“Look around you – right now,” says Phil Scott, Head of EMEA developer relations at Nvidia.
“Look at the objects illuminated by beams of light.
“If you follow the path of those light beams backwards from your eye to the objects that the light interacts with, that’s ray tracing.
“There probably aren’t many people outside of computer graphics who know the term, but there are very few people on the planet who haven’t experienced it.”
Even though ray tracing has been in Hollywood blockbusters for years – thanks to sophisticated CGI – it’s only now that technology is allowing video games to deliver similar results.
“Imagine having cutting edge Hollywood CGI in your games at home,” Scott continues.
“In video games, it provides realistic, cinematic lighting effects – essentially simulating the behaviour of light, shadows and reflections as they would in real life.”
CGI has come a long way since the 2D iteration in 1973’s Westworld, with visual effects now almost indistinguishable from real life.
So why has it taken so long for video games to catch up? Simply put, gaming graphics cards have not been fast enough… until now.
“Ray tracing has always been incredibly hard to do as computer hardware hasn’t been fast enough to be able to use these techniques in real time,” explains Scott.
“Film makers can take as long as they like to render a single frame – and it can take days, even weeks, to render complex special effects – but video games have only a fraction of a second.
“GPUs just haven’t been powerful enough, but we’ve now got to a point where we can render a fully ray-traced game scene in real-time thanks to GeForce RTX cards, which is why it’s such a huge deal.”
The cards Scott is referring to are the Geforce GTX 2000 Series, which, thanks to the new Turing architecture, allow for real time ray tracing (RTX) and “six times the performance” of the previous iteration of hardware. The result?
“Realism,” says Scott. “When it comes to next gen gaming it’s all about realism and wanting to feel as immersed as possible in the game you’re playing.
“Real-time ray tracing means scenes will more accurately display what you see with your own eyes.
“If an explosion goes off in a game, you’ll see it reflected in the puddles on the grounds, in the windows of near-by buildings and even on the barrel of your gun.
“Imagine being able to see the reflection in a window of your enemy standing behind you and being able to instantly react. In racing games, you could have that realistic blinding glare from the lights as they shine and reflect on the wet tarmac.
“The games you enjoy at home will get more of the cinematic qualities of a Hollywood blockbuster.”
Right now, there’s a substantial GPU cost for games to use real-time ray tracing – which likely rules it out for this generation of consoles. The hardware, too, costs hundreds of pounds.
However, with the PS5 and “Xbox Two” in development, it could only be a matter of time before real-time ray tracing finds itself moving beyond the high-end PC space.
“Ray tracing is redefining expectations of how games should look, and gamers will soon come to expect this type of technology,” says Scott.
“The PC is generations ahead of what’s available on consoles right now and they don’t have the computational power; but it’s very possible that we may see ray tracing in future gen consoles.
“We’re working closely together with game developers to bring it to gamers as quickly as possible while also ensuring a great experience from the beginning.
“Battlefield V, the first-ever game to use ray-traced reflections, is available now. We’re adding final touches to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Metro Exodus will launch in February.”
Excitingly, Battlefield is powered by EA’s in-house Frostbite engine – which suggests Ray Tracing could well feature in a number of other titles.
I ask him about the chances of it coming to the next FIFA. “That’s a question for EA,” he responds.
With the focus on resolution and hardware scrutinised on its ability to provide stable framerates and detail at 4K, could real-time Ray Tracing represent a shift in focus?
“They are both important,” says Scott.
“We now have a proper step up to gaming at 4K resolutions, but in the quest for photo realism, we need to focus on developing better and better graphics which is what ray tracing provides.”
The quest for photo realism could well be nearing its conclusion.