University of Iowa Technology Institute receives grant from Epic Games

The University of Iowa Technology Institute received a $100,000 grant from video game publisher Epic Games to study the UI’s virtual human, Santos, with Epic’s Unreal Engine earlier this month.

Cooper Worth , News Reporter

The University of Iowa’s virtual human interface is being studied to potentially make video games more realistic.

Researchers at the UI’s Technology Institute received a $100,000 Epic MegaGrant from video game developer Epic Games to study the combination of the UI’s virtual human interface with Epic’s game Unreal Engine.

Santos — the university’s virtual human created in 2004 — and its female counterpart Sophia, are digital human models that provide testing of human capabilities in computer-aided design environments of objects, vehicles, and scenes. 

Founded in 1991, Epic Games is one of the most prominent video game companies in the market responsible for titles including Fortnite and Gears of War, as well as its digital distribution platform the Epic Games Store.

In March 2019, Epic Games launched its Epic MegaGrants campaign, committing $100 million in support of game developers, enterprise professionals, media and entertainment creators, students, educators, and tool developers studying Epic’s Unreal Engine. 

Unreal Engine is Epic’s set of 3D development tools for video games and other real-time media.   

Karim Abdel-Malek, a UI professor and Virtual Soldier Research director, said researchers are still far from completely replicating human life with the virtual human, Santos.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” he said. “He’s able to understand strength and fatigue and tell you whether he’s going to be injured or not, but there’s a lot of things missing to the cognitive aspect. The intelligence aspect is quite immature, and we want to work on that.”

Rajan Bhatt, associate research engineer of the Virtual Soldier Research Program, said Santos has evolved in his nearly 20 year existence.

“Early on, he could only perform some motions, now he can let you know what he can and cannot do,” he said. “On the physical and physiological side, he has progressed, but on an intelligence scale, he is still probably a 2-year-old, where we still need to tell him exactly what steps he needs to take and how he needs to do individual things in order to accomplish a task.”

The program previously partnered with the U.S. Army and car manufacturer Ford to predict long-term ergonomics and safety concerns on assembly lines.

Bhatt said the partnership will assist Epic Games in creating a more practical game experience for users. 

“They benefit from all the development that we have done over the past, about 20 years,” he said. “Santos can walk, run, jump but also he can get tired and will fatigue over time, so he cannot do the same thing at the same speed forever. This integration will help make games a lot more realistic.” 

Marco Tena Salais, UI alum and application developer at Technology Institute, said the grant will benefit researchers by how accessible the Unreal Engine is, as well as getting the Santos interface out to the masses. 

“The way it would help out research is Unreal is a very easy resource for everybody to download, so it’s an accessibility thing,” he said. “If we can make Santos into a plugin for Unreal, then anybody who downloads unreal can download Santos and do their own research.”

Tena Salais said any institution that wishes to simulate human exercise could benefit from working with Santos. 

“For athletes, one of the harder things for athletes to do is find out what’s the best possible position for them to move the body,” he said. “A good example is someone throwing a ball, it might be easier for them to throw it a little bit higher than a little bit lower, and that might not be something they know until they see the actual numbers for it after running a few simulations using Santos.”

Bhatt said the next step in the partnership with Epic Games is achieving the tasks initially proposed and moving on to the next phase of the five-year project.

“The goal is to continue working with Epic for five years and then take it even beyond that,” Bhatt said.

Abdel-Malek said his dream for the project is that in the future, when a person logs into a video game, it will be powered by Santos. 

“It’d be a huge achievement for Iowa to have the recognition that we’ve done a lot of work here, and it’s being used by big companies like this,” he said. “We’re happy that somebody like Epic Games can integrate our tech into their games.”

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