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Tour of Notre Dame Cathedral
Image Courtesy Vrndproject.com
Unreal 3-D game technology allows you to fly through a virtual tour of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Playing With the Big Kids

By Joseph Gelmis
Staff Writer

TRAIL-BLAZING 3-D action games are putting more than high-tech virtual weapons in the hands of consumers. The CD-ROM for the search-and-destroy game Unreal also includes creative software, which computer-savvy users have been adapting for architectural and educational projects.

When the nonentertainment software developers at Digitalo Studios in Fort Lauderdale got a copy of Unreal last year, for instance, the game-loving staff immediately installed it on the office computer network.

"Half of us,” recalls president Victor DeLeon, "were sitting there playing the game, and the other half -- well, it was like a million bells going off, as we began tossing around ideas for what we could do with the engine.”

One of the first things they did with the Unreal engine was to create an award-winning virtual representation of 12 acres of the Florida Everglades National Park. This year, they used it to create a virtual tour of the 900-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Unreal's engine was created to power a dazzling refinement of the search-and-destroy, animated, interactive-game genre pioneered by Doom and Quake. The game's engine, or driving software, is what makes everything happen: It draws the environment, does the lighting, paints the textures and makes the monsters go.

As a bonus, the $40 game CD-ROM (available for both PC and Mac) contains an easy-to-use "level editor” -- a graphics-processing program, comparable to a text-processing program such as Microsoft Word -- and a relatively simple scripting program. These tools enable users to modify the game's environments and creatures -- or to create their own -- and then to animate them with the Unreal engine.

"There was no conscious effort to make this a generic product,” says Mark Rein, vice president at Epic Games of Raleigh, N.C., which makes Unreal.

"We were just making a game. But people bought the game and realized, ‘Geez, I can use this to do some interesting stuff.'

"They were suddenly able to make things move quickly in real time -- to move around in an accurate, three-dimensional space and interact with an environment,” Rein explained.

Architects and the developer of a commercial real estate program have adapted the Unreal engine to create functioning 3-D visualizations of houses and office buildings, complete with moving figures and working elevators.

And Montreal-based developer Alex Redman is producing Extreme Wing Chun VR, an interactive, encyclopedia-style martial arts program with animated 3-D sessions that is designed to teach fundamentals of wing chun kung fu.

Thousands of fans have produced and shared Unreal filesand keep in touch via dozens of sites dedicated to the game, among them www.planetunreal.com, www.unrealnews.com/ and www.unrealnation.net. One site, www.unrealengine.com, is devoted entirely to news about the engine.

Since it took Epic three years to develop its state-of-the-art technology, other game makers have chosen to license the Unreal engine rather than risk spending their own time and money trying to create one that works as well.

Trend-setting shooter games like Doom and Quake were the first to offer an editor to consumers and to license their engines to other game developers (the justly acclaimed Half-Life and the upcoming Daikatana use modified Quake II engines, for instance).

But, contends Rein, "The Unreal engine is today's most popular licensed engine among 3-D developers. There are 15 games and/or applications being created with our technology.”

Some of the most eagerly awaited computer games have adapted the Unreal engine. Among them: Wheel of Time, set in the world of Robert Jordan's fantasy novels (due in November); Unreal Tournament, multiplayer-style death matches for the solo player vs. the computer (coming in December); Deus Ex, a futuristic thriller from world-class gamemaker Warren Spector (due in the first quarter of 2000), and Duke Nukem Forever, which abandoned the Quake II engine after a year's development to switch to the

Unreal engine (expected in mid- 2000).

Makers of games for kids are also using the Unreal engine for high-velocity -- and goreless -- experiences.

With Knowledge Adventure's just-released Dr. Brain Thinking Games: Action/Reaction, for instance, kids have to use their wits (and the principles of geometry, physics, mechanics and logic) to defeat their adversaries, rather than shoot them.

As a techno-cultural phenomenon, however, the most interesting and unforeseen use of the Unreal engine and its level-building editor thus far is as a tool for developers of virtual realities.

Japan's Gifu University, according to Rein, "is investing a significant amount of money in virtual reality. They're teaching classes in how to use the Unreal editor. And they're hooking up the Unreal engine to all sorts of physical devices so you can interact with the world in different ways.”

Epic's goal in making Unreal was "to entertain people,” says Rein. "A virtual reality application is designed to teach people. With a game, we don't need to be ‘realistic.' We don't care if you jump 30 feet off a roof and land upright. We don't care if you get shot three times and still go on running and fighting, because that's what gamers want.

