What is Ray Tracing?

With the advent of Nvidia’s new GPUs coming out, the inevitable question was asked of me by friends: What is ray tracing?

Over the past decade or so, graphics in video-games have made enormous leaps and bounds, and it’s now trivial to simulate hundreds of thousands of physics objects all at once with a very standard graphics card. However, the huge leaps in processing power have slowed somewhat, and now small tweaks and improvements to what we already have are being made. This includes hair, water, and light.

Light is one of the hardest things to simulate correctly. There are many ways to fake it, and game developers have gotten very good at certain techniques to make you believe that the sun is over there and casting shadows here, and so on. However, ray tracing is a method that attempts to actually simulate the behavior of the photons of light. Sounds cool, right? You can imagine how intense of a calculation that would be for many light rays. Because of this, it’s not possible for a real-time rendered game or simulation to process it quickly enough to display on a normal computer. Ray tracing is currently only used in pre-rendered films or animations.

Without going into the actual physics of how light and photons work, interesting read here, ray tracing is an expensive operation (takes a lot of computational power). Nvidia is taking steps to make it more feasible and possible in the future by providing “ray tracing upgrades” to their graphics cards. We will have to wait and see how much of an actual improvement they’ve made.


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