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Epic Games partners with 'Hobbit' effects company Weta for VR tech

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Last year, Epic Games Chief Technology Officer Kim Libreri and Unreal Engine 4 General Manager Ray Davis visited some friends at Lord of the Rings effects studio Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand. They only wanted a tour of the studio, but along the way they ran into Weta's head of R&D, Alasdair Coull. He mentioned that he was messing around with Unreal Engine 4, Epic's game development platform. Fast-forward to March 2015: Epic Games and Weta are showing off a virtual reality demo featuring the greedy dragon, Smaug, swimming through mountains of gold in the second Hobbit film, voiced in all his baritone glory by actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Smaug speaks directly to the person in the headset -- Oculus Rift's Crescent Bay model -- and his daunting size is on full display; 500 feet of red-scaled, deep-speaking Smaug.

"It was an exploration for us," Coull says. "We've been doing a lot of real-time stuff at the motion-capture stage. Particularly for The Battle of Five Armies, we built a lot of pipeline to create real-time versions of our final assets. We got to the end of the film and we were just kind of looking around, and VR was interesting, so we wanted to explore it. And then came the guys down to New Zealand. ... It was just a happy coincidence."

Weta and Epic's VR demo includes dialogue and assets directly from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, chopped up to create a more palatable, immersive experience. The team tried a few scenarios that included the film's hero, Bilbo, and his dialogue with Smaug at first, but Coull says people in the headset generally ended up confused or weirded out. They got rid of Bilbo and recut until everything felt right and real. As real as a 500-foot dragon slithering through a vault of gold in a mystical mountain can feel, at least.

"It's not reimagining from scratch; it's actually taking the film and just tweaking it," Coull explains. There are no guidelines here, no recipe for crafting the perfect VR universe; developers simply have to feel it out as they go. There aren't even any labels -- the Smaug demo, for example, isn't a game and it isn't a film. It's an "experience," to put it one way. Libreri says that this moment of nebulous definition is a sign of our rapidly evolving times, and that eventually, consumer electronics, film and gaming will simply melt together.

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"The interactive industry, the gaming industry, the movie business, it's so close in terms of techniques," he says. "It's becoming feasible; we really can cross over. ... I think what you're going to see over the next few years, is more and more and more companies sort of playing in both worlds. And any game team that wants to tell a story about their characters will start producing things that will look more and more and more cinematic in nature."

Epic's Davis agrees.

"It's really fascinating -- there's sort of a combination of real-time sensibilities, film industry and then VR," he says. "It's this new storytelling medium. And I have no doubt that there will be fantastic VR games and there will be VR films, but I have a feeling there's something truly magical ahead of us. I hope it's sooner than later. Some say five, maybe 20 years; who knows."

The founder of Epic Games might know. Tim Sweeney, the man who built Epic, recently put forth his own tentative timeline, noting that the coming year would be a "watershed" time for VR and the technology would "change the world."

"The hardware is going to double in quality every few years for another decade, to the point where, 10 years from now, it's going to be hard to tell the difference between virtual reality and the real world," Sweeney said. Mark your calendars for 2025, folks.

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