Software frameworks known as game engines are opening up new markets for game designers and making high-quality simulations available to companies that otherwise couldn’t afford them. With help from software based on the technology used to create the immersive virtual worlds of video games, paramedics and firefighters are finding ways to train more effectively and inexpensively, and architectural firms are showing designs to clients at an unprecedented level of detail.
Epic Games, based in Cary, North Carolina, was one of the earliest game developers to explore the market for its game engine in the arena of so-called “serious gaming”—a catch-all term that refers to uses of gaming technology for non-entertainment purposes. Game engines perform functions such as rendering the 3-D environment of the game and coördinating sounds, object collisions, and the interactions between players. The current global market for game engines like Epic Games’ is estimated at $100 million to $200 million, says Ben Sawyer, cofounder of the Serious Game Initiative, an organization based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that is dedicated to promoting non-entertainment uses for games.
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine software, which is at the heart of such best-selling games as Gears of War and Batman: Arkham Asylum, makes it simple to build a scene—say, several city blocks affected by a natural disaster—and then allow users to move around the scene while interacting with each other and with characters that simulate people they’re likely to encounter.
The technology has been used to develop health-care training programs with clients such as Duke University Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. A paramedic training application, for example, lets users approach the victims of a simulated accident, ask questions, assess a patient’s vital signs, and apply treatments. The technology also allows instructors to monitor and measure performance from afar. Students learn faster and remember more of what they learn, says Jerry Heneghan director of product development for health-care simulations at Applied Research Associates. It’s also an easier way to train large numbers of people than conventional methods in which teachers demonstrate on mannequins. “Overall, it’s less expensive,” he says. “You can train more people faster, so you get a faster return on investment.”
On the simulation side, the architectural firm HKS used the Unreal Engine to allow owners of the Dallas Cowboys football team (and, later, members of the public) to explore designs for the new Cowboys Stadium before construction was completed in 2009. Another customer, currently undisclosed, is blending architecture visualization with first-responder training, creating a detailed model of streets and the interiors of major buildings. Firefighters can use the model to learn what to expect when they’re called to specific sites. “When they go into a building, they’re not going in blind,” says Jay Wilbur, vice president of product development at Epic Games. “They know where every door is, where every door leads to.”