Epic is getting very serious about things that aren't games
The most surprising moment of the Unreal Engine keynote at GDC this year came about halfway through, when a curtain pulled back to reveal a gigantic, naked car chassis covered in QR-esque symbols. This was the 'Blackbird:' a self-driving rig designed for filming car commercials without actual cars. A camera can capture video of the Blackbird rolling around on an outdoor track, and the Unreal Engine can composite in a car and light it, in-editor. Epic actually demoed this technology live onstage: a cameraman moved around the car, and his camera feed, on a giant screen above him, sure as hell showed a blue car instead of the Blackbird. Chevrolet's global Chief Marketing Officer then came up on stage to enthusiastically inform the audience-- mainly game professionals-- what this technology means for the kind of people who make commercials. "Art directors, creative directors, marketing directors... we want to be able to see through the camera, when we're capturing images, what the new shiny sheet metal is gonna look like in that environment." I'm not going to lie: this was really damn interesting, but it was not really what I expected from a games engine keynote at a games conference.
This GDC, Unreal frontloaded their presentation with announcements and demos relevant to filmmakers, commercial-makers, and other kinds of people who don't make games. This makes sense in a post-Unity world, to be honest! Unreal has been chasing "photorealism" for years-- while Unity, very obviously, has not. Epic has now arrived at the point where their technology is very useful to tons of people who create high-quality 3D assets and scenes in non-game industries. It gives them access to a field where most of their game-engine competitors cannot follow them and compete.
Kim Libreri, Epic's CTO, quickly showed off a list of non-games projects, including an anime made in Unreal, an AR bus-trip-on-mars educational experience designed for kids, and a "fully explorable hotel" created by a development company. Two people from Industrial Light and Magic, the special-effects company founded by George Lucas, came up to show a K2SO-centric scene from Rogue One which had been partially created in Unreal. The whole damn car thing happened. A video of Andy Serkis-- the mo-cap expert who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings-- showed how his company, The Imaginarium Studios, was using mo-cap and Unreal to create a "narrative game," VR experiences, and an animated creature which appeared onstage in a production of The Tempest.
The second half of Epic's presentation was full of announcements and updates of interest to game-makers, but the first half made it clear that Epic is really damn serious about film, television, and markets outside the realm of videogames. It will be very interesting to see which companies in these new markets start working with Unreal, and how they choose to do so.