Dallas-based HKS has licensed Epic Games' Unreal 3 game engine to create ARCHengine, a program that allows prospective clients to see and walk through the space they'll be leasing or buying in a highly detailed 3D environment. While there are other 3D visualization and walk-through programs, HKS insists that ARCHengine allows more-functional 3D visualizations of architectural space, complete with real-time shadows and lighting, moving figures, operational elevators, and running escalators. All of it is rendered or drawn with animations running at 30 frames per second, 3,000 times faster than HKS's traditional costlier animation techniques.
“Allowing people to explore a realistic digital environment was key,” said Pat Carmichael, HKS's manager of advanced technologies and co-founder of ARCHengine. “People need to be able to wander through the whole 3D model. You can go anywhere you want. You can even fly. That's a better view of a project than one rendering of each side.”
Carmichael, senior programmer Chris Roberts, and their HKS team have been working on the development of ARCHengine since 1999, attempting to marry game engine technology to a 3D model to create a “more real” user experience. Early on, Carmichael and HKS CIO David Chauviere, AIA—then at Sun Microsystems—had to face the problem that most video games use only texture detail for backgrounds and anything that doesn't interact with the player. The graphics were essentially painted on and couldn't be touched or interacted with by players or clients.
Fortunately, along came Unreal Engine 3, from Raleigh, N.C.-based Epic, the award-winning producer of such games as “Gears of War, ” “Mass Effect,” and “Unreal Tournament 3” for platforms as varied as the Micosoft xBox 360, PC, and Sony's Playstation 3.
The Unreal Engine 3 has a polygonal structure that allows the kinds of immersive environments that HKS wanted to create. It is used for the massive multiplayer world of “Unreal Tournament,” where polygon interactivity is a must. Unreal Engine 3 allows developers to cut down the time it takes to create complex graphics and game play. The toolset that allows developers to do that also can allow architects to create real 3D environments.
“A 3D (building information) model is 10-12 times more complex than the most complex games on the market,” Carmichael said. “We found Unreal to be the easiest and most elaborate interface to facilitate the interaction we needed.”
“It's a pretty solid framework,” said Mark Rein, vice president of Epic Games. “You can rip it out of Unreal Tournament and use it for anything you want. What HKS is doing, though, is a really extensive use of the technology. They're clearly pioneers.”
Some of the projects ARCHengine has been used on include the new $1 billion Dallas Cowboys stadium and the W Dallas Victory Hotel. In the stadium project, team officials were allowed to virtually sit in each of 89,000 seats in the stadium to give the owners a realistic sense of their $1 billion investment—not to mention the opening and closing of the site's 660,800-sf convertible dome. For the W Dallas, potential buyers of $1 million condos were allowed to see the actual view of the Dallas skyline from any of the residential units in the project. They could also visit the Ghost Bar on the top floor and other building amenities.
“What's being tasked to us more and more is not just to show design but to show function,” Carmichael said. “We architects have always shown designs to clients but it was never communicated to them at this level of detail. It was left in a grey area between architect, owner, and builder.”
Many firms are working on creating virtual presentations but simply cannot justify the expense of costly gaming technology. Applied to architectural models of these huge capital projects, the benefit HKS generated was additional revenues of $65,000 to $150,000 per project.
Epic and HKS have not released financial information about the licensing agreement for Unreal Engine 3 in ARCHengine, but the firm is now using ARCHengine on all of its projects. The licensing deal gives HKS access to Unreal Engine's source code and has allowed the firm to integrate ARCHengine with Autodesk Revit, Google SketchUp, and other 3D design programs.
ARCHengine has opened a new potential revenue stream for HKS of doing building management and visualization presentations for other firms. “We'll provide the service to other firms but it's something we'll keep possession of for the time being,” Carmichael said. “The level of commitment at HKS is unique. The partners of the firm have put up all the money for the development of ARCHengine.”
Carmichael and his team are currently working on ARCHengine 2.0 with more photorealistic and advanced graphics and expect it to be done by the first quarter of 2009.