn’t using Unreal Engine 4 to drive a new video game experience. Instead, this technology changes the concept of car customization at Chevrolet. And it has the potential to revolutionize the entire auto industry, thanks to an all-new Blackbird motion-tracking vehicle that can literally transform into any vehicle – from a ’69 Camaro to a concept car. Chevy FNR.
These two concepts are on display this week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco at the Epic booth. And they’re made possible by real-time rendering, a long-standing staple of the video game industry that now extends beyond entertainment into other verticals.
“We live in an increasingly digital world,” Kim Libreri, chief technology officer of Epic Games, told Digital Trends. “The ability of a game engine, especially Unreal Engine 4, to bridge the gap between our real world and the virtual world, is an important aspect of the direction we are taking. Augmented reality is on the horizon.
“Augmented reality is on the horizon.”
Augmented reality is already a reality. And Epic has teamed up with advertising agency The Mill and Chevrolet to layer photorealistic vehicles like the Camaro ZL1 on top of an actual vehicle (dubbed the Blackbird) that captures a 360-degree view of the Angeles Crest Highway in Los Angeles ( minus the traffic). While Chevy and The Mill have experimented with this augmented reality concept in the past, it has always been done in post-production.
Sam Russell, chief executive of global marketing at Chevrolet, told Digital Trends in 2013 that The Mill took a Corvette C6 and decorated it with motion-tracking markers to shoot a live commercial. Then, in post-production, they rendered the Corvette C7 on it using computer-generated 3D modeling.
“This opened up the idea of creating a generic, customizable motion tracking vehicle configured for this,” Russell said.
And the Blackbird, who was also called the Crow, was born. The simple black car was used to shoot commercials for the Chevrolet Sonic, but there was still a problem. The film crew couldn’t get a clear idea of what the new vehicle looked like in the shot before the spot was filmed. They needed some kind of technology that could not only produce photorealistic images but also accurately represent lighting and shadows, all in real time while being housed in a moving camera SUV (in this case a Mercedes-Benz ML) chasing the Blackbird.
Enter Epic Games, which has significantly expanded its customer base beyond video game makers in recent years. The independent developer has also entered the automotive industry through its Unreal Engine Enterprise division, working with companies like McLaren, Jaguar, BMW, McLaren, Toyota’s Australian unit and now Chevrolet.
The end result of this first marriage of real-time gaming rendering and real-world Hollywood-style commercial production debuts today from Chevy. “The Race” is a 60-second video that pits the 2017 Camaro ZL1 against the Chevy FNR concept car. There is also a ’69 Camaro available for this demo, which debuts at GDC.
The “aha” moment comes when you realize that none of these vehicles have ever hit the sidewalk in LA. These are all AR creations born out of a video game engine and powered by a high-end consumer PC with an NVIDIA graphics card.
Libreri thinks what people are going to take away from this prototype video is, “Wow, when AR really happens, it could be amazing. “
“If you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual, it is a game changer in terms of what you can do,” Libreri said. “Right now, when you think of mainstream AR, it’s something like simple penguins on a background. What we wanted to do with that is really show people that using current NVIDIA hardware, look at what we can do. Imagine what the world will be like in five years. “
“If you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual, that is a game changer. “
Russell is excited for what he can do today. As a Marketing Manager, his job is to build enthusiasm for vehicles before they release. And that poses a lot of logistical challenges, including the lack of actual vehicles for expensive commercial shoots, or the need to keep real cars a secret for specific auto shows. The Blackbird can transform into any vehicle, and anyone who takes a video or photo of it will have no idea what that transformation will be. Only the film crew, who can see the CGi vehicle in real time, know the secret identity.
“Cars are never the same for different markets, whether they change the color or the wheel or a feature of the car like chrome mirrors or integrated turn signals,” Russell said. “Now you only have one car on set and you can generate versions for each market with the computer. This will save hundreds of thousands of dollars on a same day shoot and millions of dollars on a worldwide shoot.
Custom cars: let’s go digital
Chevy has also partnered with Epic Games to create a car configurator using Unreal Engine 4 and the same assets that power “The Race”. In fact, you can customize the Camaro and then watch your version of the vehicle take on the concept car.
Libreri believes automakers will be happy that a car configurator can actually produce something that looks like their cars, and they’ll see the options that open up a much deeper engagement.
“With this Blackbird technology that The Mill has, they could put cars on racetracks, go through beautiful places, and that would be the car you just customized,” said Libreri.
At GDC, Epic is showcasing a giant touchscreen TV that lets anyone customize the new Camaro to their liking. The company even integrated Google Tango AR into the demo, allowing the smartphone to act as a video camera in the virtual world so you can view the vehicle from any angle.
“On the horizon, one of the most powerful selling tools we have is to help people imagine themselves in this vehicle,” said Russell. “Today’s TV ads are not customizable. When you access car configurators today with all colors and types of rims and options, we want you to imagine the vehicle you want. This technology allows us to film the customer’s real car. And we can customize the ad based on the car they want to buy. Finally, we will be able to place the people inside the images with virtual reality. There are a lot of possibilities for this technology.
Libreri said the same custom car could be used in a video game experience in the future.
“There is no reason why they cannot create an accompanying driving app on their favorite test track,” said Libreri. “That’s the benefit of using a game engine, because when we’re building an asset, it doesn’t have to be just a high-quality piece of infographic like you would movie or TV show, it can be a real vehicle with steering, suspension and friction.
Video game technology is helping Chevy find new roads today, but the bigger implications are only on the horizon. In a customizable digital world, ordering the exact car you want through the cloud will become commonplace, just as virtual reality replaces the need to have new vehicles parked at dealerships. And you won’t have to imagine what you look like behind the wheel anymore, you can experience it virtually. This is also good for those who need speed, as the speed limits will not hold anyone back while using this technology.