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Understanding Ray tracing

In 2018, NVIDIA announced its latest RTX Graphic Card series, featuring the impressive and powerful 2070, 2080, and 2080 Ti. We all expected that it was coming. What we didn’t know was just how excited our inner-gamers would be.

The latest graphics cards offer titanic leaps beyond their previous GTX series, all with an array of shiny new perks. And there’s a certain phrase that may have caught your eye; a new feature that is about to transcend the visuals of your games.

Say hello to ray tracing, and we're here to help you understand it. 

Ray tracing explained

Ray tracing is a prime feature of RTX 2070’s and 2080’s that Nvidia are not afraid to show off. This feature of the latest hardware is about to transcend your visual gaming.

How do you explain Ray Tracing?

While graphics technology can typically be rather complicated to explain, ray tracing as a concept is simple to understand; the name literally says it all.

Ray tracing is a rendering technique. Similar to how light moves in reality by bouncing off of objects and into our eyes, ray tracing creates a graphical image within a game by tracing the path of millions of simulated lights, each particle of light materialising on a game’s objects and bouncing back to the viewer’s character’s point of origin to determine the properties of the image – from a vivid reflection to a sheet of shadows.

This highly advanced visualising technique means that ray tracing is likely to replace the traditional rendering of lighting effects in games, leading to a superior depiction of realistic lighting that borrows from how light travels in the real world.

Traditionally, ray tracing has demanded a significant amount of power from your hardware to operate at a worthy capacity. Until now. Enter Nvidia’s RTX 20 series of graphics cards.  

Where has Ray Tracing come from?

A great renaissance man once perched on a rock and pondered, ‘How did ray tracing come to be?’

Well, that didn’t directly happen, but if Michelangelo had been around during the press launch of Nvidia’s RX graphics card range then it probably would have gone down like that. Imagine what the Sistine Chapel would look like with ray tracing powering every beam of light between the clouds.

Then, jumping a little more forward in time to ray tracing’s origins, we must go to a much less renaissance time of 1969 when IBM’s Arthur Appel considered the abilities of computers to trace a ray of light in the same way that a human eye does.

Jump again 10 years later, scientist (and future Nvidia Researcher) Turner Whitted released his paper on improving the illumination for the shaded display of virtual environments. Ray tracing was officially born, sprouting from expert concepts into a very real innovation.

From then on, it has been nothing but advancements and performance improvements for the rendering technique. Mainly reserved for multi-million-dollar Hollywood epics, ray tracing is now taking its first bounds into our homes in the brilliant format of Nvidia’s RTX 20 series graphics cards.

Development of ray tracing

Nvidia have created powerful graphics cards for Gaming PCs, in order to meet the demand of games with enabled ray tracing, especially for games which use ray tracing for entire scenes. Your current GPU may perform differently with a ray tracing enabled, depending on the game. For example, the rendering resolution, the type of ray tracing, the quality of ray tracing and the level of performance within the game, are all things that will alter the experience. AMD graphics cards may be able to run the ray tracing enabled games - but do not exclusively offer any specialist ray tracing features.

Development of ray tracing has not all come at once. Techniques for realistic reflections and shadows have all been developed and implemented over time. Real time ray tracing reflections were implemented first, with additional bounce rays at each intersection point, generating high resolution, full reflections throughout the whole scene. Previously, Screen Space Reflections (SSR) were used and combined with cubemaps to build reflections that looked convincing, however, they fell short when it came to reflections viewed at a lower angle. Real time ray tracing addressed these issues and more - including different directions and the hall of mirrors effect. Battlefield V was the first to implement ray tracing reflections on aspects such as water and glass.

Following reflections, ray traced shadows were implemented. Previously, innovative techniques were used to trick the brain to look like a shadow, for example, Nvidia's Hybrid Frustum Traced Shadows (HFTS) technique, but nothing has come as close as ray tracing shadows. Life like shadows are increased in realism as rays are cast across a scene in order to account for the objects and characters that lay in its path and would realistically block the light, in order to produce the shadows. Different rays may be needed depending on the light within the game. If there are various light sources, the more rays that are needed and different angles traced. Ray tracing shadow techniques were introduced in Shadow of Tomb Raider. Techniques that would not have been compatible with the previous techniques.

Ray traced illumination improves the realism of light bouncing of objects and surfaces throughout a scene. Previously, this was completed with various techniques, such as lightmaps. This also had its limitations, for example, the light would not bounce further than one object. Now, Global Illumination allows developers to process accurately and efficiently the different light sources, including the indirect sources that have bounced off an object more naturally. The first game to implement ray traced global illumination was Metro Exodus.

Another feature of ray tracing is Ray traced caustics, which focuses on the light rays that bounce off curved objects. These have never been realistic, or very pleasing to the eye. With ray tracing in constant development, this is only just the start. Technology and tools have been developed, enabling game developers to create ray tracing quality immersion.

How will Ray tracing change the way you game?

As previously mentioned, ray tracing is about to transcend the lighting effects of your games. This will create highly immersive realms that will make you feel as if you are stepping through an alternative slice of reality, changing entire environments.

Better images can now be produced at lower production costs by developers. This is far beyond a conventional tweak to our graphics. This is changing the way that games are produced and how developers immerse us into the experience of their game with striking visuals.

Watch the Battlefield V RTX Real-Time Ray Tracing demo below:

How can you be ready for ray tracing?

In more exciting news, April 2019 saw Nvidia announce that their older GPUs are now able to support ray tracing with the latest game-ready drivers. This was big news for gaming fanatics and perfect for those of us not quite ready to upgrade our PC's yet. Here is a list of the current ray tracing capable graphics cards:

  • GeForce GTX 1660 Ti
  •  
  • GeForce GTX 1660
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  • Nvidia Titan Xp (2017)
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  • Nvidia Titan X (2016)
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  • GeForce GTX 1080 Ti
  •  
  • GeForce GTX 1080
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  • GeForce GTX 1070 Ti
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  • GeForce GTX 1070
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  • GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
  •  

What's more, it's not only desktop PCs that are getting the ray tracing treatment. Higher spec laptops are also capable of the beautiful rendering technique. Nvidia has compiled a list of gaming laptops with RTX GPUs included.

However, in order to assemble a PC that can fully utilise the beauty of ray tracing, you are looking at spending a few thousand pounds on components. But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get excited about the prospect of ray tracing.

Nvidia’s innovations in their latest GPU’s with the technology means that we are one step closer to deeply immersive, yet comparative gaming experiences. Nvidia’s RTX 20 series graphics cards can be found on our website, check them out and see if they are the graphics card to make your gaming rig a gaming PC of the future!

Ray Tracing in 2020

The advancements in ray tracing are expanding rapidly and continue to impress us. CES 2020 saw the unveiling of the Radeon RX 5600 XT by AMD. Ray tracing is now coming to radeon graphics cards focusing on no-compromises 1080p gaming! But that's not all; enlight of this news it is now confirmed that for the first time ray tracing will be enabled on gaming consoles.

The release of the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X at the end of the year will make it even easier for you to bring the beauty of ray tracing into your own home.

So, watch this space and get ready for the next level in gaming.

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Published on 17 Oct 2018

Last updated on 17 Oct 2018

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