Thursday, December 15th, 2016 Posted by Jim Thacker

Unity Technologies releases Unity 5.6 and EditorVR in beta

Unity Technologies has released Unity 5.6 in beta. The update to the game engine and dev environment adds support for the Vulkan graphics API, Google’s Daydream VR platform and Facebook Gameroom.

Artists get new 2D animation tools and options for debugging 3D physics simulations, with changes to lightmap and shadowmap baking workflow due in future beta builds.

The firm has also released the first public beta of EditorVR, its new toolset for laying out and editing VR scenes in virtual reality.

Support for Daydream VR and Facebook Gameroom
Some of the biggest changes in Unity 5.6 – at least in the initial beta release – are the platforms it supports.

As announced at the Unite 2016 conference last month, Unity now natively supports Daydream, Google’s mobile VR platform (video above), and Gameroom, Facebook’s Steam-like Windows gaming platform.

You can find more details in our Unite 2016 show report, which also covers Unity’s 2017 roadmap, including the integration of OctaneRender into the core engine and a new Timeline Editor for cinematics.

Improved rendering performance and video playback
In addition, the engine now supports the new-ish Vulkan graphics API for better rendering performance, particularly on mobile devices: Unity Technologies is claiming an improvement of 30-60% out of the box.

Support for Metal, Apple’s rival proprietary graphics API for iOS and OS X devices, has also been extended, with the addition of new compute capabilities as well as CPU instancing and shader cross-compiling.

There are also a number of more general performance improvements, including a new way of rendering instances via script that has “almost no” CPU overhead.

Unity’s video player has also been “rebuilt from scratch” with the aim of support smooth playback of 4K and 360-degree videos for VR experiences.

It has H.264/AAC hardware support on a “wide variety” of platforms, and a VP8/Vorbis software implementation on the remainder. Support for other codecs will be added “in the future”.

New tools for sprite-based 2D animation and debugging 3D dynamics simulations
New artist tools in Unity 5.5 include a new Outline Editor for 2D animation, which enables users to edit the mesh shape of a sprite manually, or automatically generate a specified level of tessellation.

The update also introduces the 9-slice scaling system used in Adobe’s Animate and Illustrator software, which makes it possible to reuse an image at different dimensions without preparing multiple versions.

The system makes it possible to stretch or repeat defined areas of the image as its dimensions change, described by Unity as a quick, memory-efficient way of creating platforms or backgrounds.

Z-sorting of sprites has also been improved, as has performance of particle collisions with 2D collider objects, as shown in the video below.

3D collisions also get an update, with new ‘Physics Debug’ options for troubleshooting dynamics systems.

The options enable artists to toggle colliders and rigid bodies in a scene on or off to see where render and collision meshes are out of sync; or to toggle kinematic bodies or sleeping rigid bodies.

More updates to the particle and asset validation tools
Two interesting features introduced in Unity 5.5 also get updates.

The 5.5 release introduced support for attaching custom data to particles via scripts or shaders – to which 5.6 adds the option to do so directly in the Inspector.

Colours attached to particles can now also make use of HDR gamuts.

There is also a new material validator for PBR rendering workflows, enabling users to check that albedo and specular values of materials conform to acceptable ranges.

The release notes don’t say so explicitly, but that sounds like an extension of 5.5’s Look Dev toolset, which validates assets against different in-game lighting conditions.

Updates to baking workflow to come in future beta builds
Coming later in the 5.6 cycle – they aren’t part of the initial beta – are the updates to baking workflow, including the new Progressive Lightmapper: a faster, more iterative solution for baking lighting.

An unbiased Monte Carlo path tracer capable of baking out lightmaps with GI inside the Unity Editor, the system provides real-time feedback on a bake in the form of a progressive viewport preview.

It also adds an ETA to the progress bar to display when the bake will finish.

The new system replaces the baking functions provided by Geomerics’ Enlighten middleware, added as part of last year’s Unity 5.0 release, although Enlighten will be retained for real-time GI.

Unity 5.6 Beta 2 will also add Light Modes, a replacement for mixed-mode lighting that provides “flexible and efficient ways to merge baked and real-time shadows”.

The system, which supports every native light type and rendering path, reduces the distance at which it is necessary to switch from real-time shadows to baked shadow maps, improving rendering performance.

New Partial Publish and Rollback options for Unity Collaborate
Outside the core, cloud-based collaboration tool Unity Collaborate – now available even to users with free Personal subscriptions – gets a couple of new features.

One is the option to publish only selected files or directories to a shared project, rather than all of the files that have been updated locally.

The other is a Rollback feature to revert a project to a previous state from the Collaborate History window.

Also available in beta: EditorVR
In separate news, Unity has also released the first public beta of EditorVR, its new toolset for creating or editing VR scenes directly within virtual reality, using an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset.

Unity’s equivalent to Unreal Engine’s VR Editor mode, the new toolset was first demonstrated at Unite 2016: you can see the relevant section of the keynote in the video above.

Again, you can find all of the technical details in our Unite 2016 show report, while download links for the EditorVR beta build and EditorVR Unity Asset Package can be found in this blog post.

Pricing and availability
Unity 5.6 is available as a public beta for Windows 7 and above and Mac OS X 10.9.4 and above.

The current stable build, Unity 5.5, is available on a rental-only basis, with free Personal subscriptions are available to anyone earning under $100k/year. Commercial Plus and Pro subscriptions cost $35/seat/month and $125/seat/month. You can read a feature comparison of the different editions here.

Read a full list of new features in Unity 5.6 on Unity Technologies’ blog