What does ray tracing mean?

Ray tracing has been common for many years in the film and visual effects industry, but until recently was far too expensive performance wise to consider using in real-time games. It is capable of simulating a variety of optical effects,such as reflection, refraction, soft shadows, scattering, depth of field, motion blur, caustics, ambient occlusion and dispersion phenomena (such as chromatic aberration).

Comparison between ray traced (L) and non ray traced (R) visuals. Note the reflections.

As such, it provides a far more accurate simulation of lighting and reflections than previous techniques used in games. Ray tracing, more specifically, real-time ray tracing, is one of the defining elements of next-generation graphics. The potential leap from previous generation graphics to modern ray traced graphics is huge.

Ray tracing refers to a method of generating an image with a computer by “tracing” the path of light from an imaginary eye or camera to the objects in that image.

Ray tracing is most obvious in reflective areas

The latest consoles, Xbox Series and PS5, both support real-time ray tracing out of the box, and most modern PC graphics cards also support the technique. It is performance intensive, so it is the higher end cards that tend to support ray tracing.

You will most likely notice ray tracing the most within a game when you look at areas of reflection. Whereas in the past reflections were always a bit of a fudge, an approximation, with ray tracing the reflections will be perfect, just like the real world!

Reflections like these are only possible with ray tracing

Another exciting opportunity to utilise ray tracing is when updating older games. Nvidia recently updated Quake 2 to support real-time ray tracing, and the results are stunning.

Quake 2 RTX before and after
Check out that water!
You can also see the improvement given to the effect of light and shadow in Quake RTX

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