Private Industry, Military Find Uses for Videogame Software

Mike Snider, USA TODAY
Mass Effect 2
Source: Electronic Arts

Architects, medical training operations and even the government increasingly are tapping into the high-tech software that drives today's top video games.

For the Dallas Cowboys Stadium project, architectural firm HKS created a 3-D virtual stadium using Unreal Engine, the same software used in making hit games such as Mass Effect 3. As the team sold seats prior to its 2009 season at the new venue, "They could literally put someone in the seat and let them see what that view looks like," says Jay Wilbur, vice president of Epic Games, which developed the software engine.

The privately held Cary, N.C., game studio developed the Unreal Engine for its popular Gears of War games and licenses it to other game developers as well as to animators and the military. Those who want to use the software for educational and non-commercial use can download it for free. For-profit applications must pay a $99 commercial license.

"The video games industry has always been a driver for technology," Wilbur says. "We are now just making headway in the non-game space, but I expect over time it's going to pick up."

Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter estimates that Epic's non-game revenue makes up less than 10 percent of the company's annual estimated total revenue of $20 million.

This cross-pollination of video game technology and other disciplines is not new. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg tapped Epic's game-editing software in the 1999 PC game Unreal Tournament to help pre-visualize the film A.I.

The current generation of the software, the Unreal Engine 3, includes animation, lighting and shading programs, and is used in TV series such as The Cartoon Network's Level Up and Nickelodeon's LazyTown. And the small Swedish studio VoxHouse is creating the animated series Brute with the package.

Another Cary, N.C.-based tech firm, Virtual Heroes, has created several different medical training simulators for hospitals, the U.S. Army and health care company Kaiser Permanente. It has also collaborated with NASA on an educational game called Moonbase Alpha. Its work on various incarnations of the America's Army game has led to collaborations with law enforcement agencies.

The U.S. Army has also commissioned the CryEngine 3, created by Crytek for its Crysis games, for its head-mounted display-based Dismounted Soldier Training System, a 3-D surround-sound environment for combat testing scenarios. And the Unity engine, used for games such as Temple Run: Brave, has been the platform for several projects including NASA's virtual Mars rover site.

LightHammer, a six-person studio in central Pennsylvania, is using the Unreal Engine to create a virtual walkthrough of Pickett's charge for the Gettysburg (Pa.) Tourism Bureau as part of next year's 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle. "It gives designers the high-end visuals capability without the heavy cost," says LightHammer founder Paul Benninghove.