What happens when you take an iconic movie franchise and combine it with UE4, latest Oculus Rift prototype, and the most advanced GPU that Nvidia has ever released? Well, it turns out this combination can transport you to the halls of Erebor in Middle Earth, staring down one of the most menacing characters to grace the silver screen.
If you’ve seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), you can save yourself some time by skipping the description below and simply letting me say that this experience, officially called Thief in the Shadows, is like stepping into the Smaug reveal scene from the film.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that Smaug is a truly magnificent and massive beast of a dragon. The cinema scene is one of the most incredible sequences I’ve ever seen in traditional film, and a bar-setting achievement for CGI and animation. The dwarven chamber of the film scene held millions of physically simulated coins, not to mention the great Smaug, a dragon larger than two Boeing 747s. So you can understand the challenge of recreating the scene in VR—real time 90 FPS with at least 1440p resolution, 3D stereoscopic, and a wide field of view.
For Thief in the Shadows, Epic worked in UE4 together with Weta Digital (with a little help from Nvidia in the form of the Titan X1 GPU) who used assets directly from the film to put players in the
shoes hairy hobbit feet of Bilbo Baggins, the unfortunate fellow contracted to burgle the treasure halls guarded by Smaug.
In Thief in the Night on the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype, the scene faded in with me standing in the chambers of Erebor, a cavernous dwarven city hollowed within a mountain. The hall, supported by gargantuan pillars, housed heaps of golden coins and uncountable treasures.
As the demo started, there was some time to take in the area around me—there’s a treasure chest in front with a helmet resting on it, elsewhere is gold and treasure at every turn. Shortly thereafter, I heard the menacing voice of Smaug, with dialogue taken directly from the film.
The great dragon, buried in coins and treasure, slowly stirs. As he does, thousands of coins spill off of him and tumble about. As he emerges completely from the pile, he begins to swirl about you, slithering about as elegantly as a creature of that magnitude can.
Smaug continues his dialogue, asking where the thief is (referring to the player) who has come to steal his treasure. At one point he takes hold of one of the chamber’s massive pillars and brings the entire thing down toward the player. The pillar smashes right next to you, and you could be forgiven for reactively jumping out of the way.
It isn’t until Smaug brings his face directly up to the player that you can understand his scale. With an eye nearly as big as the entire player, Smaug came up to gaze upon his would-be victim. His head was massive—the size of a bus. Despite knowing full well that I had no form of hand input at that moment, I had a strong impulse to try to touch the dragon’s huge snout that was at this point within arm’s reach.
After his closeup, Smaug pulled back and took a deep breath. As his chest began to glow, it was clear what was next. A breath of fire enveloped the scene around me, and after a few moments of the world turning into hell on Middle Earth, the demo faded out.
At the Epic/Weta session yesterday, the folks behind this impressive project talked about the challenges in achieving the scene at such fidelity. Unfortunately they said that it was created as an internal tech demo and there wasn’t any plans to release it. However, it seems likely that it will be used for some time to come as a breathtaking demo for the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype. In the future, experiences like this could be packaged as film ‘extras’—at least until becoming feature-length themselves.
The developers told me that Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson saw the Thief in the Shadows VR experience and enjoyed it. At the rate the industry is growing, maybe we’ll one day see a virtual reality film from Jackson himself.