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Now anyone can build for SteamVR with Epic's Unreal Engine 4

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When Valve showed up at this year's GDC they brought a few new toys, including their room-scale SteamVR system and the final version of the Steam Controller. What they also packed in their carry on was a prototype version of Unreal Engine 4, and Epic is releasing that toolset free to the world today.

Now every developer has access to tools specifically designed to create room-sized virtual reality experiences. All they need is Valve's equipment.

Epic has been on a tear lately, trying to get it's UE4 engine into the hands of as many developers as possible. In February they announced a grant program to help devs get funding, and in March they made the entire engine free. In the months leading up to Valve's splashy demos at GDC, Epic was quietly working alongside the massive game publisher to help make UE4 a better tool for working with room-scale systems.

UE4 has been used to build games for virtual reality in the past, and includes tools to design for systems such as the Oculus Rift. But those VR solutions, says Epic's lead engineer Nick Whiting, only allow users to move freely inside a space of a few meters. SteamVR is something different entirely, giving users freedom of movement inside a room-sized space. That meant different tools had to be developed to make UE4 useful for developers to build for SteamVR.

The Steam Controller presented its own unique challenges.

"In previous demos we’ve done, we were limited to having your head move around wherever it wants," Whiting told Polygon. "But you didn’t have any interaction. You couldn’t use your hands or anything like that."

"This was the first time we got to play around with motion controllers in VR. How do we expose that to people? How do we make it easy for people to take advantage of the motion controllers without it being very complex? So we basically extended the systems that we already had in UE4. ... So anything that you attach to this motion tracking component now basically appears in the virtual world tracked to your motion controllers in your hand. So it’s really cool, because you can put lights on people’s hands, you can do magic effects off people’s hands. All sorts of possibilities come up as soon as you have motion control in the room scale."

Whiting says that one of the first moments where his team knew things were clicking into place with UE4 was when a player put on the SteamVR goggles and, from inside the simulation, reached out with their hands to pick up the Steam Controller in the real world.

They had succeeded in matching the real and the virtual world to such a degree that the player didn't even have to think about picking up the controller, they just did it.

Epic's not done promoting the integration between their systems and Valve's. In conjunction with headset maker HTC, Epic will be hosting the first Room-Scale Vive VR Jam on May 9-10 and a Room-Scale Vive VR Demo Night on May 11 in Austin, Texas. For more information, you can check out Epic's website.

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