Nvidia and Microsoft bring ray-tracing to games
THE HOLY GRAIL of graphics is often said to be ray-tracing, a rendering technique that traces the path of light rays in an image or video that illuminate and fill a scene. The technology can enable cinema-level visuals that have accurate lighting, shadows and reflections to make a virtual scene look significantly more realistic than other rendering techniques.
The problem is that it takes a lot of graphical horsepower to do this, which puts ray-tracing out of the reach of even the most powerful consumer graphics cards. But Microsoft and Nvidia have joined forces to bring ray-tracing rendering to games later this year, with the use of the latter’s Volta GPU architecture.
That’s arguably quite a lofty ambition, but Microsoft is adding its DirectX Raytracing software to its DirectX 12 application programming interface (API), an established industry graphics standard. And Nvidia is working on RTX, a set of hardware and software algorithms designed to support ray-tracing on its nextgeneration graphics card architecture.
“Real-time ray tracing has been a dream of the graphics industry and game developers for decades, and Nvidia RTX is bringing it to life,” said Tony Tamasi, senior vice-president of content and technology at Nvidia.
“GPUs are only now becoming powerful enough to deliver realtime ray tracing for gaming applications, and will usher in a new era of next-generation visuals.”
Ray-tracing is nothing particularly new, and is commonly used in movie-making to render lifelike worlds for fantasy and sci-fi flicks. But now there’s a good chance that technology will be able to feed into the next swathe of triple-A games without knocking frame rates below the PC gaming standard of 60 frames per second.
Nvidia’s RTX tech, when used with its upcoming Volta GPUs, will allow for ray-tracing work to be offloaded from the main graphics processor to dedicated onboard hardware. It will also use the Tensor compute engines on Volta cards, which are typically used to power machine-learning algorithms rather than push pixels and render scenes.
While Volta cards have yet to reach the gaming PCs, Nvidia already has notable widely used game engines and tools, such as the Unity, Unreal and Frostbite engines, on board to work with ray-tracing. Developers from Remedy, EA and 4A Games are all keen to support the use of the fancy rendering tech.
Simply put, 2018 looks like being a very interesting year for the future of graphics in the gaming arena.
Real-time raytracing has been a dream of the graphics industry and game developers for decades” Tony Tamasi, senior vice-president, Nvidia
BOOT UP ANY triple-A game such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Forza Motorsport 7 or Rise of the Tomb Raider and you’d be forgiven for thinking that game graphics have peaked.
But there’s still a good way to go before they reach near photorealism or even get close to aping the computer-generated images the film industry can achieve. Yet if you can buy into Microsoft’s and Nvidia’s vision for ray-tracing, that could all change.
Ray-tracing could be the next step graphics need to take to make games more realistic, no matter how fantastical their setting, and allow PC gamers to feel they are getting the very best out of their hardware over Xbox One or PlayStation 4 gamers.
Of course, having the technology is one thing; getting developers to tap into the tech is another. However, Nvidia and Microsoft are quite good at encouraging early adoption of their latest work, and there are already developers playing around with RTX and DirectX Raytracing.
“Integrating Nvidia RTX into our Northlight engine was a relatively straightforward exercise,” said Mikko Orrenmaa, technology team manager at Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment.
“Developing exclusively on Nvidia RTX, we were surprised just how quickly we were able to prototype new lighting, reflection and ambient occlusion techniques, with significantly better visual fidelity than traditional rasterisation techniques.”
That might all sound pretty technical, but it shows Nvidia and Microsoft are keen to make it easy for developers to get cracking with ray-tracing.
As such, the next games we see running EA’s Frostbite or Remedy’s Northlight engines could contain some form of ray-tracing that’s either enabled by default or is an option for people with PCs sporting Nvidia’s Volta-based graphics cards.
Given the limitations of games console graphics in comparison to the flexibility of PCs, we’re unlikely to see ray-tracing replace more established graphics rendering straight away, as developers will still need to make games that cater for millions of console gamers. But ray-tracing looks to be the next really exciting step in graphics.