Is Ray Tracing Still Worth It in 2023?

Ahh, ray tracing. The ‘revolutionary’ technique that was said to change the way we play games. Talk about massive buzz. Everyone wanted the latest next-gen tech. Ray tracing was only limited to big-budget movie studios earlier. Nvidia and AMD’s series of cards have brought this interesting piece of technology to gamers across the world. Today, we question if it is worth the money in 2023.

What is Ray Tracing?

Lighting is essential in getting a realistic 3D Render. That is because good lights, reflections, and shadows can make or break your scene. Ray tracing helps you get that shiny, reflective look on water and other surfaces. It just makes the 3D render look better overall.

I’ll explain it easily. Ray tracing is drawing lines from the viewer (camera) to the light source while bouncing off various objects in the scene. This gives us an objectively better image than traditional techniques. Ray tracing is an offline rendering technique. 

Ray tracing has the ability to simulate various optical effects. Including; reflection, refraction, depth of field, soft shadows, scattering, motion blur, and chromatic aberrations. Ray tracing can not only simulate light but also sound. In fact, it can simulate any physical wave of particle phenomenon with approximately linear motion.

Did You Know?: Ray Tracing can be traced back to the 16th Century! Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer gets credit for its invention. This was when he invented Dürer’s door.

Ray Tracing in Movies

Ray tracing is extensively used in the film industry. Disney and Pixar have been utilizing it for years in their animated films and shorts. This is a significant reason behind the stunning visuals in their movies. 

These studios have massive budgets, supercomputers, and server farms, but it still takes them months to render out a movie. Moreover, Their process is very complicated. It includes multiple bounces for every photon of light and lots of light rays coming from each source.

Fun Fact: Some frames Pixar’s Monsters University reportedly took a staggering 29 hours to render!

Ray Tracing and Gaming

Nvidia brought ray tracing into mainstream gaming in 2018 with the launch of the GeForce RTX line. The highlight of the line was the GeForce RTX 2080. These Nvidia GPUs claimed revolutionary real-time ray tracing to get better-looking games. In addition, Nvidia says it took them ten years to develop these. Nvidia calls this ‘hybrid rendering’.

In gaming, real-time ray tracing is a hybrid of ray tracing and traditional rasterized graphics. The hybrid rendering process works something like this. Basic structures are rasterized first. After that, the GPU uses ray tracing to compute light effects like reflections and shadows. This is a best of both worlds type deal. Since it merges fantastic image quality with excellent rendering speed. Ray tracing solves lighting and shading issues by modeling complex interactions of light. 

How Nvidia’s System Works

Now Nvidia’s GPUs don’t track billions and billions of rays of light from every single light source. Consumer-grade (home use) ray tracing decreases the load on computing by tracing a path from a single virtual camera, representative of the viewer’s eye, through single pixels, to whichever object exists behind the pixel and back to the source of light in the scene. For increased realism, if the object that the ray bounced off of diffuses or absorbs the light, like a rough texture (cement, wool), the ray tracing algorithm can consider these additional rays of lights too, so that refraction effects and shadows are also displayed accurately. You can see amazing images on your screen after each pixel goes through this process. The RTX series also includes AI.

Traditional Rendering

Now that we know what ray tracing is, let’s take some time to look at the traditional technique used to render lights, reflections, refractions, and shadows.

Rasterization and Ray Tracing are two different approaches to the primary tasks of shading and visibility (lighting) in gaming. Also, both have their positives and negatives.

Rasterization

Rasterization was first used in the late 1960s by A. Michael Noll on an early scan display. Since then, it has become the go-to way to render 3D scenes. Bitmap graphics is another name for Raster Graphics.

Rasterization is the process of transforming a vector (curve-based) image to a rasterized (pixel-based) image. It is also called the process of rasterizing 3D models onto a 2D plane to display on a computer screen. Rasterization uses approximations of how light behaves. Fixed-function hardware mainly carries this out within the graphics pipeline. Moreover, this isn’t very customizable or individual to the scenes.

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How Rasterization Works in Games

In rasterization, the game tells your GPU to create 3D scenes with polygons. Polygons mostly make up the visual elements you see on screen. These are multiple digital surfaces that make up a 3D model. After the desired scene is created, it is rasterized into individual pixels that are then processed by a shader that decides the color, the lighting, and the textures. These are decided separately for each pixel, which then becomes a fully rendered frame. 

Undoubtedly, rasterization’s main advantage is its speed. Especially when compared with ray tracing. It renders fast. Rasterization can get you high frame rates and is excellent for real-time rendering. 

Using shaders to guess where the lighting should have its limitations. Consequently, this process finds it challenging to figure out how light travels and bounces off objects within a particular scene. Whereas ray tracing is miles ahead of rasterization when it comes to figuring this out. 

Another limitation is that it can’t get a high dynamic range for really dark shadows. This is important for creating compelling atmospheres.

Pros of Using Ray Tracing

  • Ray-tracing gets you photorealistic results. 
  • It’s great for storytelling in games because it gives a better image to tell stories more convincingly. They provide more context in the scene. 
  • Creates a more immersive experience. 
  • Ray-traced images and games look magnificent and cinematic. You get better, more beautiful reflections. This technique adds to the ability to create artistic visuals.

Cons of Ray Tracing

Well, nothing’s perfect, and that includes ray tracing. 

  • Ray tracing has a super high computational cost, which is not affordable nor feasible for every young gamer. It takes a lot of time to render.
  • It takes a lot of time to render. High frame rate is critical in first-person-shooters and even in games in general. Ray tracing brings down your frame rate even if you’re running the latest high-end hardware. Sometimes causing a drop from 100 to 60 fps just by turning it on.
  • While ray tracing makes for magnificent visuals and images, the boost in quality it provides in gaming isn’t that significant. Therefore, you might question if the difference in quality is worth the loss in performance. 
  • There is an evident lack of games with ray tracing support that performs up to gamers’ standards.
  • Finally, ray tracing is just plain expensive. You could easily get a previous-gen card at a much lower price and not lose out on a lot.

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Final Verdict

In conclusion, ray tracing is an impressive rendering technique. It can get you gorgeous images on the screen. However, is it really a necessary upgrade in 2023? Maybe. However, more industry support, better games, and lower prices will certainly help its cause. We’re slowly getting there; we could see regular usage of ray tracing normalized in a couple of years.

Graphics Cards with Ray Tracing Support:

  • NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080
  • AMD RX 6800 XT
  • NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070
  • NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3090
  • AMD RX 6900 XT
  • NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Super


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