"With virtual reality, they try to get the walking speed correct and all the distances and heights and specifications of their locations as accurate as possible," he says. "They're creating a simulation of a real-world experience.”

Digitalo's DeLeon describes his Virtual Notre Dame tour as "an educational, experiential tool.” He said he chose the Unreal engine for three reasons: "It allowed us to portray accurate 3-D virtual spaces, the visual quality is incredible and it's elegantly simple and inexpensive to use, compared to some of the other systems we'd been working with.”

The project was underfunded, but using Unreal technology and collaborating over the Internet with team members in Paris, Japan and Florida made it possible to create a unique digital replica of a historic landmark. The beta version of Virtual Notre Dame was uploaded to the Web on Aug. 31 and can be found at www.vrndpro ject.com.

"It's rough yet,” says DeLeon. "We're going to refine some aspects to make it more accessible to the average person. And we're planning a virtual wedding in the cathedral.”

When you visit the site, you download a viewer. Then you have the option of doing the tour by yourself on your computer with a virtual guide, or -- with a single keystroke -- doing it in the company of others while connected online. At this point, says DeLeon, the server has a thousand users.

"When you go in, you pick an avatar -- a colored glowing orb -- and a screen name. You can meet other people in different rooms, flying around like glowing balls, and talk to them using an AOL-type chat system.”

Rather than being a profit-making venture, the Virtual Notre Dame Project was produced as a demonstration to the world of what Digitalo Studios can do with off-the-shelf technology. And, DeLeon confides, it has already attracted the attention of a prestigious potential client.

"We haven't signed any papers yet,” says DeLeon, "but we've been contacted by the Smithsonian , which is interested in virtual tours of some of their exhibits.”

Another Unreal engine-powered project, Unrealty -- a real estate program for creating virtual office buildings, produced by Long Islander Vito Miliano -- was scheduled to go online with demos this week at www.unrealty.net.

"We've been in discussions with several real estate firms on Long Island about what they need,” says Miliano, a freelance programer from Port Jefferson who works as a consultant with a Washington, D.C., firm.

"Right now,” he explained, "when you are planning a building with 300,000 square feet of office space, the only way you can ‘see' that building is A.) build it, B.) refer to concept sketches or C.) spend days to create a 3-D computer rendering using a commercial architectural program -- just one shot, from one angle, to give you one rough idea.

"Using the Unreal engine,” he added, "we can very rapidly prototype any building concept very accurately and very realistically. With three or four clicks, you've got a box with approximate dimensions. A few clicks later, you've added textures ...

"All the interested parties, starting with the architect and the builder, then bringing in the interior decorator and prospective tenants, can get together as avatars online to tour the project and chat. You have the option of using a virtual guide or not, and of downloading the buildings as a program on a corporate network, or not. There will be an Unrealty browser, 10 MB or so, that you download. And once you've got that, it works like a plug-in. There's no software product that you go out and buy. We set you up and teach you how to use the program and provide support for it.

"The Unreal engine is the best of breed, the best 3-D engine available commercially,” says Miliano. "It supports huge levels” -- a virtual building or city block, for instance -- "and has great texture details. Also, it supports software rendering. So if your computer doesn't have a 3-D accelerator, it will produce all the great features anyway on a Pentium 200 PC with 32 MB RAM without any problem.”

The final word on the real-world applications of the Unreal engine and editor belongs to Davis Chauviere, principal of HKS Inc., a 500-employee Dallas architectural firm. It appeared on www.unrealengine.com.

His firm, he wrote, had "been thoroughly frustrated with the tools developed for the architectural community for real-time walk-throughs.” That is, they don't let the architect or client walk around at their own speed to inspect and speedily alter the virtual building in detail.

After seeing his son, a computer science/art major at the University of Texas, play Quake II in January, 1998, Chauviere experimented with editors until he found one "that allowed me to construct the building we currently are in before we occupied it. We were planning to pursue Quake further, but when Unreal shipped, we tried UnrealEd [the editing program] and never looked back.”

Chauviere's firm has for more than a year now been using the Unreal engine and editor -- with a customized tweaking by his son -- to visualize all their projects before they build them.

"My God,” concludes Chauviere. "If folks can make stuff that amazingly cool, what does the future hold? All I can say is ‘Wow.'”

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