Ray tracing: What you need to know about gaming’s latest innovation

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This is how ray tracing will revolutionize the next generation of gaming.
Image: Nvidia

If you’ve been paying attention to the video game world recently then you’re aware that both Sony and Microsoft are releasing new consoles this year. The PS5 and Xbox Series X promise to be powerful gaming machines that will be the face of gaming for the next several years.

Each of these consoles has plenty of offer. However, one feature, in particular, will drastically change the way gamers see their favorite titles come to life on screen—ray tracing. This rendering technology will make games more realistic than ever before thanks to lifelike lighting effects.

What is Ray Tracing?

With the talk in the gaming world consumed by PS5 and Xbox Series X, the term ray tracing is slowly becoming synonymous with the next-gen consoles. However, it actually has a much longer history.

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Movie studios like Pixar have been using it for years. This leads many to wonder why ray tracing is just now arriving in the video game world. The answer lies with hardware.

Since games need to be rendered in real-time (and are interactive experiences) they need much more powerful hardware. Moreover, those components need to be compact enough to fit inside a console.

With the forthcoming generation of consoles, ray tracing is finally ready to make its debut. High-octane graphics chips and processing power to the tune of 12 teraflops (for the Xbox Series X) make it possible.

But what is ray tracing? In short, the technology makes animation more realistic by better simulating how light interacts with the environment. It makes shadows sharper, enables better ambient occlusion, and lets global illumination look like it does in real life.

This is accomplished by making light sources that cast rays which behave like they do in the real, physics-based world of photons. The results speak for themselves. Light that moves as it should instantly makes a game more realistic by triggering something in the subconscious. Seeing a scene with ray tracing beside one without it makes the difference even more obvious.

The image below is an example comparing a scene in “GTA V” with and without ray tracing. It doesn’t take an expert to notice that the right side is far more attractive. The light plays better off the road, off the car, and even on the horizon.

Image: YouTube | MONSTER KILLER00K

Next-Gen Perks of Ray Tracing

Since ray tracing deals with light it also allows developers to make better use of reflections. Typically, this sort of rendering is omitted or dulled as it isn’t vital to the game and slows things down. However, it just makes things look “right.”

A YouTube video from Unreal Engine shows off this capability in a demo with Star Wars stormtroopers. Look carefully at how the environmental lighting reflects off their polished armor in real-time.

The opposite of reflections, shadows, also benefit. Since ray tracing tracks the movement of individual light rays, it lets certain environmental features “capture” the light. Just as some surfaces absorb light in real life, games with ray tracing use this effect to create more realistic shadows that add depth to the world.

A great example of this in action is the graphically-intense title “Shadow of the Tomb Raider.”

Yes, the name is ironic. However, this example from Nvidia shows off just how much of a difference ray tracing makes when it comes to rendering shadows.

Although adjustments like better reflections and shadows might not seem huge, these small changes will make the next generation of video games more immersive than ever. Once ray tracing is able to be integrated into virtual reality (VR) the lines between what is real and what is rendered will become even more blurred. However, that is still a long way off.

Transition Generation

Until now, ray tracing was only available on high-end gaming PCs with the most recent graphics cards out there. Nvidia’s 2080 Ti has served as the top-tier piece of hardware for ray tracing applications. While cheaper models work, they can’t perform quite as well.

For the PS5 and Xbox Series X, finding the balance of hardware, performance, and price will be a difficult task. Although we don’t know every detail about these consoles just yet, they aren’t going to be as fast as the aforementioned chip.

Even the 2080 Ti, the pinnacle of graphics cards, can’t render games in 4K while performing ray tracing simultaneously. Due to the fact that the game engines behind big-name titles are so intense, rendering them in high-res and using ray tracing simply isn’t possible—yet. However, the Xbox Series X and PS5 will attempt to bridge the gap between the future of ray tracing and the past use of rasterization.

Many experts believe that games released in the next few years will use a hybrid approach, combining both of these methods to create the best possible results. For instance, a modified rasterization approach could render most light while ray tracing is used for shadows and reflections, making the entire scene look better without sacrificing performance.

However, there are plenty of indie developers looking for ways to set themselves apart from the crowd. Launching titles that utilize full ray tracing—even if it comes at lower resolutions—could be a great way to do this. By using the powerful hardware of the forthcoming next-gen consoles, this is a realistic possibility.

Bright Future

Although the PS5 and Xbox Series X are heavily marketing their ability to render ray-traced games, they will only scratch the surface of what this technology is capable of. It likely won’t be until the next generation of consoles (after this one) that we see triple-A games being rendered in 4K with ray tracing.

Nonetheless, the years ahead are promising with these two consoles leading the way. It will be very interesting to see how developers run with the new ray tracing capabilities and just how far they are able to push the limits of what’s possible.

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