Graphics are responsible for giving many games much of their appeal, especially for those that involve world exploration or combat. In just a few decades, game graphics have evolved from pixel art into immersive displays that look almost real. With ray tracing, the gap between computer graphics and the real world just got even closer.
What exactly is ray tracing, and why does it matter? As it turns out, ray tracing is a powerful tool that promises results, but you need specific hardware and software to make the most out of it.
Understanding Computer Graphics
Before ray tracing existed, programmers relied on pixels to display images and videos in games. This technique is called rasterization, and nearly all games rely on this method to create graphics.
The earliest games were only able to display a small number of pixels with a limited color range. As processors and memory chips became more powerful, creators were able to utilize more pixels for displaying graphics. With millions of pixels on the screen, the human eye can no longer distinguish between the individual pixels, creating an illusion of continuity.
To be able to simulate light, games also use programs called shaders to adjust the brightness of each pixel based on the presence of light sources or shadows. The entire system works to produce stunning graphics, but the reliance on predetermined pixels means that images are inherently unrealistic.
Better Graphics Through Physics
Ray tracing relies on a simple principle: physics. In the real world, light reflects off surfaces and refracts as it passes through objects, changing its intensity and hue. Ray tracing simulates the millions of light rays visible through the current view, traces them back to their light source, and uses the calculated data to simulate lighting.
While the underlying concept is simple, the actual implementation requires extreme amounts of computational power. Ray tracing is already a mainstay in the film industry for years since studios have powerful servers that can generate each video frame. Only recently did consumer electronics have enough power to handle ray tracing.
Ray tracing allows for dynamic generation of computer graphics. Light is accurately depicted, allowing scenes to look nearly indistinguishable from reality.
Limitations Of Ray Tracing
Currently, only a few graphics cards from NVIDIA have official support for ray tracing. These cards have a specialized infrastructure that allows them to perform ray tracing properly. Other cards can technically do the calculations required in ray tracing. The trade-off is that it takes incredibly long to generate each frame, resulting in unplayable frame rates and extreme lag.
Even the best graphics cards right now can’t do true ray tracing. They only simulate several dozen light rays, then use artificial intelligence to predict the behavior of the other beams without spending too much computational power. Even then, these cards struggle to generate frames fast enough, so frame rates drop significantly when ray tracing is enabled.
Finally, only a few games have ray tracing. Since only a few have hardware that can handle ray tracing, it doesn’t make sense for all companies to invest in integrating ray tracing.
Many players are astounded by what ray tracing provides to their gaming experience. As graphics technology evolves, expect to see more titles and more graphics cards supporting ray tracing, the new frontier of gaming graphics.