New London Architecture

Five minutes with…David Weir-McCall

Thursday 25 March 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor talks to David Weir-McCall of Epic Games about better collaboration on built environment projects through software, augmented reality, and the prospect of the ‘gamer generation’ to come changing our cities, having been brought up in ‘Fortnite’-like 3D digital worlds.
 
David Taylor: Hello! How are you, and what are you working on?
 
David Weir-McCall: (laughs) I’m doing good! I guess we work on working with other people. We work very closely with large architectural and engineering firms, so really what we're doing is trying to support them and their use of both Unreal Engine and Twinmotion. We find it takes up a fair amount of time making sure that they get the support that they need so it works as well as possible. 
 
DT: Can you, for people who don't know your products just give a pithy one-liner about what the chief innovation is in both pieces of software that you produce - Unreal Engine and Twinmotion?

DW-M: Yes. So we have got Unreal Engine and Twinmotion. Unreal Engine is a gaming engine which has been used in the game industry for the best part of 20 years plus. We use it to build Fortnite and a number of other games, but we also licence it out to other game developers so that they can build their games off of it. However, we are starting to see huge adoption in other industries – architecture, automotive, film and  media etc. Twinmotion is actually built on top of the Unreal Engine. But what they've done is they’ve simplified it and created this very simple UI to allow the non-games industry to have a very quick visualisation tool.
Green Space in an urban jungle, Park
Image courtesy of Pawel Rymsza
Description: Produced using Twinmotion, winner of the recent Twinmotion Community Challenge: ‘Green space in an urban jungle’.

So: you don't need that learning curve; you don't need that time it takes to learn a whole new platform to use Twin Motion. It is there to create visualisations in a few clicks, so it works next to your proprietary software tools. Whereas, what we see Unreal Engine being used for, instead of quick visualisations, we see it and describe it as being more the advanced, real time 3D creation platform. So that's where you can then add in your custom functionality, your own storytelling, and really create a number of bespoke use cases and experiences around really whatever you're looking for.
So that’s kind of the difference between the two. 
 
DT: Twinmotion is essentially a collaborative tool then, is it? A sort of real time way of collaborating for the architecture and built environment sector? That’s its key, is it?
 
DW-M: Yes. I mean, a lot of what is required of the architecture industry is this kind of fast design iteration and this way of communicating your designs, which kind of goes out beyond showing people REVIT windows, or showing people 2D static drawings. So, what Twinmotion looks to do is create a sort of quick storytelling design iteration tool link, so it comes direct from your REVITs, your SketchUps, your Rhinos, but it just allows you to create this kind of story narrative very quickly. 
 
DT: What do you think the gaming industry, more generally and broadly, can ‘teach’, as it were, architecture and the built environment? And what do you see as its effects in the real world?
Green Space in an Urban Jungle, Community Challenge
Image Courtesy of Carlos Mario Paris
Description: Produced using Twinmotion, a community challenge submission for the ‘Green space in an urban jungle’ competition.

DW-M: It’s a really interesting question. I mean, if you look at the top layer of what the gaming industry has been doing for the last few decades it is that they've actually been crafting these sort of digital storytelling platforms, really, these experiences. They are very experienced at getting people involved or getting people together in the one space or creating these UI or UX user experiences, which we struggled for in a long time in the architecture industry. You know, how is it that we can engage with our clients, how can we engage with our stakeholders? But that's the primary function of a game. That’s the primary function of the game industry - that they're there to really interact and really engage with their users.
 
So I think game tools like Unreal Engine are really opening this way of connecting with people in ways that we've never been able to before, reaching out to them and experiencing them in a way that is quite native and quite simple for the game industry or for a game company. So, I think those tools branching out beyond games and kind of into all these other industries like architecture starts to provide that functionality to it.
 
DT: And do you think, then, that new generation of gamers can be enticed into careers in the built environment and architecture more readily? Do you think that it is opening up a new talent pool?
 
DW-M: Yes. What’s really interesting about the architecture industry in general is there are jobs which are available in architecture firms now that weren't there five years ago. I mean my last role within an architecture firm was a digital technologist, which five years prior didn't exist. And that evolving role was introduced because of this change that's happening within the industry, this evolution of new tools and ways to create experiences and outputs.
 
And so even before I left there was this gap that was being filled by software developers being brought into firms, by UI developers being brought into firms. So, absolutely I think there's a space that’s opening up where we want that expertise because it's actually been recognised as such a valuable part of the overall equation. And I think over time that's only going to get more and more, and all the more welcoming to other specialties, other than just having an architecture degree.
Water Street Tampa 
Image Courtesy of SPP and Imerza
Description: XR-based digital twin of Tampa, a 17 feet in diameter model showing the Water Street district’s buildings in miniature transforming real-estate visualisation.

DT: As a last question on this then, do you think that in the future - say 20,30 years hence - we will be able to discern a stylistic change or other change to our built environments as a result of more gamers entering the industries?
 
DW-M: Absolutely. The common stat that I love is that 1% of citizens engage in their urban planning and changes in their towns and cities. So, you know, if someone's building a new community school or someone is building a new housing development, the engagement publicly with that is very low. And it's very low because it's not done in a very interactive or easy-to-get-involved-with way.  Whereas what the gaming industry is doing and what these tools are doing is actually bridging that gap and it’s bridging that ability for everyone and anyone to get involved and to be a part of, and to see a clear vision of what’s being developed. 
So I think what you're going to see is that the built environment will change because we're going to have a wider collaborative feedback. An interaction like we have not had, prior. You know, you're asking if you imagine in the way that you're developing an urban masterplan or a development - you're asking people to look at a picture and imagine it in reality, which is really hard for some people. It's not as easy for some people to look at an image and imagine visually what it could look like in context. Whereas now what we're doing is we're able to go: ‘well, you want to see what this thing looks like?’. You hold up your iPhone; you can see it in augmented reality. You put on this VR headset and you can be standing on the doorsteps or actually fly around it or navigate around it in this 3D space. So: bridging that gap is really what is probably going to help people be more engaged and actually reshape new developments as we move forward.
Image Credit Epic Games

DT: …Which is a very optimistic vision isn't it? That the gamer generation will be that much more design-literate and therefore can only impact our cities positively in the future.
 
DW-M: Absolutely! What I love is this idea that Fortnite has I think around 350 million players and in 10- 15 years you are going to have 350 million people entering the job market and the development market and adult life where and they’ll all have grown up in these 3D worlds. They will have grown up with these 3D experiences and understand that context more than they ever would with a 2D drawing or a 2D image. So it's really amazing and I'll give an optimistic and positive view of what’s to come, but you really just have to look at what the generation just behind us are growing up with to see where we could go in the future.
 
DT: Magic! well that's a great optimistic note to end on, and you're doing your bit with Epic Games to sort of thrust that nearer into reality – I’ll use the term ‘reality’ in a kind of loose way!
 
DW-M: (laughs)
 
DT:  But thank you very much for your time. That was really fascinating 
 
DW-M: Not at all. I’m happy to share and help!
 
DT: Okay see you soon
 
DW-M: Thanks very much! Bye

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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