April 17, 2024

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What is ray tracing and how does it light the way for gaming? | Technology News

4 min read
What is ray tracing and how does it light the way for gaming? | Technology News

Graphics in video games have come a long way in recent years, to the point where some games look almost as real as the world around us. This improvement is the result of ongoing advancements in graphics, but lighting continues to be a tough nut to crack due to its complexity and how it interacts with surfaces.

In the past, games relied on static baked-in lighting that was pre-rendered and applied to specific views. While this approach mimicked reflections and added shine to objects, it often fell short of creating a truly convincing visual experience.

Implementing this kind of lighting is also a complex technical challenge. Take mirrors in video games, for example. How do they work using traditional techniques? Essentially, they are flat, non-transparent textures with a separate camera placed within them. This camera captures an entirely different angle and generates a new image, which is then applied as a texture inside the mirror.

It’s a somewhat clunky solution, especially when you want to create endless reflections, like two mirrors facing each other. To achieve this, you have to manually copy and paste images through code. As the complexity of scenes increases, this process becomes even more cumbersome.

This is where ray tracing enters the picture, not only simplifying the development process but also making games appear significantly more realistic.

How does ray tracing work?

Imagine yourself as a source of light within a game. You emit rays of light from your perspective into the virtual world. These rays can hit objects, characters, or sometimes continue endlessly into the digital sky.

When a ray encounters an object, it gets creative. If it strikes a shiny, reflective surface, it bounces off, much like a rubber ball rebounding from a wall. If the surface is rough, it might still bounce but in a different direction or split into several new rays.

In games, ray tracing is used to make virtual rays of light seem like they bounce off objects, create realistic shadows, and produce lifelike reflections. This algorithm identifies and pinpoints essential light and shadow elements. Then, with the help of machine learning, it “fills in the gaps” to create a photorealistic image.

What is ray tracing and how does it light the way for gaming? | Technology News When done right, ray tracing makes a huge difference. (Image: Nvidia)

Of course, the difference ray tracing brings about may vary greatly depending on the lighting scenario of the scene in a video game. The magic of the technology will be more obvious in scenes with more reflective surfaces — for instance, when you’re driving over a wet road. But scenes set in dimmer and drier areas, like the desert, may not look much different with ray tracing on for many gamers.

Ray tracing is a resource hog

While the idea of having ray tracing in every game is appealing, it’s not always straightforward. Ray tracing can be a resource hog, devouring your hardware’s processing power.

To address this challenge, game developers get creative. They combine ray tracing with a traditional technique called rasterisation to generate most of the image. Then, they add a touch of ray tracing to introduce realistic reflections or shadows.

Another trick they employ is denoising. When only a few rays are used to conserve resources, it can lead to uneven variations. Denoising works its magic by intelligently smoothing everything out, blending colours, and adjusting brightness and darkness differences.

Who’s working on ray tracing?

One of the key players in the world of ray tracing is Nvdia. Their RTX graphics cards are purpose-built for ray tracing, offering substantial performance improvements over traditional graphics cards.

Other companies are also making strides in ray tracing technology. AMD, Intel, and Epic Games are among the contenders. AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) technology is a rival to Nvdia’s DLSS, using AI to enhance image quality without sacrificing performance.

The hardware that powers ray tracing

geforce-rtx-4090-100vp-d The Nvidia GeForce RTX 4090 graphics card. (Image: Nvidia)

Nvidia’s RTX 20-series graphics cards introduced dedicated hardware for ray tracing. Today, all RTX cards support ray tracing, and the most recent RTX 40-series GPUs have a new trick up their sleeves. SER, or Shader Execution Reordering, is available on the RTX 4090 and RTX 4080, promising a 25{76cecface0748ddeecd9e742a6b04748a479068b020f881d389c6d6775b6c823} performance boost in games featuring ray tracing. It achieves this by optimising the processing of ray tracing instructions, making the most of the available computational power.

Apple has also entered the ray tracing arena with its iPhone 15 Pro’s A17 Pro chip, housing a powerful GPU. This chip introduces mesh shading, which enhances graphics performance by optimising shader processing. Moreover, the chip boasts hardware-accelerated ray tracing, promising smoother gaming experiences with frame rates of up to 30 frames per second.

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iphone 15 pro max featured The iPhone 15 Pro Max is now capable of handling ray tracing. (Image: Apple)

Meanwhile, Samsung has teamed up with AMD to introduce hardware-accelerated ray tracing in the Exynos 2200, making it the first mobile GPU to support this technology.

While neither Apple nor Samsung has announced specific games that will utilise this technology on their smartphones, the ease of implementing ray tracing in games suggests a bright future ahead for this technology.

Although it can be a resource-intensive process, developers are finding innovative ways to incorporate ray tracing without sacrificing performance. With major players like Nvidia, AMD, Intel, and even smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung investing in ray tracing, it’s clear that this technology is here to stay, promising an exciting future for gamers and developers alike.

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