Lighting levels and layout cannot describe a lighting design in-situ. At AES Engineering we use traditional rendering techniques as well as gaming engine technology to offer our clients an enhanced, interactive, visual experience of our lighting designs in the architectural space. By combining high-resolution finishes with complex lighting and shadowing, we produce videos and virtual reality (VR) experiences that convey mood and emotion. These visualizations clarify the design intent and help clients buy into innovative lighting designs.
Gaming engines are software tools designed for the creation and development of video games on a variety of platforms. They include rendering engines for 3D graphics, physics engines for simulating gravity, lighting, sound, animation, camera and video editor components. These tools can be used by lighting consultants to convey a powerful, artistic visual experience that transcends the standard (those post-processed renderings we have all seen).
Why use gaming engine software to demonstrate your lighting design? The flexibility and programmability of gaming engine software allows for almost limitless possibilities when it comes to creating compelling experiences that excite and engage. Gaming environments are interactive. From a sunrise or sunset shining through glazing, moving clouds in the sky, stars, fog, rain, water and falling snow. All of these add to the realism of the architectural environment you are intending to light. Animation and artificial Intelligence can be programmed into gaming engines. I’ve programmed people who will pick a point and walk to it, pause then pick a new point. Using these people to visualize what the space might look like when populated is a vast improvement over the standard Entourage characters popular with Revit renderings.
Gaming engines are VR-ready. Adding a pair of VR goggles, music, and sound effects makes the experience highly immersive.
Many architecture, engineering and construction professionals are already working with 3D models, perhaps in Revit or Sketchup. With a bit of massaging these files can be imported into the gaming engine for texturing and lighting.
While the initial setup of a gaming engine project might take longer than traditional rendering techniques, the speed at which you can render complex camera sequences or high-resolution still images can more than compensate. This is because gaming engines “bake” or build the lighting once. Although any changes to lighting will require it to be rebuilt. This could take minutes or hours depending on the complexity of the scene.
In contrast, a single movie sequence may take days or weeks to complete and may require expensive render farms.
There are many gaming engines to choose from including Cryengine, Unity, Unreal Engine, Frostbite3 and Pixar Renderman. Some are free and some have different levels of subscription and restrictions on how you use them. Autodesk recently entered the gaming engine market, acquiring the Bitsquid gaming engine in mid 2014. They have since rebranded it as Stingray. Unreal Engine is free for people developing architectural visualizations. It has excellent online support through blogs, livestream tutorials and free content. Good support was the reason we started developing content with Unreal Engine.
Unreal Engine requires Filmbox (FBX) files for import. FBX is a common pipeline for transporting audio, video and motion between applications. Exporting Revit geometry to FBX format is the first step. I suggest exporting the geometry by type: e.g., floors, walls, ceilings and glazing. Importing the entire building into the engine at once is not a good idea.
Importing the FBX files into the engine requires certain import options to be set, including generating a UV channel for lightmaps. This is where the engine will bake the static lighting into the scene. Autodesk materials and finishes will not be imported so you will have to texture the building using the material editor within the engine. We usually make our own materials from scratch, although a good source for high-resolution materials is Allegorithmic’s Substance. As with traditional visualization techniques, the mastering of the technology is just a small part of the picture. Adjusting lighting and materials is an artistic process that, with a little patience, can yield amazing results.
Gaming engines can be used to output high-res screenshots, video sequences, interactive walkthroughs and VR experiences. Depending on the engine you choose, the learning curve can be quite steep. There are services that will prepare your model for you and get it into the engine, so you can concentrate your efforts on lighting. I find this unnecessary, as the FBX import is fairly simple. Online resources – video tutorials, blogs and livestream broadcasts – are a must, and can help streamline your process, and win projects.
AES provides electrical, lighting and technology consulting from four offices in Western Canada; collaborating with leading architects, designers and clients. We find that using gaming engines to produce renderings, video visualizations and immersive VR experiences is a cost-effective way for the customer to understand and viscerally connect with lighting design strategies. By exploring spatial relationships, overall ambiance and key design features, clients can make more-confident decisions. And with that client support, creative lighting design can be realized IRL.