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Lucasfilm Alumnus Turned Epic Games CTO: Next Frontier for Virtual Reality Is Artificial Intelligence

Getting virtual reality (VR) to look great was the easy part. Now, it’s up to researchers and developers to make it feel human, said Epic Games CTO Kim Libreri during an interview with Variety on the sidelines of the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, asking:  “We can make a really good-looking digital human — but when do we give it a brain?”

Libreri argued that it’s essential for VR to make human characters more believable. One solution to that could be to live stream actors into a virtual world, something that he compared to a kind of theater performance for VR headsets.

Epic, which is best known for its Unreal game engine, demonstrated advances in motion capture as part of its press briefing Wednesday. To introduce Ninja Theory’s new “Hellblade” game, an actress performed parts of the trailer out in front of a live audience, with cameras capturing her facial expression, and a computer rendering the same expressions for a video game character in real-time.

Epic isn’t that far away from offering similar functionality for VR live streaming, Liberi said. But live is obviously not the right approach for every solution, and games or VR experiences could benefit greatly from lifelike humans, he argued, adding that advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will be key to taking VR to the next step.

Liberi’s career includes many years at Lucasfilm, where he most recently served as SVP of technology before leaving for Epic Games. In many ways, VR represents a bit of a dream come true for the longtime visual effects specialist, whose work credits include “The Matrix,” “Catwoman” and “Super 8.”

“When I was a kid, I dreamed that I would one day play a game that was a movie,” he said. With VR, this now seems like a real possibility. “We are going to see a true convergence of the two worlds,” Libreri said about Hollywood and the video game industry.

In fact, both sides are already working closely together on VR: Epic is partnering with Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab on the newly announced “Star Wars” VR Experience, and Libreri said that these tentpole experiences will help to make the new medium popular with consumers.

But in the end, game engines and new capture technologies will help anyone to bring their ideas to live in VR, he said. “It’s a level playing field.”

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