Friday, October 22, 2021

The College of Engineering's Iowa Technology Institute (ITI) has received an Epic MegaGrant that will be used to explore the integration of its virtual human, Santos, with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine.

ITI will test Santos’s compatibility as a plugin for the real-time 3D tool, which powers many of today’s video games, entertainment, and interactive experiences. Epic Games is an American video game software developer and publisher, and Unreal Engine is Epic’s suite of development tools for anyone working with real-time technology, including virtual worlds.

With the grant, ITI researchers will assess whether Santos and Unreal Engine can exchange information, such as human body type, environment, and tasks, and apply the Santos model calculations to reflect human impacts of the scenario, such as fatigue and energy usage. The  physics-based, biomechanically accurate Santos already has helped public- and private-sector partners, including the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), model and test human behavior to predict outcomes such as performance and injuries.

“The convergence of interests between the simulation domain and the world of video games is stronger than ever,” says Seb Loze, industry manager for simulations at Epic Games. “Through the alignment of technologies, high-quality and immersive visuals can be achieved in real time without sacrificing simulation accuracy. It’s a shift that’s impacting the entire industry as a whole, changing how we interact, work, and learn. We’re thrilled to support the Iowa Technology Institute’s integration of Unreal Engine and Santos and pursuit of a more realistic simulation experience.”

Through Epic MegaGrants, Epic Games has committed $100 million to support game developers, enterprise professionals, media and entertainment creators, students, educators, and tool developers in leveraging Unreal Engine or enhancing open-source capabilities for the 3D graphics community.

The pairing of Santos with Unreal Engine could not only enhance the accuracy in gaming and the realistic look of the Santos avatar, it could expand public access to Santos, inspire new ways to use the technology, and make Santos more attractive to the DoD for critical simulation experiments.

“Fundamentally, our proposed effort will implement virtual humans within Unreal Engine that will look and behave with unprecedented realism,” says Karim Malek, ITI director and UI professor of biomedical engineering. “Working with Unreal, we will achieve significant improvement in gameplay realism and our human integration modeling.”

Malek led the team that created Santos in 2004 and later Santos’ female counterpart, Sophia. The biomechanical, physiological, and cognitive architecture has continued to evolve, making Santos and Sophia among the world’s most advanced human behavior simulators.

Rajan Bhatt, associate research engineer for Virtual Soldier Research, the ITI lab behind Santos, will work on the project for Iowa. ITI has been updating code to modernize Santos so it can interface with more platforms. Integration with Unreal will be the first test of this effort.

“We pride ourselves on our Santos interface being very easy to use,” says Bhatt. “This project will be one of the ways to test the versatility and flexibility of the new plug-in system we developed for Santos. We are pleased to remain a go-to collaborator for human behavior simulation needs.”

The $100,000 Epic MegaGrant will be used to cover the first year of the project. If initial phases are successful, ITI will seek additional funding to support future work, which could include extending integration so the avatar’s behavior in Unreal responds in real time to data inputs and updating the avatar’s appearance based on real-time predictive dynamics.

Established in 1981, ITI is an interdisciplinary hub grounded in basic and applied engineering research on the UI campus. ITI supports more than 30 labs and 200 faculty, staff, and students advancing six mission areas: advanced manufacturing and materials, aerospace technology, biotechnology, environment and energy, human modeling and simulation, and systems and sensors.