What is Ray Tracing?
In the aspect of computer graphics, Ray Tracing is a rendering technique that simulates a light’s physical characteristics that bring realistic lighting, shadows, and effects to games. It mimics how a ray of light bounces off objects from a set point, illustrating the reflection of light from every surface. The whole process, in turn, enhances the image quality giving viewers a more immersive experience. The technique has long been used in 3D films and eventually found its way in high-level computer games providing cinematic-quality visual effects. Ray Tracing has been a game-changer in the gaming world and is a preferred rendering technique than rasterization, which has limitations in rendering the true colors of objects.
Ray Tracing in Nvidia GPUs
As a leading manufacturer of graphics cards, Nvidia has always been bold in experimenting with new ways to better the visual quality of its products. Starting in September of 2018, Nvidia has been releasing graphics cards with Ray Tracing features. Nvidia’s Turing architecture is the first GPU design with dedicated hardware, or RT cores, for real-time Ray Tracing processing.
What are RT Cores?
Ray Tracing is usually reserved for non-real-time applications because the computing time it takes to process the ray tracing operation is much longer than other visual effects. Nvidia made a breakthrough by integrating hardware in their architectural designs with the sole purpose of computing ray tracing real-time. This added hardware, known as RT Cores, has been inaugurated in Nvidia’s Turing-based RTX graphics cards. This was also the world’s first consumer graphics card with ray tracing support in the hardware-level
RT-cores calculates the colors of the pixels as a ray of light travels from one point to another. The process gets more complex when there’s a multitude of light sources. Moreover, several processes involved in ray tracing such as Ray Casting, Path Tracing, BVH (Bounding Volume Hierarchy) and Denoising Filtering make it a computationally intensive technique. BVH is the most time-consuming part of ray-tracing calculations, and the RT-Cores accelerate BVH traversal for real-time ray tracing. Aside from the RT-Cores, there’s another set of hardware in Nvidia GPUs that play a role in providing real-time ray tracing. The Tensor Cores, designed for artificial intelligence acceleration, also aids in real-time denoising and speed up ray casting.
Nvidia Graphics Cards w/ Ray Tracing Support
Nvidia cards with RT Cores is a big leap for the world-renowned graphics card manufacturer. This is, however, hardware-based, and prior releases of graphic cards do not have such features. Because ray tracing has a huge appeal to consumers, Nvidia also made the feature available to older graphics cards. Since older architectures don’t include RT Cores in their designs, Nvidia made ray tracing rendering possible through game-ready drivers.
Nvidia Graphics Cards with Hardware-Level Ray Tracing
The first generation of RT-Cores was featured in Nvidia’s RTX 20 series. The RTX 2080 was the first in the RTX 20 series that showcased Turing’s architecture. It was then followed by RTX 2080 Ti, RTX 2070, and RTX 2060. Titan RTX is also in the line-up.
In September 2020, Nvidia introduced Turing’s successor, the Ampere, which features the second generation of RT-cores. The Ampere bags huge upgrades in RT-Cores and Tensor Cores rates boosting the RT-Core rate to 58 RT-TFLOPS, 1.7x higher than that of Turing’s, providing a much faster ray tracing rendering and enhancing the image quality. Likewise, the Ampere has more than twice the Tensor Cores rate of Turing with 238 Tensor-TFLOPS. The Ampere is at the core of RTX’s second generation of GPU; the RTX 30 series includes the Titan-class RTX 3090, RTX 3080, RTX 3070, and the most recently released RTX 3060.
Nvidia Graphics Cards with Software-Level Ray Tracing
Nvidia made another breakthrough by enabling ray tracing in selected graphics cards with no dedicated RT Cores. This is good news to gamers using the older models who do not consider upgrading the graphics cards just yet but want to experience the visual benefits of the ray-tracing technique. GeForce GTX 1060 6GB and higher graphics cards can now enjoy ray tracing capabilities through DirectX Raytracing (DXR). Below is the list of Nvidia cards that are ray tracing-capable through DXR:
- GeForce GTX 1660 Ti
- GeForce GTX 1660
- Nvidia Titan Xp (2017)
- Nvidia Titan X (2016)
- GeForce GTX 1080 Ti
- GeForce GTX 1080
- GeForce GTX 1070 Ti
- GeForce GTX 1070
- GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
Due to its lack of dedicated hardware for ray tracing, the GTX cards can only offer basic ray-tracing effects. The shader cores handle the ray-tracing calculations, and this additional workload for the shader cores will affect the GPU’s performance. Nevertheless, with ray-tracing capabilities, gamers can experience a more appealing visual experience.
The Future of Ray Tracing in Nvidia
The Ampere’s performance is already more than satisfactory after doubling Turing’s processing rates. However, even though it’s still fresh from the oven, there are already rumors about its successor, the Lovelace. We can expect new developments in ray-tracing calculations in this new GPU architecture. Likewise, a new generation of RTX graphics cards is expectedly already in the works. The future of ray tracing looks bright as Nvidia continues to develop GPU architectures that would satisfy the consumer’s hunger for a better gaming experience.