Ray tracing is a pretty advanced type of graphics functionality. It allows for better shadows, lighting and materials. In real terms, it means that gamers will get more realistic imagery in their titles (as long as it’s supported). More realistic imagery means that your games will look more like the hyper-realistic computer graphics one sees in big budget movies today.
Today, all consumer grade graphics cards render things in a similar fashion, no matter how much it’s cost you. A scene is shown using rasterisation techniques. In short, the card will determine what you the player will see, and only render those important parts. Lots of software and hardware optimisations focus on minimising how much gets “seen” by the player, thus saving processing power per frame.
However, all of these shortcuts means that the quality of the image is sacrificed for the quantity. People who play Counter Strike would know about rubbish graphics on an every day basis.
Of course, wanting to use ray tracing to enhance the quality of the graphics means players will sacrifice the number of frames-per-second their hardware could render. It would affect the smoothness of their experience because ray tracing is very expensive computationally. Imagine having your graphics card needing to actually simulate millions and millions of virtual photons bouncing around in each scene. That’d slow everything down to a crawl.
Fortunately, the big graphics players know this. Microsoft has announced that it will be adding ray tracing APIs into DirectX 12. Called DXR, the new functionality will be built into Windows so that modern graphics cards will be able to take advantage of a small amount of ray tracing. Further, DXR will introduce new shader types into DirectX 12 that software can take advantage of.
Even better, both AMD and Nvidia have also announced their hardware will support this feature going forward. Radeon cards will use ProRender to do real-time ray tracing while Nvidia’s Volta chips and later will use RTX to do the same thing. ProRender will be built upon Vulkan, an open-sourced standard. Nvidia being Nvidia will mean that RTX is closed sourced and proprietary.
It sounds like the next generations of graphics cards will not only be more powerful, but more capable. Future game engines will also be demanding the type of capabilities outlined by this hardware. No doubt more and more AAA games will show off these capabilities and give us all a better experience. Now, if only the cryptocurrency miners would just stop hogging all our hardware.