Before it released its megahit game Fortnite, Epic was known for creating one of the most popular video game engines in the world, which serves as the backbone of countless games you love: the Unreal Engine. While Fortnite is defined by its cartoony-meme violence, the Unreal Engine has been celebrated for pushing the bounds of visual realism.
And now, Epic is sharing its latest breakthrough on its engine with a feature called MetaHumans. MetaHumans are highly convincing, completely digital people. The twist? While high-end digital characters can require a month or more to create, an artist using MetaHumans can construct them in mere minutes.
In the video above, you can see just how convincing the MetaHumans look. Their skin ranges from porcelain to freckled to wrinkled, sun-weathered leather. When they speak, their lips don’t appear to pop out from the model (as so many artificially generated faces do) but are clearly connected to the skin and muscles through the entire face. And each individual figure simply looks splendid regardless of where it falls on the spectrum of gender or race—an equal amount of attention has been paid to any type of protagonist you’re looking to create. In fact, a spokesperson tells us that Epic is able to generate such a diversity of faces because it’s actually scanned people’s faces from around the world, integrating the data (blended and anonymously) into this tool.
The result is a digital character that Epic admits will not completely fool you into thinking it’s real (the teeth in particular could use some work, I think) but that still serves as a captivating human surrogate for games and apps.
Very, very few video games pay so much attention to the proper rendering and animation of a human face. Games such as the NBA 2K franchise require countless hours of motion-capturing and modeling the faces and physiques of famous basketball players. But in actual gameplay, when you see a sudden close-up, these figures can look like dead-eyed puppets. Why? Faces are notoriously hard to get right. Even if they’re a priority for a game developer, they’re rarely the top priority. That means faces may get less processing power than they need to look convincing in a video game so that another part of the experience can look better instead. Additionally, it currently takes a lot of manual labor to map points of articulation on a virtual face and to ensure something as simple as a smile is animated on each individual model in a way that doesn’t look like a sneer.
One big exception to this trend are the games made by a French company, owned by Sony, called Quantic Dream. Its games feature convincing, emotionally resonant characters that, while still obviously digital, can feel like interacting with a person. But as the studio’s lead David Cage has said on more than one occasion, in order to make these games look different, Quantic Dream has to build its own proprietary tools and game engine first, and the games second. It cannot create its games atop licensed foundational technologies—such as the Unreal Engine—as so many other game development studios can. Because according to Cage, solutions like the Unreal Engine just haven’t offered the fidelity you need to animate faces with the full range of human expression.
And so MetaHumans is a provocative piece of technology for two reasons. One, it appears to streamline the character creation process to minutes. And two, it will be a resource that many game makers will have available since they license the Unreal Engine already—meaning more games and other pieces of interactive art will have increasingly convincing human characters.
An Epic spokesperson tells me that they expect MetaHumans will be quite popular for games, but also for creating virtual influencers on platforms such as Instagram, and for augmented reality experiments (the system is comparable with Apple’s ARKit). But they don’t claim MetaHumans are good enough for live-action films yet.
Larger picture, it’s clear that easily created, convincing people are only getting easier to produce with less technical skill. Whether it’s the face-swapping video editing technology of deepfakes or the portrait generating website This Person Does Not Exist, or now MetaHumans, these tools are only becoming more commonplace every day. We truly live amid a war on what’s real.