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Unreal Engine 4 (UE4): Learning Real Time Rendering for Architecture

With the development of Unreal Engine 4 becoming free to use for commercial purposes, especially for arch viz artists, real time rendering has really come to the forefront of visualization technologies. As artists we are always looking for new ways to present our projects -- 2 years ago 3d printing was all the rage -- and real time seems to be a promising new frontier that many artists are exploring in the field of architecture. Of course, real time engines like UE4 have been out there for a very long time (used mostly for video games), but only recently have they become a practical (and not cost prohibitive) option for architectural visualization workflows. The desire for instant, photoreal feedback is just too valuable to ignore. Rendering beautiful animation clips in a manner of seconds, rather than days can save artists enormous amounts of time and money. However, implementing and learning this new process can be difficult, and it is not always right for every situation. Let's look at some of the key elements of this new technology.


What exactly is real time rendering technology?

The easiest way to describe this is to say it is like playing a video game. Traditionally in arch viz, you create a model, setup and animate cameras, then render each frame of that camera as a single still shot. At an average of 20 minute renderings per frame, and 30 frames per second, a 1 minute animation takes 25 days on a single computer!!! Real time rendering, on the other hand, takes 5 minutes to render a 5 minute animation, or 1 hour to render a hour animation. You get the idea. Like in a video game, everything is being rendered in real time, as you navigate around the model. Because of this, you can actually just skip the animation part all together, and give your clients a "video game level" of the project, completely ready to navigate around in a photoreal environment.

What software / pricing is available?

There are two main players in the game when it comes to architecture and real time, Unreal Engine 4 and Unity 3d. Both are very capable and powerful engines. One of the large differences between the two are the pricing structures. For Unity there is a personal version (FREE), and a pro verision ($1500). The problem is that most companies won't quailify to use the free version. If you are a freelancer, you might -- it depends on if you made over $100,000 in revenue last year. You can get more info about the licensing here.

Unreal Engine is completely free, but they take a royalty from any games you sell. The good news is that they don't count architectural walkthroughs. This means that real time for arch viz with UE4 is just free...FOREVER!

A few years ago I really saw Unity taking the lead for real time in architecture. There were a lot more tutorials out there for Unity than Unreal. However, now that Unreal has come up with their newest price structure, arch viz companies are gravitating towards it.

Overall, I think that Unreal Engine is really good as easily creating flashy, photoreal-ish, renderings. Unity can do this too, but it is a little harder to get good results, in my opinion. On the contrary, I really like Unity's built in javascript scripting platform, because if you know javascript already you can easily start scripting things for your objects to do. Unreal Engine uses blueprint, which is a visual scripting tool. This might be better for people that aren't familiar with scripting, but if you already know how to code a little bit, it is annoying to have to figure out blueprint instead. So, the whole blueprint thing could be a positive or a negative, depeding on perspective.

There are some other, what I consider to be lower tier, softwares available that do real time. The most popular of these is probably Lumion. I view Lumion like I view SketchUp -- it is so easy that it is hard. Easy for anyone to learn, but hard to do highly customized, highly detailed, high-end professional work. There are many examples of Lumion for architecture out there, many of which are almost a drag and drop solution, or too cheesy to be considered professional. Lumion also comes with a pretty big price tag (starting at $1600 for a limited version), but if you want something simple, it might be a good solution. If you want to download Lumion, see pricing, or just learn more about it, see here: . There are certainly some impressive examples to be found there.

Because of the pricing for UE4, that literally cannot be beat, and because of its endless capabilities, the rest of this article will mostly focus on that software. If you want to learn more about UE4, or download your own free copy, see here.

How hard is it to learn?

If you are already used to working in 3d applications, Learning Unreal Engine (or similar), shouldn't be that hard. In fact, I have made a class specifically for the purpose of teaching 3d artists to jump into the real time arena. Once you have figured out the basic workflow, which my course will teach you in about 2 hours, you will have everything you need to start your own projects. From there, of course, you can spend years perfecting your craft, but that is similar with any 3d program -- it's also what makes 3d fun and challenging.

You can join my class for $15 here. Trust me, it will be a lot easier than endlessly searching the internet for just the right tutorial. This one focuses on the exact workflow you need as an arch viz artist.

All that being said, I don't want this to just sound like an advertisement. There are several other resources out there around the web for learning. Several professional visualization companies have taken on UE4 into their workflow, and they have shared many aspects of the process on the internet. At the end of this article I have included links to some of the best tutorials. I will warn you, though, they are written tutorials and they might leave you with lots of questions. They wont cover things such as basic UI, navigation, using templates, or any of that kind of stuff. This is what inspired to me to create my own course.

There are also several tutorials on youTube, but they will be more focused on specific techniques, rather than an overall workflow and general overview of the program. There are many different ways / resources to learn to UE4 for free, it just depends on your learning preferences. Keep in mind that epic games also publishes official learning videos that cover elements of the program in great depth. The only downfall of these is that they don't necessarily focus on the specific workflow you need for arch viz.

What application does real time rendering have for architecture?

Unreal Engine is used in lots of ways. Because it is so powerful, the sky is really the limit. The best way to see its capabilities is probably to look at some awesome examples from around the web of Unreal Engine 4 at work.

In this example from UE4 Architecture on youTube, the real time navigation capabilities are on full display, but so are the great scripting capabilities. You can see that with scripts, your virtual reality environment can become completely interactive with the capability to change finishes in real time.

This example from koola showcases the beautiful visuals that Unreal Engine is capable of, even with a small amount of effort. You can see that the lighting and materials are fully capable of stunning renderings.

Here you can see another example of a pretty good sized scene with lots of detail, all rendering beautifully in real time. It is really quite amazing to see this kind of quality from a game engine, but UE4 is just that good.

The quality here looks pretty equivalent to some of the high-end, frame by frame, animations we have seen over the years from V-Ray, but with UE4 you have to consider that there are no render times! Everything is rendering as you navigate, so the speed increase is enormous. Keep in mind that UE4 also has the ability to animate and render cameras in real time, like the koola example above. This means that you can create traditional keyframe animations too, but the rendertimes are almost instant (1 second of animation = 1 second of rendering).


The fact that Unreal Engine 4 can create these kind of stunning visuals, add interactivity, all while being free to the user, makes it an incredible product. This is also why I believe that it will continue to grow in popularity, and eventually become an integral part of the arch viz industry. It certainly has the potential to become a powerful tool for conveying and selling architectural ideas.

*If you are interested in getting started quickly with trying out UE4, please check out my class here. I did my best to cater it to arch viz artists who want to learn how to quickly and efficiently turn their existing 3d projects into real time.

*If you want to start learning on your own, for free, there are several written tutorials out there, but they seem to be vague on a lot of the details. If you are savvy, you should be able to fill in the gaps, though. I still think it is worth it to just pay a few bucks for a complete video tutorial course -- wink, wink. You can find good info here:

You can also check out a playlist of all the free previews from my course, here:

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