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.

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“Thief in the Shadows would not exist without NVIDIA’s support and amazing hardware,” said Tim Sweeney, Founder of Epic Games. “Together with Unreal Engine 4 and Oculus Crescent Bay, these three pieces of technology place the viewer inside a virtual world of unparalleled detail and action.”

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.

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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.

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Nick Donaldson, environment artist at Epic Games, paid special attention to Smaug’s eye for the closeup. From his first attempt, which he called “embarrassing,” Donaldson eventually achieved the striking result seen here.

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.

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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.

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  • Sean Concannon OculusOptician

    If any big time director were to cross into VR it would be Jackson. He and James Cameron were the first to adopt the new 48FPS cinema standard and raise the bar in 3D filmaking. Cameron initially showed huge interest in VR and immersive technologies. NASA even considered Cameron’s request to mount cinema grade 3D cameras to the multi-billion dollar Mars rover curiosity back in 2011 and initially welcomed the reemergence of VR with the Oculus Rift, stating he would like to integrate narrative experiences with the technology. Recently however he backed out of those statements after the Facebook acquisition. In the meantime, Jackson has been rumored to have just started working on some form of VR project over the next two years. Exciting news for sure but if we could only get access to this “thief in the shadows” demo, so annoying not being able to enjoy these experiences.

  • zombieapoc01

    This is all well and good, and very exciting. But what concerns me is how powerful our PC’s need to be? I already have a PC with GTX 980 SLi. Should I scrap my 2.5k PC and buy a new one with 2 titans!!? Surely they should be targeting your average PC?

    It would be nice to know what we will need to play these great experiences.

  • disqus_GB8lUuziuG

    Where can you get this though? or watch it?