Unreal Engine shows the future of computer graphics: “We are reaching real-time photorealism”

We saw both the new and the old version of Mr. Anderson at Epic Games’s presentation of “The Matrix Awakens” at The Game Awards in December. Illustration: Epic Games

“This isn’t real?”

“What is real? How do you define real?”

This is the classic dialogue between Neo and Morpheus in the 1999 movie The Matrix. And it was precisely the sci-fi film’s question of what is real and what is not that arose once again when Epic Games showcased its Unreal Engine 5 at The Game Awards in December.

It was therefore obvious that Epic Games had used the new Matrix sequel “The Matrix Resurrections” as a backdrop to showcase the latest version of the graphics and game engine. The tech demo was titled “The Matrix Awakens”.

It was not just a video played during the awards show, but also a playable demo, which was released for free on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S immediately after it was shown to the world. By doing that, Epic Games also showed that it was not just a pre-rendered demonstration, but that it could actually be processed in real time on the current generation of consoles.

And it was quite an impressive technical display by Epic Games, says Henrik Schønau Fog, associate professor of medialogy at Aalborg University’s campus in Copenhagen.

“My immediate thought was that it’s super cool because I can use it as an example in my teaching. I can tell my students that we are now close to being able to achieve real-time photorealism in games,” Henrik Schønau Fog says.

You can watch “The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience” here:

Uncanny valley

In the technical demonstration, a digital version of The Matrix actor Keanu Reeves walks past the scene from which the quotes that preceded the article originate. When he looks in the mirror, a real video recording looks back at us. Henrik Schønau Fog also experienced the merging of the real and unreal.

“It’s kind of fun to figure out whether everything you see is in fact real or computer-generated in the first part of the technical demonstration. I have actually given this some thought since I first saw it,” Henrik Schønau Fog says and elaborates:

“You start to think about whether we’re about to surpass this whole uncanny valley thing,” he says, referring to the concept that describes the discomfort people feel when they see something that almost looks like real people, but is not quite there.

And we are not yet there. Even though the faces look good, there is still something that does not quite fully work.

“When the video cuts to them sitting in the car, you suddenly end up in this uncanny valley. Not because of a lack of photorealism. Because if you took a still image of them sitting and talking inside the car. Then it might well—at least to your grandma—look like a photorealistic picture of three people sitting in a car. But there is something in the movements that doesn’t look right,” Henrik Schønau Fog says.

While the first part of the technical demonstration is not interactive, it turns into a car chase sequence that acts as a small shooting gallery, and ends with leaving the player in a city that they can explore just like in an open world game.

“When you get out of the car and start moving around, it starts to get weird. It’s kind of similar to earlier when we see the digital versions of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss walk around. It doesn’t feel quite right. It looks super good, but the animations are just a bit choppy and stiff,” Henrik Schønau Fog says.

A screenshot Version2 took in “The Matrix Awakens” on PlayStation 5 Illustration: Carl Nielsen

However, it is not necessarily due to technical limitations that the movements do not look completely natural.

“I believe that they simply haven’t had time to improve them,” says Henrik Schønau Fog, who does also acknowledge that it could be due to limitations that exist when rendering everything in the game engine:

“With motion capture you can easily create realistic movements. We already saw it with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies. You can create enough keyframes and motion capture well enough to make it look good. But when you run it in a game engine, many people probably forget that it is not only the graphics that need to be rendered, all these meticulous character animation keyframes need to be rendered too. And they may have also saved a little on the resolution of the frame rate in the animation.”

Real-time photorealism

Despite some movements that did not look quite right, Henrik Schønau Fog is very enthusiastic about the prospects that Unreal Engine 5 and other game engines promise in the future.

“When we look at locations, architecture, buildings, light, sun, fog, haze, we have achieved photorealism, and this technical demonstration is a really good example of that,” Henrik Schønau Fog says.

“Achieving photorealism when rendering images is one thing, but we have now achieved it in real time. So when you mill around the city, you drive around a photorealistic world in real time.”

Epic Games wants to give users the opportunity to use the city they have built for “Matrix Awakens” in Unreal Engine 5. And this has made the associate professor from Aalborg University interested in the graphics and game engine.

“When I saw the city—and when I saw all the details of the city. The shiny water on a wet asphalt surface. Then I thought: ‘Now I can tell my students that they should also keep an eye on Unreal Engine 5 and see if they can try it,’” Henrik Schønau Fog says.

In his eyes, over the last few years, technology has come so far when it comes to photorealism that it will be a milestone for development for a long time.

“I'm actually positively surprised that we can now kind of put an end to this discussion and say: ‘Not much is going to happen here in the next few years.’ Because we have now actually reached a place where real-time locations and the details around them can hardly be more photorealistic,” Henrik Schønau Fog says.