Optimizing the Unreal Engine 4 Renderer for VR
Oculus Developer Blog
Posted by Pete Demoreuille, Software Engineer at Oculus
May 25, 2016

TL;DR: For Farlands, the Oculus team wrote an experimental, fast, single-pass forward renderer for Unreal Engine. It’s also used in Dreamdeck and the Oculus Store version of Showdown. We’re sharing the renderer’s source as a sample to help developers reach higher quality levels and frame rates in their own applications. As of today, you can get it as an Unreal developer from https://github.com/Oculus-VR/UnrealEngine/tree/4.11-ofr.

Rendering immersive VR worlds at a solid 90Hz is complex and technically challenging. Creating VR content is, in many ways, unlike making traditional monitor-only content -- it brings us a stunning variety of new interactions and experiences, but forces developers to re-think old assumptions and come up with new tricks. The recent wave of VR titles showcase the opportunities and ingenuity of developers.

As we worked, we re-evaluated some of the traditional assumptions made for VR rendering, and developed technology to help us deliver high-fidelity content at 90Hz. Now, we’re sharing some results: an experimental forward renderer for Unreal Engine 4.11.

We’ve developed the Oculus Unreal Renderer with the specific constraints of VR rendering in mind. It lets us more easily create high-fidelity, high-performance experiences, and we’re eager to share it with all UE4 developers.

As the team began production on Farlands, we took a moment to reflect on what we learned with the demo experiences we showed at Oculus Connect, GDC, CES, and other events. We used Unreal Engine 4 exclusively to create this content, which provided us with an incredible editing environment and a wealth of advanced rendering features.

Unfortunately, the reality of rendering to Rift meant we’d only been able to use a subset of these features. We wanted to examine those we used most often, and see if we could design a stripped-down renderer that would deliver higher performance and greater visual fidelity, all while allowing the team to continue using UE4’s world-class editor and engine. While the Oculus Unreal Renderer is focused on the use cases of Oculus applications, it’s been retrofit into pre-existing projects (including Showdown and Oculus Dreamdeck) without needing major content work. In these cases, it delivered clearer visuals, and freed up enough GPU headroom to enable additional features or increase resolution 15-30%.

Comparison at high resolution: The Oculus Unreal Renderer runs at 90fps while Unreal’s default deferred renderer is under 60fps.

The Trouble With Deferred VR
Unreal Engine is known for its advanced rendering feature set and fidelity. So, what was our rationale for changing it for VR? It mostly came down our experiences building VR content, and the differences rendering to a monitor vs Rift.

When examining the demos we’d created for Rift, we found most shaders were fairly simple and relied mainly on detailed textures with few lookups and a small amount of arithmetic. When coupled with a deferred renderer, this meant our GBuffer passes were heavily texture-bound -- we read from a large number of textures, wrote out to GBuffers, and didn’t do much in between.

We also used dynamic lighting and shadows sparingly and leaned more heavily on precomputed lighting. In practice, switching to a renderer helped us provide a more limited set of features in a single pass, yielded better GPU utilization, enabled optimization, removed bandwidth overhead, and made it easier for us to hit 90 Hz.

We also wanted to compare hardware accelerated multi-sample anti-aliasing (MSAA) with Unreal’s temporal antialiasing (TAA). TAA works extremely well in monitor-only rendering and is a very good match for deferred rendering, but it causes noticeable artifacts in VR. In particular, it can cause judder and geometric aliasing during head motion. To be clear, this was made worse by some of our own shader and vertex animation tricks. But it’s mostly due to the way VR headsets function.

Compared to a monitor, each Rift pixel covers a larger part of the viewer’s field of view. A typical monitor has over 10 times more pixels per solid angle than a VR headset. Images provided to the Oculus SDK also pass through an additional layer of resampling to compensate for the effects of the headset’s optics. This extra filtering tends to slightly over-smooth the image.

All these factors together contribute to our desire to preserve as much image detail as possible when rendering. We found MSAA to produce sharper, more detailed images that we preferred.

Deferred compared with forward. Zoom in to compare.

A Better Fit With Forward
Current state-of-the-art rendering often leverages screen-space effects, such as screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO) and screen-space reflections (SSR). Each of these are well known for their realistic and high-quality visual impact, but they make tradeoffs that aren’t ideal in VR. Operating purely in screen-space can introduce incorrect stereo disparities (differences in the images shown to each eye), which some find uncomfortable. Along with the cost of rendering these effects, this made us more comfortable forgoing support of those features in our use case.

Our decision to implement a forward renderer took all these considerations into account. Critically, forward rendering lets us use MSAA for anti-aliasing, adds arithmetic to our texture-heavy shaders (and removes GBuffer writes), removes expensive full-screen passes that can interfere with asynchronous timewarp, and -- in general -- gives us a moderate speedup over the more featureful deferred renderer. Switching to a forward renderer has also allowed the easy addition of monoscopic background rendering, which can provide a substantial performance boost for titles with large, complex distant geometry. However, these advantages come with tradeoffs that aren’t right for everyone. Our aim is to share our learnings with VR developers as they continue fighting to make world-class content run at 90Hz.

Our implementation is based on Ola Olsson’s 2012 HPG paper, Clustered Deferred and Forward Shading. Readers familiar with traditional forward rendering may be concerned about the CPU and GPU overhead of dynamic lights when using such a renderer. Luckily, modern approaches to forward lighting do not require additional draw calls: All geometry and lights are rendered in a single pass (with an optional z-prepass). This is made possible by using a compute shader to pre-calculate which lights influence 3D “clusters” of the scene (subdivisions of each eye’s viewing frustum, yielding a frustum-voxel grid). Using this data, each pixel can cheaply determine a list of lights that has high screen-space coherence, and perform a lighting loop that leverages the efficient branching capability of modern GPUs. This provides accurate culling and efficiently handles smaller numbers of dynamic lights, without the overhead of additional draw calls and render passes.

(Visualization of 3D light grid, illustrating the lighting coherence and culling)

Beyond the renderer, we’ve modified UE4 to allow for additional GPU and CPU optimizations. The renderer is provided as an unmaintained sample and not an officially-supported SDK, but we’re excited to give projects using Unreal Engine’s world-class engine and editor additional options for rendering their VR worlds.

You can grab it today from our Github repository as an Unreal Developer at https://github.com/Oculus-VR/UnrealEngine/tree/4.11-ofr. To see it in action, try out Farlands, Dreamdeck, and Showdown.