How to use Unreal Engine 4 for VR development?

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Unreal Engine is a robust platform that supports the development of highly immersive virtual reality (VR) projects, particularly in gaming. Developed by Epic Games, Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) is the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine platform and is a widely used game development engine. 

Unreal Engine traces its origins back to the early 1990s when Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games, began developing the first engine iteration and released a game titled “Unreal.” The game showcased cutting-edge graphics and advanced capabilities, setting a new standard for the industry. As the engine evolved, subsequent versions introduced increasingly sophisticated features, cementing Unreal Engine’s reputation as a powerhouse in game development.

UE4 offers a powerful suite of tools and technologies for creating interactive and immersive experiences not only in video game creation but also in virtual three-dimensional (3D) architectural visualization, simulations and more.

This article takes a deep dive into what Unreal Engine is, how to use UE4, virtual assets and interaction in UE4, and the Unreal Engine VR framework for virtual reality apps. There is also a step-by-step guide to using UE4 for creating VR games.

Related: Augmented reality vs. virtual reality: Key differences

What are Unreal Engine and UE4?

Unreal engine is a game development engine widely used to develop video games of all sizes and genres. It was developed by Epic Games and launched its first-person shooter video game called Unreal, rendering the name Unreal Engine to this flagship suite of game development tools.

It is a powerful game engine known for its high-fidelity graphics and is also used in various industries for real-time 3D visualization, virtual production and simulation. Over time, Unreal Engine released several iterations, each with its features and updates, for example, Unreal Engine 3, Unreal Engine 4 and the latest, Unreal Engine 5.

Unreal Engine 4 was released in 2014. It was a significant revision over its predecessors with powerful rendering capabilities, a visual scripting system called Blueprints and a large content marketplace. 

While superseded by Unreal Engine 5 in April 2022, UE4 remains the game development engine of choice for many developers due to its established ecosystem, abundant resources and market stability.

What is virtual reality development?

Virtual Reality (VR) development refers to the process of creating software and experiences that immerse users in a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment. It involves bringing a virtual world to life, where users can interact with it and feel present, often through specialized headsets and other equipment.

At the core of the VR framework are hardware components (virtual reality headsets such as Oculus and PlayStation VR), software development kits offering application programming interfaces, or APIs, libraries to build applications for specific VR platforms, programming languages like C++, and engines like Unity or Unreal Engine employed to design and code these virtual experiences.

Interaction design in VR is paramount, encompassing the development of user interfaces, controls and immersive interactions. VR development involves use cases that span various fields, including gaming, fashion, education, healthcare, architecture, training and entertainment.

How to use UE4 for VR development?

UE4 works by providing a comprehensive suite of creation tools for VR developers to design, simulate and render 3D content and create visual virtual worlds. It simplifies the creation of immersive VR experiences, making it a preferred choice for developers working on virtual reality applications.

UE4 integrates a powerful rendering engine that elevates the visual appeal of graphics, ensuring stunning and realistic environments. Complementing this is its sophisticated physics engine that enables developers to implement lifelike interactions within their virtual worlds. Additionally, UE4 offers a sound processing system that enhances auditory experiences, contributing to the overall user immersion.

While game development remains the primary industry, UE4 tools are used across the retail, fashion and education sectors and by major brands like Balenciaga, Harrods, Nike and FIFA World Cup for flagship campaigns and immersive depictions.

UE4 for game development

One of the distinctive features of UE4 is its flexibility in game logic implementation. Game developers can leverage either the intuitive visual scripting language known as Blueprints or opt for traditional C++ programming, providing a versatile range of options for realizing game mechanics.

UE4 supports high levels of detail and intricate animations, empowering developers to craft gaming experiences that transcend traditional boundaries. Whether it’s the meticulous rendering of intricate textures, the implementation of complex character animations, or the creation of dynamic and immersive environments, UE4 provides the tools and capabilities necessary to bring creative visions to life.

UE4 marketplace

The UE4 Marketplace is a resource within the Unreal Engine ecosystem, providing developers with a convenient avenue to access, share and monetize assets and tools. Developers can sell their creations through the official Unreal Engine Marketplace or purchase the work of other developers.

This digital marketplace is a treasure trove of resources, providing a wide array of 3D models, textures, animations, Blueprints and other assets created by both Epic Games and third-party contributors. In addition, there are also various demos, tutorials, and already completed games from Epic Games on the Unreal Engine Marketplace, which aims to offer developers a starting point for developing their own titles.

UE4 capabilities

UE4 allows developers to create games deployed across multiple platforms, including PCs, consoles, mobile devices and more. This cross-platform support is essential for reaching a broader audience and maximizing the potential reach of a game.

UE4 real-time editing capabilities enable developers to iterate quickly and see changes in real time. Additionally, UE4 boasts a vibrant and active community of developers. The availability of documentation, forums and tutorials, along with regular updates and support from Epic Games, contributes to a collaborative environment where developers can share knowledge and solve challenges.

How to make VR games in UE4: A step-by-step guide

While each game requirement varies and requires custom solutions, here is a step-by-step overview of using UE4 for VR game development:

Step 1: Install and configure UE4

Download and install UE4 from the official Epic Games website. Open Unreal Engine Editor to set up a “New Project.” Choose the project name, location and any additional settings, such as under “Platforms,” select “Android” or “Windows,” depending on your target VR platform. Choose a VR headset (e.g., Oculus Rift, HTC, PlayStation), a location for storing the project on a device, and once done, “Create Project.”

Step 2: Set up game characters

UE4 provides VR templates that include a pawn or character. One may customize these, create their own or even purchase from the UE marketplace. 

Step 3: Design VR game environment

Drag and drop assets into the scene, adjust the lighting and set up materials. Utilize Blueprints or C++ to implement VR interactions. This may include grabbing objects, teleporting, or other interactions relevant to creating an immersive VR experience.

Step 4: Test, optimize and debug

Connect the VR headset to the computer and click the “VR Preview” button in the toolbar to test the game using the VR headset to identify bugs, refine controls and ensure player comfort. Optimize performance by using features like Level of Detail, occlusion culling and proper texture compression. Debug any issues related to VR interactions, rendering or performance. 

Step 5: Deploy

Once the VR game is ready, package, deploy and distribute it for the target platform. One may gather feedback, iterate and improve based on user testing and performance analysis. 

In essence, Unreal Engine 4 is a comprehensive and dynamic solution for game developers, offering a robust suite of tools. It provides a holistic environment, allowing developers to shape intricate and engaging virtual worlds with unparalleled detail and realism.

Limitations of Unreal Engine (UE4)

Unreal Engine 4 has limitations. These constraints can affect various aspects of the development process, impacting the choice of UE4 for specific projects. Firstly, despite being impressive, its sophisticated graphics capabilities require expensive technology, which may be a barrier for creators with little funding.

Moreover, because of its many features and intricate features, UE4 has a steep learning curve, especially for people new to game creation. In addition, UE4 projects frequently produce larger file sizes, which can cause issues for online and mobile applications by requiring more storage and longer load times.

Furthermore, although UE4 is free for development, Epic Games charges a royalty fee for commercially successful projects, which might not be ideal for all developers and may not be suitable for many developers, especially independent or smaller teams.

Lastly, even though UE4 is platform-agnostic, optimizing games for these platforms can be labor and resource-intensive. These factors make UE4 a robust yet demanding engine, suitable for many but not all development scenarios.