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Why NVIDIA’s Real-Time Ray Tracing Technology is a Big Deal

With the newly unveiled NVIDIA Geforce RTX GPU’s, NVIDIA has achieved the incredible, long-sought-after feat of real-time ray tracing. This modern marvel is the crowning glory of the GPU juggernaut but what is it exactly and why is it such a big deal? In this article we peel back the layers as we seek to understand what real-time ray tracing is and what it means for the future of gaming, graphics and media in general.

The Holy Ghost

For the longest time, ray tracing has been considered the holy grail of life-like computer graphics. Simply put: Ray tracing is a rendering technique that realistically simulates the lighting of a given scene and its objects. It traces individual rays of light as it bounces on each surface of every object in the scene, effectively mimicking how light behaves and how our vision works. It also keeps track of the type of material and surface the light is bouncing on to make sure that the light is reflected, refracted and diffused realistically.

Ray Tracing is capable of producing incredibly realistic graphics but it comes at a very high computational cost. As such it takes a lot of time, effort and resources to ray trace. Rendering a single scene using ray-tracing can sometimes take an entire day even up to months at a time. That is why ray-tracing has been restricted to media that can be pre-rendered ahead of time such as movies and tv shows and not in media such as our beloved video games which require quick or immediate results. Until now, that is.

One Giant Leap

Quite simply, what NVIDIA has achieved with their new RTX series of GPUs presents a giant leap in graphics. Not only is the RTX Series capable of ray tracing, they’re able to do so in a mere fraction of the time. It is capable of rendering what would normally take countless hours of animators’ work from days to weeks to months and produce the results in real-time!

At the moment, this trio of demos from NVIDIA shows what the power of real-time ray tracing could achieve.

In the Reflections demo above, the various lights from the First Order Base’s interiors reflect and refract off of the Stormtroopers helmets and gear. Once Captain Phasma enters the scene, the effects are dialed up tenfold. Her chrome plated armor reflects the lights realistically even as the elevator starts moving. If you look closely enough you can also see her gun reflecting in the armor and the bouncing back to the gun. Pretty heady stuff.

In the Shadow of the Tomb Raider Demo, The flickering neon sign changes the environment that it lights up drastically. Additionally, the sparklers that the children wave around cast realistic shadows on the ground and on the children as they move. The light is also diffused through the smoke in the area radiating softly outward. They even affect the shadows on Lara as she walks past them!

In the Metro Exodus demo, light changes according to the time of day, casting shadows that change position as the day goes on.  Also highlighted are the different ways the light interacts with different materials from wood to metal to glass and stone.

You can expect all these effects and more incredible stuff to be implement better and more interesting ways in the future.

Gaming and Beyond

The effect of Real-time Ray Tracing will obviously be huge in the realm of gaming. At its most basic level, it will be a giant step towards photorealistic video game graphics. As it stands today, standard rendering techniques have already produced some pretty amazing looking games but when ray-tracing finally finds its way into our PCs and consoles it will be a whole different ball game.

The effects of this technology doesn’t just stop at better graphics. Ray-tracing could change the way we play games in general. Speaking at the recent NVIDIA press briefing held in Bangkok Thailand, Jeff Yen, Director of Technical Marketing for NVIDIA talked about how realistic reflections could add a different aspect to gameplay. In a First Person Shooter (FPS) like Battlefield V for example, you could potentially see opponents who are sneaking up on you by using windows, mirrors and other reflective sources in the environment and react accordingly. You can also potentially see other teammates around the corner to know where they are exactly to coordinate your movement. Additionally, the type of armor or camouflage you equip might become a bigger factor than it was before, with realistic lighting helping or harming your ability to blend into the scenery.

Speaking to NVIDIA Technical Marketing Manager John Gillooly, he also talked about how this technology could be implemented in the realm of sound design. Using the same system to keeping track of the bounces of sound rather than light giving players accurate environmental awareness by gauging proximity to the sounds of footsteps, gunshots and the like. These things if applied correctly will change the landscape of competitive gaming as well. With the rise of esports, many athletes and teams will look to any stratagem that will help them get a leg up in the competition.

In the realm of VR, the immersion that real-time ray tracing could provide the platform will be absolutely breathtaking. Realistic lighting and sound would add another layer the various gameplay elements and interactions that VR Technology loves to immerse us with. Imagine sound getting realistically closer the closer you are or hearing things from a distance exactly as you would in real-life. The potential for this technology’s application to VR is definitely exciting.

Branching off from video games, real-time ray tracing will also definitely help ease the load off of the animators in creating CGI for our favorite movies and TV shows. Days of work can now potentially be realized in a fraction of the time, saving resources and increasing productivity. You can also expect that ray-tracing will increase the rate of which fully CGI media is released or at the very least increase the quality for less resources.

The future is looking pretty bright (and realistically lit) with the real-time tracing and the NVIDIA Geforce RTX GPUs. The technology is revolutionary and can very well change the whole of computer graphics as we know it. However, realistically, things are still a ways off. At the moment there are only 21 announced games coming soon that will support the RTX with presumably more on the way. Aside from Shadow of the Tomb Raider (which is already out but will patch RTX functionality in later), there is no way to accurately test out how good the technology is with our current crop of games. Hopefully with time, we’ll see many more developers, artists and companies put this amazing tool to work. I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Real-time ray tracing is a big deal because it represents the future of computer graphics, we can only hope that it gets here quick because we can wait to see it with our own eyes.