Will video games software revolutionise the way architects design?

5 May, 2020

Epic’s latest version of Twinmotion heralds a new kind of effects-driven architecture

‘Extended realities’ – whether immersive virtual environments or augmented reality overlays – have long promised to revolutionise the way architects create and communicate their work.

But it’s video game software, rather than traditional CAD packages that’s finally enabling this to happen.

At the forefront of this transformation is Epic Games, developer of the market-leading ‘Unreal Engine’ software, which since 1998 has been powering the most challenging and visually seductive computer games.

By combining clever coding with ever increasing graphical processor power, Unreal Engine has an unequalled ability to conjure scenes of incredible scale and complexity – in real-time, something that would bring other systems to their knees.

As VR pioneer and Epic’s Strategic Business Development Manager for AEC, Ken Pimentel explains: “Epic’s always been about high visual fidelity and scalable performance. It’s known as the most powerful engine with the best visuals. Our customers are using it for much more than just VR – it’s about creating interactive experiences to support the entirety of the design, engineer and build process – with desktop, VR, AR and XR all playing appropriate roles.”

Building a time machine

“We effectively want to build a time machine to go into the future to experience that future state of the building. It has so much to teach us – is the scale of the interior correct, does the passive shading work, can people easily move between floors?. The earlier we know the answers to these questions in the design process saves time and money over fixing it during construction.”

Before joining Epic as Business Development Manager, David Weir-McCall worked in the Digital Design team at Callison RTKL, where his team used head-tracking within Unreal Engine environments to study what people were looking at, providing valuable insight and input into evolving concept designs.

The unrivalled capability of Unreal Engine to handle massive datasets means that whole cities can be explored live so that verified views will never be the same again. These can either be idealised parametrically-generated worlds, built using Esri’s CityEngine, or the 60 square-kilometre model of London from AccuCities, which has the ability to see where a building is visible from at any location. “We, more than anyone else, are able to handle this complex data and let you play with it – at 60 frames per second, even on a laptop,” says Pimentel.

Easy to use

Epic has hedged their bets in the AEC market by developing two products built upon the Unreal Engine core.

The first is the ‘Unreal Engine’ platform aimed at professional visualisers originally launched in 1998 with a new release scheduled for today (May 5th). The second is Twinmotion, and is primarily targeted at architects along with landscape and interior designers. Twinmotion was acquired by Epic in May 2018 and in March this year it released Twinmotion 2020.

Much in the same way the easy-to-use Sketchup CAD package is accessible to 3D-novices, who have little interest in mastering the complexities of Rhino or Revit, Twinmotion harnesses the graphical power of the exact same ‘Unreal Engine’ core, but provides an attractively simple user interface.

This means that architects with little technical knowledge have the ability to create sophisticated visualisations and using the products’ specialised tools, users can populate complex scenes not just with their architectural models, but also add in vegetation, pre-animated 3D people, traffic, even cats, dogs and horses.

And there is a nifty set of data links that allows you to synchronise a Twinmotion visualisation with an evolving model from a wide range of CAD and BIM packages, updating as you go.

Epic says designers will be able to start work within the streamlined Twinmotion environment and then hand over to expert visualisers to add more complex behaviours in Unreal Studio – which could be a compelling workflow. It’s already proving more popular than even Epic themselves expected. As Pimentel notes: “We have at this point 450,000 people registered for Twinmotion. And I think 90% of those downloads are involved in architecture.”

Away from stills and animations

Perhaps the popularity is partly due to the feeling that conventional architectural visualisation has drifted into boringly fetishised pixel-perfect stills and animations.

For gamers, fluidity of motion and interaction were always more important than strict visual accuracy. But what the games may have lacked in graphical detail, they compensated in terms of atmosphere. The ‘game engines’ could generate in real-time the sorts of emotionally charged special effects viewers were accustomed to from the movies – fog and smoke, fire, water, glowing lights, even falling rain and snow.

By giving designers access to the kind of visual effects normally reserved for the entertainment industry, Twinmotion also extends the architectural palette.

As architects, we’re accustomed to viewing designs through the lens of the perennially sunny marketing visual, but how more richly could our designs evolve when – with the click of the mouse – we can simulate how they might feel in a thunderstorm, or when the leaves turn in autumn? Which is not difficult with Epic’s software, and importantly, all in real time.



Enhancing the design

Rather than static ‘key views’, Twinmotion actively encourages the user to think in terms of a moving tableau and to quickly create emotionally-resonant storyboards of the user experience. Used judiciously, it could significantly enhance the subtlety of architectural design. It could change the way architects think about how their spaces will be perceived – not just in the marketing phase, but right from the earliest concept stages.

Instead of having to convey initial experiential concepts via mood-boards of abstract atmospheric imagery, with these tools you can actually ‘sketch’ with fully animated atmospheric effects. Unlike much CGI software, cost isn’t necessarily the barrier here anymore, as Twinmotion is keenly priced – it’s currently £468 with 50% off for the next month –  and its real-time interactivity means it’s actually great fun to use.

Thirty years ago when I started producing CG visuals, expectations were far lower and the software much simpler, so even though the results were crude by today’s standards, it was still a magical process. But that pleasure had long since faded, replaced by a tedious and time-consuming cycle of miniscule incremental adjustments and test-renders that leave both designer and visualiser drained.

For me, a few minutes with the straightforward and intuitive Twinmotion software brought that sense of excitement straight back. The responsiveness of the real-time results is addictively rewarding and just makes you want to experiment – and be able to do so in a time-efficient manner.

“Just imagine having the ability to change all those creative elements in real time. And getting real-time feedback on them,” says Pimentel. “I talk about ‘what-ifs?’ per hour – a new metric when you’re with real time. It’s this new world where you’re not constrained by the feedback process. You’re able just to rush forwards and explore so many design dimensions because the decision making can be done in real time.”

Oliver Salway is a founder of Softroom, an architecture and design consultancy that has created virtual environments for clients including the BBC and Wallpaper. Softroom are currently envisioning the future of the GP practice for the NHS.