Epic Games has over 1.4 million developers creating everything from video games to NASA simulations to Hollywood entertainment with its Unreal Engine 4 technology. A growing number of virtual reality creators are using it too, including those working with Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Sony’s PlayStation VR. (Both companies worked with Epic to create game and tech demos to showcase their platforms.)
Now those developers can create virtual reality content more easily—by wearing a headset. Epic Games just added a VR mode to its Unreal Editor, which is what developers use to make the games, enterprise solutions, and simulations. It’s the first time creators can build virtual reality experiences, while actually being in virtual reality.
Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, believes that over time, as the hardware resolution and software capabilities of virtual reality platforms and headsets improve, people will spend less time out of virtual reality, and eventually none.
“As longtime game developers ourselves, building VR content in VR is a game-changer,” Sweeney says. “After using this, it’s clear that the metaverse isn’t too far off.”
Sweeney says adding the ability to create virtual reality content from within virtual reality improves productivity. Users can perform complex 3D actions using hand movements—where the engine can independently track your head and both hands, each with six degrees of freedom—versus a mouse with just two degrees of freedom.
“In a development business, time is money,” Sweeney says. “So saving time can either reduce cost or enable the saved time to be spent on more or higher quality content. It’s a very competitive business, so usually the latter.”
According to SuperData Research, consumers will spend $5.1 billion on virtual reality gaming hardware, accessories, and software in 2016. That’s up from the $660 million spent in 2015. Meanwhile, the global market is expected to grow to $8.9 billion in 2017 and $12.3 billion in 2018.
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With companies such as Facebook (FB), Sony (SNE), Microsoft (MSFT), HTC (HTC), Valve, Intel (INTC), Nvidia (NVDA), and Samsung (SSNLF) investing billions in virtual reality, content is going to drive hardware sales. The more quality content, the better for the entire ecosystem.
Sweeney says transitioning development from the PC screen into virtual reality opens up creation to more people. For example, a Hollywood director can bypass visual effects specialists and tweak movie shots directly. The same holds for car designers vs. CAD (computer-aided design) engineers or master architects vs. AutoCAD specialists. Virtual reality can eliminate the technology middleman.
“Storytelling will inevitably move to VR as the most expressive storytelling medium yet invented, and that requires real-time rendering rather than a series of prerecorded frames constituting a contemporary movie,” Sweeney says. “Hollywood directors, producers, actors, and visual effects specialists will lead the way, and the engine of today will be the camera of the 20th century.”
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The 2016 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers exhibit featured 30 virtual reality films this year, up from a dozen last year. Although many of those stories used 360-degree live-action cameras, virtual reality is in its infancy today.
Sweeney also sees virtual reality impacting education. While some schools are already beginning to experiment with Google Cardboard virtual reality in the classroom, Sweeney sees a much different future.
“We shouldn’t limit our thinking to today’s hardware, with fairly heavy headsets and motion controllers,” Sweeney says. “Think five years out, when the hardware is closer to the form factor of sunglasses than a helmet, and the sensors pick up hand and finger gestures directly.”
Unreal Engine 4 technology is currently available for free. Any game developers or companies that ship a product using the technology pay Epic a 5% royalty on gross revenue after the first $3,000 per quarter.
In March 2013, Tencent Holdings (TCEHY) invested $330 million in Epic Games, claiming 48.4% of the company.