Architectural visualization has been around for centuries, with drawings and paintings depicting finished structures before they were built. In the 1990s, the movement of the industry from paper to CAD saw video added to the mix, with the new ability to produce walk-throughs and fly-throughs from design.
It was only a matter of time before architectural visualization professionals discovered real-time rendering, which can produce finished videos in a fraction of the time of traditional rendering processes. Initially intended for game development, real-time render engines have now reached a level of quality and photorealism that makes them ideal for presenting architectural designs.
With real-time rendering comes an unexpected bonus: new types of presentations for clients. Architectural visualization can now include immersive experiences like virtual reality tours, interactive, game-like projects, and cave automatic virtual environments (CAVEs) to present design in ways never seen before.
Adventures in Real-Time Rendering
Industry veteran HNTB began exploring real-time solutions in response to pressure to finish more projects in less time. With traditional rendering solutions, just that step alone could sometimes take up to five days.
“We just don’t have that kind of time anymore,” explains Austin Reed, 3D Visualization Team Lead at HNTB.
In addition to using real-time renderer Unreal Engine to shorten the time to create traditional video, the team also uses Unreal Engine to create virtual reality experiences from designs, and report that their clients love it. “They put on the headset for the first time, and they just take a step back and it’s like ‘Wow, I am in this environment,’” says Reed.
Worldwide window frame manufacturer Reynaers Aluminium has also jumped into the game with a five-sided CAVE at their headquarters in Duffel, Belgium. Inside the CAVE, dubbed AVALON, clients, architects, and visitors can explore window frame configurations within the context of the entire building’s design, and try different options until everyone is satisfied.
Inside AVALON, visitors wear see-through VR glasses rather than a head-mounted display. The glasses enable visitors to see both each other and the projection at the same time. “You can point at something, look at it together, and have a normal discussion with the person standing next to you,” says Nina Timmermans, Product Manager BIM & VR at Reynaers. “It’s a lot more effective than a flat blueprint for discussing the advantages of different options.”
The possibilities for presenting designs to clients keep growing. In Unreal Engine 4.21, there’s a new feature that enables you to author interactive experiences and stream them to a web browser on a remote PC, Mac, tablet, or phone, and without the need for the client to install any software. They can then interact with the design, for example by choosing different layout options or material treatments.
As a further testament to the changes happening in the industry, CGArchitect’s prestigious annual Architectural 3D Awards added two new categories in the 2018 competition specifically for real-time rendering projects. These categories were for users of Unreal Studio, a suite of tools designed especially for non-game uses of Unreal Engine. Unreal Studio includes Datasmith, a collection of tools for importing data from CAD applications to Unreal Engine. In addition to existing support for 3ds Max, SketchUp Pro, and many other formats, the latest release of Unreal Studio adds the ability to import files from Revit and AutoCAD.
The winning entry in the video category, from award-winning studio Line Creative, was a video presentation of a package they offer to clients. The package includes a game platform where clients can review architectural plans and video walk-throughs, take a virtual reality tour of the space, and change materials on the fly in real time.
"This winning project was our real first commercial attempt at full work with Unreal Engine,” says Eylon Sherf, Founder at Line Creative. “By exporting the scene via Datasmith, it was already 70% to 80% ready to go, with tasks like unwrapping handled automatically. That freed up time to focus on creative scene design, testing and perfecting different elements until we achieved the desired look."
The fact that Line Creative was able to create such a compelling project on their first try points up how easy it is to get into the real-time game. Tools like Unreal Engine are currently offered for free as part of Unreal Studio, and include training materials on Datasmith and the engine itself.
In the months and years to come, we expect to see many more examples of real-time presentations as part of the new face of architectural visualization.