Epic built a stunningly realistic Matrix demo to show the promise of the metaverse

The interactive demo is the first of its kind for Epic’s new game engine, which promises to revolutionize virtual world-building.

Screenshot from Matrix game

The demo doubles as an advertisement for the movie “The Matrix Resurrections" and Epic’s upcoming Unreal Engine 5.

Image: Epic Games

Epic Games wants to convince the gaming and entertainment industries that we’re on the precipice of a paradigm shift in the world of 3D graphics, and its tool for doing so is “The Matrix.”

The new game demo is called The Matrix Awakens and was made in collaboration with “Matrix” co-creator Lana Wachowski for the upcoming fourth film in the series. It launched on Thursday for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S during the annual Game Awards. It features among the most photorealistic graphics and sophisticated in-engine effects and physics simulations the game industry has ever seen. It comes equipped with an interactive portion for people to experience firsthand as if they were playing a small slice of a cutting-edge, next-generation video game.

The demo doubles as both an advertisement for the movie “The Matrix Resurrections,” releasing Dec. 22, and Epic’s upcoming Unreal Engine 5. The company’s game engine is both a set of powerful tools and a creation platform for developing virtual worlds and assets used primarily for video game development, but also increasingly by Hollywood movie studios, automobile manufacturers and architecture firms. The new engine is releasing next year, and before this, the most high-profile display of its capabilities was a non-interactive demo, The Valley of the Ancients, demoed on the PS5 in May of last year.

For Epic, UE5 and its collaboration with Hollywood, as well as the transmedia success of its hit game Fortnite, are part of a multiyear effort to expand its business well beyond games. Epic wants its tools to be used by all sorts of industries that rely on 3D graphics and real-time rendering to market products, create new media and build the foundational layers of what will become the sought-after metaverse. This virtual universe, proponents like Epic say, will blend social media, work, play and the internet as we know it into an all-encompassing 3D world that will blur the lines of reality.

Epic thinks UE5 is a major step in helping us get there by creating simulations of unprecedented fidelity and lifelike realism. And the company is choosing “The Matrix” as a strategic effort to hammer home the point that this won’t be restricted to just the world of video games.

Epic Chief Technical Officer Kim Libreri, who is friends with the Wachowskis and worked as a visual-effects supervisor on the original “Matrix” trilogy, said that tools like UE5 are going to help create the bridge between the real world and the eventual metaverse. “We’re on the cusp of really not being able to tell the difference between reality and the virtual world,” Libreri told Protocol in an interview this week. “As we head into the metaverse, think of the possibility of games, experiences, stories that are generated in real time.”

The Matrix Awakens demo does a good job of underlining that point. It features de-aged versions of actors Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, created using Epic’s sophisticated facial-animation platform it calls MetaHuman Creator and by pulling photography from the original film trilogy two decades ago. At certain points in the demo, which is all rendered inside the engine in real time with no post-processing or pre-rendered cutscenes, it can be near-impossible to discern the difference between a virtual shot and one spliced from the original films.

This applies not just to people, but entire swaths of virtual assets, too. Epic created a replica of a major American city (think a small slice of Manhattan) that you can fully explore with a new character, IO, crafted from scratch using MetaHuman Creator especially for the demo. Epic plans to release the assets as part of the UE5 launch next year so other developers can make use of them to create mini-games or inform their own projects.

Inside the city, which was procedurally generated and filled with 35,000 pedestrians and close to 10 million total assets, you can drive most of the 45,000 parked cars, change the weather and lighting with the push of a button and even toggle on filters showing you the various layers the Unreal Engine uses to compose environments out of code. Libreri said the toggle is designed as a clever reference to how Reeves’ Neo gains the ability to perceive the underlying programming of the simulated world they fight in.

To create some of the interactive portions of the demo featuring car chases and explosions, Epic even had members of the team take control of virtual automobiles, like video game stuntmen, and drive them while a separate crew used virtual cameras to capture the desired cinematography.

Libreri says pulling in such assets from the real world and manipulating them will become easier as time goes on and advancements in photography and filmography, 3D-mapping and augmented reality make it trivial to take something concrete from our world, be it an object on your desk or even your own physical appearance, and transfer it to a digital one.

“As we head toward the metaverse, people will start to think of assets as usable objects just as they are in the real world,” Libreri said. “We’re going to see a big transformation of how people think of digital content going forward.”


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