Today, Bill Fishkin talks to VFX Online about his experience of Theia Interactive Receives Investment from HP Tech Ventures to Improve Unreal Engine Workflows and VFX/Animation Industry.
Visualization firm and software developer, Theia Interactive, today announced an investment from HP Tech Ventures, earmarked to expand the retail build of its 3D creation tool, Optim. Designed to ease content creation within Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, Optim enables companies to streamline content development across multiple markets, ranging from film, games and all forms of extended reality (XR) to the architecture, aerospace, automotive and heavy manufacturing industries. Recent additions to Optim have also expanded the collaborative tools within Unreal, remotely connecting people in and out of VR.
Based in Chico California, Theia Interactive is a creative solutions studio with a passion for building beautiful virtual environments for business, and offering tools to empower others to do the same. Whether it’s mobile apps, augmented reality demos, or virtual reality experiences, Theia tells engaging stories through virtualization. Theia has created award-winning projects for companies such as Epic Games, Hewlett Packard, Mohawk Group, NVIDIA, Suffolk Construction and Toll Brothers.
Tell us a bit about Optim.
Optim was initially developed as an in-house tool for use by our company, Theia Interactive, but we decided to offer it to the public in 2019. Optim is a software suite composed of multiple tools and templates, designed to simplify the process of building virtual environments and characters in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine.
What made you create Optim? How did it begin?
We started out as a visualization studio for enterprise level clients. With a growing client list and an increasingly heavy workload, we realized that there were lots of tasks in Unreal Engine that we used in every project, and which all required multiple steps to complete. Optim streamlined those tasks.
We also frequently found ourselves importing massive, complicated 3D files into Unreal Engine. While that process could be seamless, in many cases the size and complexity of the files meant that there were complications and delays. Once our 3D artists started identifying these production pain points, our team began coding up tools and creating a file importer to help. Those tools and that importer became the original version of Optim.
Optim software collaborates with Unreal Engine. Could you expand on how it’s helpful for that?
First, let me say that Unreal Engine is an absolutely phenomenal piece of technology, and we use it exclusively for every visualization project we build for clients and for ourselves. That said, working in Unreal isn’t always intuitive or easy. There are actions and processes in Unreal that require both time and expertise that not all users possess. At its most basic level, Optim automates many of the steps needed to complete an action in Unreal. Our developers have coded shortcuts that save tons of clicks and processing time. Optim simplifies Unreal for users of every level, from total beginners to experts with years of experience.
Another way we collaborate with Epic and Unreal is that we created the “Collaborative Template,” which lets Optim users quickly, and with minimal steps, load an Unreal project into a shared virtual space. From there, it can be accessed by multiple users from remote locations, either in VR or on desktop. As the world — and the way we all work together — is changing at what feels like warp speed, the Collaborative Template is probably the most important component of what we offer with Optim.
Optim software collaborates with VR and XR. Share something about that.
Optim is built to simplify the creation of VR and AR projects within Unreal Engine. We also make collaboration in VR possible with the Collaborative Template.
How was the collaboration with HP Tech Ventures?
Amazing. That’s not just hyperbole, they are incredible to work with. Everyone at HP has been incredibly generous with their time and their expertise.
We really didn’t know what to think when HP Tech Ventures first expressed interest in working with us. We were totally flattered, but we were still a relatively small, young company. Although we had a lot of confidence in our abilities to create beautiful XR experiences, we hadn’t yet worked with a company of their size and stature. The people at HP Tech Ventures are just so knowledgeable about what it takes to bring software to market. It has been a really gratifying professional experience for all of us at Theia.
What are your thoughts about the future of the VR and XR industry?
The future of business is virtual.
I think COVID-19 has pushed us five years into the future, in terms of where things are going with VR and XR. Everyone is realizing that what we once thought of as far-reaching goals — or maybe 5-10 year roadmaps — are necessary today. Just look at how things have changed in the last six months. The vast majority of companies have team members working from home. Remote work is probably here to stay, and businesses are rethinking space and how they use it. All of this points to a fast-moving future for visualization.
Right now, companies around the world are being forced to start thinking like it’s 2030, not 2020. I think you’re going to see a real acceleration of products that are built to enable remote collaboration (and design iteration), remote training, etc, etc. You name the category, there’s going to be a big push to “virtualize” it.
Between current and future pandemics, and serious climate concerns that continue to grow, I think we are about to enter the “Golden Age” of VR/AR/XR.
Optim is helpful to reduce production times. Share something about that.
Anyone who works in game engines, especially those who do it professionally, will tell you that there’s just a huge amount of time wasted both in clicking through the required steps, and in processing times. Simply uploading source files can be a major time commitment. Optim reduces that repetitive, non-productive time exponentially. I think one of our first beta users, Alex Coulombe of Agile Lens, said it best: “Moving from the standard Unreal Engine workflow to Datasmith was a 10x increase in speed, and now with Optim, we’re looking at roughly a bazillion-x, and our workflow immediately became half as technical and twice as creative.”
What are the pricing options of Optim?
There are currently three pricing packages available for users of Optim. Our “Starter” package includes the Optim Toolkit, which offers tools like setting levels of detail, clustered merging and lightmap management within Unreal. The Starter package is very affordable at just $12/month. If you are a visualization professional and need to be able to share your work with clients, our “Pro” package offers you the Toolkit and the Multi-user Collaborative Template for $90/month.
And for our clients who are heavy users of Unreal and find themselves working with really huge source files, we offer custom enterprise packages. Those include the Toolkit, Collaborative Template and the Optim Importer for those big, complicated file imports. Enterprise pricing is tailored to fit each client’s needs and workloads. We also offer discounts on annual pricing plans.
What challenges did you face when creating Optim?
Our greatest challenge to date has been in managing the ins and outs of splitting up a highly collaborative team who are all now working from home due to COVID-19. When we first started working on Collaborative Template for Optim, there was no worldwide pandemic. And while our team certainly used the template prior to everyone being sent home to work, little did we know that it would become so battle-tested and necessary for our team to be able to work together.
Any fun stories from behind the scenes?
I could tell you lots of great stories about our early days as a studio, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Let’s just say that our artists and founders would take turns getting an hour or two of sleep on our old, beat-up office sofa, while the rest of the team pounded out client projects in order to meet really tight deadlines. We HAD to build Optim so everyone could go home and get some sleep!
What does the future hold for Theia Interactive?
In the near future, we’ve got a couple of additions to Optim’s Pro and Enterprise packages that we can’t talk about just yet, but that we think are going to be game-changers for individuals and companies who rely on both collaboration and user input during the design iteration process. We’re also developing new tools and templates that make working in Unreal Engine almost completely pain-free. Our goal is to make the Unreal creation process so simple that beginners will be able to understand it within hours, instead of days or weeks. Unity users can also pick up a new skill set, creating VR in Unreal, with a very minimal, easy-to-navigate learning curve.
We’re also going to continue working with HP to develop new software products that enhance and improve VR delivery, especially for enterprise clients. And through it all, we are going to stay true to our roots as a visualization studio and keep creating beautiful, high-fidelity VR and AR!