Editor’s note: Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 is at the very center of Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, demonstrating again its technical prowess that has made the Cary-based company an annual contributor to the prestigious event. Epic provides a VR [virtual reality] inside look at the Star Wars universe plus an AR [augemnted reality] creation for Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson – and more. John Gaudiosi reports exclusively for WRAL TechWire.

CARY – Apple used Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 technology to highlight its huge expansion into both the virtual reality and augmented reality business.

During its Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose, Apple featured the one-two punch of Hollywood heavyweights Industrial Light & Magic and Peter Jackson’s Wingnut AR. Both companies demonstrated VR and AR experiences using Unreal Engine 4 technology running on Mac computers for the first time.

John Knoll, chief creative officer of ILM, took the stage inside the packed house with Epic programmer Lauren Ridge backstage wearing an HTC Vive headset in front of a huge green screen room. This allowed the audience to see the 360-degree view Ridge experienced inside the VR head-mounted display. And what a view it was.

A Star Wars visit

Using UnrealEditor in VR mode, Ridge was inside the Star Wars universe on the lava planet Mustafur. Using a Mac, she was able to edit the world using the Vive controller, zipping to different perspectives and manipulating TIE Fighters, an Imperial Shuttle and even Darth Vader like she was a Jedi.

Knoll said his team at ILMxLab can now use Macs to work in real-time as they create immersive experiences inside the Star Wars universe. All of the action shown ran at a fast 90 frames per second and featured photorealistic landscapes that replicate the feeling of being on the actual planet with Darth Vader, light saber pulled out for battle.

“Unreal is used for virtual set scouting, art direction and set design,” Knoll said. “We’re looking forward to using Macs as we create new experiences to allow people to step inside our stories.”

ILMxLab previously announced it was working on a Darth Vader VR experience, and this real-time demo featured the iconic character. All of ILMxLab’s projects, including last year’s Trials on Tatooine and the Magic Leap R2-D2 and C-3PO demos, are made using Unreal Engine 4.

[VIDEO: Watch a trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJWNVRlfINM ]

Alasdair Coull, creative director at Wingnut AR, took the stage to show how Unreal Engine 4 can be used to create new augmented reality gaming experiences using ARKit. That technology is available now to Unreal Engine 4 developers, and Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said creators can start working on games immediately.

Peter Jackson in space

Coull used a tabletop and a new iPad Pro to show a distant outpost in a galactic war – all created by Peter Jackson. To those in the audience, the table was empty, but through the camera little soldiers and airships were in full combat mode as Raiders attacked from the sky. Coull said AR is like you’re the director of your own experience.

“ARKit enables hundreds of millions of people to experience games like this,” Coull said. “It’s a real game-changer.”

Sweeney said gaming is going to be most immediate opportunity for AR and where all of the excitement is building up because of all of the potential.

“The possibilities to bring game experiences to the tabletop for a social multiplayer experience or to send players outdoors opens up a lot of new opportunities for game developers,” Sweeney said. “The Wingut AR demo is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be done. Once you add digital humans into the equation, this is a real game-changer.”

[VIDEO: Watch a video about the Wingnut AR demo at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=S14AVwaBF-Y ]

Sweeney is excited about what game developers will create using Unreal Engine 4 mixed with augmented reality.

“Seeing photorealistic computer rendering blend with the real world is going to be very interesting,” Sweeney said. “We know from the success of Pokemon Go that it’s easy to put cartoony characters outdoors in the real world. What’s going to be interesting from the Wingnut AR demo is graphics that look just like the real thing and combine with the real world. It’s going to be a major change to the way people perceive games. Gaming is going to become a part of your daily life. We’ll see entirely new types of games created focusing on shared multiplayer social AR experiences that could be bigger than anything else out there today. This is big for the games industry.”

VR for homes

Apple also announced integration with the HTC Vive VR platform, which currently is a leader in the early race for virtual reality in homes.

“Apple’s new iMAC brings an enormous amount of GPU performance to a very mainstream PC,” Sweeney said. “It has the potential to bring VR to a larger and more mainstream audience beyond the hardcore PC enthusiasts.”

According to SuperData Research, there are approximately 1 million PC VR users in the world today. Sweeney believes opening the Vive up to Mac users could double or triple that number.

Nick Whiting, technical director of VR/AR at Epic Games’ Seattle studio, said on the technology side Epic has talked to Apple about using the studio’s experience in creating VR and Unreal Engine 4 to focus on what it takes on the tech side to make good VR. That’s also where UnrealEditor in VR mode opens up new opportunities for game developers to be able to stay immersed in these game worlds as they’re creating them.