This summer, as a part of the Penn Undergraduate Research Program, I worked together with a team in reconstructing the hydraulic landscape of pre-Columbian Baures, Bolivia, in Unreal Engine 4, an advanced game engine. The project was inspired by Dr. Norm Badler and Dr. Clark Erickson’s class, Visualizing the Past / Peopling the Past (CIS106 / ANTH258), which focused on how computer graphics can aid archaeologists and anthropologists in making reconstructions of the past. As the fall 2016 semester class was focused on Pre-Columbian Bolivia, each student in the class worked on recreating something which was commonplace at this time, including local foliage, human models, everyday items, sounds, and motion capture for movements. In the end, the individual students’ work was used to construct a simple landscape depicting Bolivian life in Unreal.
The goal of the summer was to take the project made during the fall semester and complete it, as much of the students’ work didn’t make it into the engine due to not being properly made. This meant that the team had to split tasks to make and fix models, adjust the landscape for historical accuracy, and populate the landscape. In addition to this, as none of us had previous experience with Unreal, and nobody else in our department was adept at it, we had to learn how to use the engine from scratch.
Given that I did not have much experience with Maya to help with fixing and making models, I focused more on learning Unreal and understanding its visual scripting interface, Blueprint. I could then use the Blueprints that I made to populate the landscape by giving the human models simple Artificial Intelligence (AI) which allowed them to wander the landscape on their own and react to objects on the landscape. I also learned how to use and import the motion capture data and blend and adjust animations in order to populate a village where people are working and communicating. Additionally, I worked to populate the landscape with the models made.
Learning an entirely new program from the beginning, especially one as advanced as Unreal, was a hurdle — it took me several weeks before I felt as though I could actually do something worthwhile and even as I was working in Blueprint and on the AIs, I was still learning. However, as I worked with it, I was able to think of what I could do with it. As a student studying Digital Media Design, I am very interested in pursuing a future in animation, and Unreal is an engine which would allow me to begin learning how to animate, as it renders everything on the spot. Furthermore, it helped me overcome my fear of the gaming industry and actually made me more interested in it. Learning Unreal broadened my vision as someone in Computer Graphics, and I am glad to have been as exposed to it as I was this summer.