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Our annual look at the future of Unreal Engine graphics

How digital humans, ray tracing, and new physics systems are advancing real-time visuals

A still from the short film “Troll” shows a princess reaching for a crown carried by fairies. Goodbye Kansas/Deep Forest Films
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

At Epic Games’ Game Developers Conference keynote today, the company gave developers and fans an updated look at how the company’s Unreal Engine is bringing us closer and closer to photorealistic computer-generated graphics.

Two short films and a demonstration of Epic’s new physics engine, all of which were rendered in real time, highlighted some of the advancements coming in upcoming versions of Unreal Engine.


“Troll” from Goodbye Kansas and Deep Forest Films stars a digital princess and a group of glowing fairies who play with her enchanted golden crown — all of which is meant to demonstrate ray tracing, cinematic-quality lighting, soft shadows, and reflections in Unreal Engine. The short film was created in Unreal Engine 4.22, which will be released fully in the coming weeks.

During today’s demonstration, Epic Games engineer Nick Penwarden noted that “Troll” was running on a single Nvidia GeForce 2080 Ti graphics card.


“Rebirth” from studio Quixel was created by just three artists using Unreal Engine 4.21, and required no custom plug-ins and no custom code, according to Epic Games chief technical officer Kim Libreri. The short, which is decidedly less organic than Troll, shows off how photogrammetry techniques and Unreal Engine’s asset library can do for real-time graphics.

Quixel said it spent “a month in ice-cold rain and thunderstorms scanning locales in Iceland, returning with over 1,000 scans, capturing a wide range of eco-regions and natural environments” developing the short.


Finally, Epic Games showed off Chaos, the new physics system coming to Unreal Engine 4.23. Using the world of Robo Recall, Epic’s VR first-person shooter for Oculus Rift, the Chaos demo illustrated how real-time destruction and physics in Unreal can provide “Hollywood-quality physical simulations,” showing destruction on varying scales.

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