Ray tracing stole the show from Nvidia’s new RTX graphics cards

Ray tracing

Another year, another new line of graphics cards.

That’s what we would have said had Nvidia just announced a GeForce GTX 1180, but it didn’t. Instead, this year Nvidia is pushing the envelope beyond just better performance, a smaller architecture and the usual developments we’ve come to expect from generational leaps in silicon with a single feature: real-time ray tracing.

Despite all Nvidia’s hype – and spending damn near 90% of its press conference on the subject in question – we honestly feel that ray tracing really could lead a new revolution in computer graphics in the same way shaders and shadows have set the tone for the last two decades.

What is ray tracing?

In case you haven’t heard of ray tracing before, it’s a light rendering process that quite literally traces rays. In the same way you can look at a streak of sunlight and follow its path to see where it strikes an object and illuminates other objects around it, ray tracing determines this phenomenon in a digital environment.

In short, ray tracing looks at the way light is absorbed, reflected, refracted, scattered and dispersed by every single object in a given environment, but instead of a single streak of sunlight, it can calculate every single photon of light.

The purpose of ray tracing is to create more realistic lighting scenarios and natural shadows, and from what we’ve seen the effect is astounding. A simple log cabin lit by an open window by traditional digital lighting model looks uniformly washed out, but with ray tracing on, every part of the cabin looks a little darker and lighter than the rest.

Likewise, Nvidia showed how flames in Battlefield V can reflect off the pupils of an in-game character and the side of a car door, regardless of whether that content is displayed on your screen at the moment. That said, this example takes things a little far and, after seeing the Star Wars ray tracing demo a dozen times, it seems as if ray tracing equates to shiny, reflective surfaces – but there’s much more to it than that.

As if lighting wasn’t important enough to graphics, they also define how the colors and shadows look. For example, shadows in current games can look too sharply defined and lack any sort of gradation, whereas ray tracing-generated shadows add that missing level of definition.

Why does it actually matter?

Hairworks, Tress FX, PhysX – there’s never been a shortage of application programming interfaces (APIs) that have tried to make computer graphics look and respond more realistically.

However, while these have all been sort of spot fixes attempting to polish up certain aspects of computer graphics, ray tracing could reinvent the wheel. Because lighting fundamentally defines how everything looks – in the absence of light there’s only darkness, after all. We could be looking at the start of a new future for computer graphics.

Nvidia is no stranger to introducing new rendering methods – after all, there are currently 16 VisualFX tools in its arsenal of GameWorks APIs – but it has never announced something that could create sweeping changes in the computer graphics world like this.

If anything, that’s more of Microsoft and AMD’s remit, with the DirectX and Vulkan software developer kits (SDKs), respectively. But, while these SDKs have lead to higher frame rates that most users wouldn’t notice without an fps counter, the improved lighting and shadows that ray tracing delivers are instantaneously recognizable from what we’ve seen.

Ray tracing

The long road ahead

All told, we’re most excited about how ray tracing and RTX will impact the future of video games.

As it stands, there are currently only 21 games that promise to support Nvidia’s ray tracing rendering technique. Some of these titles are Assetto Corsa Competizione, Atomic Heart, Battlefield V, Control, Enlisted, Justice, JX3, MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, Metro Exodus, ProjectDH and Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

It’s more than likely that more and more games will add support, so we can only hope that Intel and AMD will jump on the bandwagon to help make ray tracing an industry standard that much faster.

Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee was a former computing reporter at TechRadar. Kevin is now the SEO Updates Editor at IGN based in New York. He handles all of the best of tech buying guides while also dipping his hand in the entertainment and games evergreen content. Kevin has over eight years of experience in the tech and games publications with previous bylines at Polygon, PC World, and more. Outside of work, Kevin is major movie buff of cult and bad films. He also regularly plays flight & space sim and racing games. IRL he's a fan of archery, axe throwing, and board games.