Gollum is an example of how good (or perhaps ugly, yet photorealistic) ray-tracing can look.  (Source: New Line Cinema)

Farcry at high top settings. Note the trees and plants show no reflection, and the reflections are lower resolution than the land.  (Source: Crytek)

Ray-traced Quake 4. Note the full resolution reflections, which include all objects, including the gun and trees.  (Source: Intel and id software)

Low resolution, artifacted shadows from Call of Juarez.  (Source: Ubisoft)

Sharp, full resolution shadows in Daniel's Quake 3 engine.  (Source: Intel and id software)
While ID and Epic develop their new engines, Intel is working on something that may blow both of them away.

Take a look at the screen shots of the ray-tracing engine by Intel's Daniel Pohl and you won't have to squint to see improvements.  This young gun from Intel is looking to shake up the entire game engine industry with his innovative work.

Designing game engines is a cut-throat business.  Companies regularly fold after investing massive amounts of money and time to develop a proprietary engine.

Part of the problem is market saturation.  You have three giants who release an engine ever couple of years--Epic, id Software, and Valve.  Then you have major developers who make engines to license, such as Emergent Game Technologies who make the Gamebryo engine, used in the popular Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

The real problem though, is that all the new engines utilize most of the same technologies and techniques as the last generation.  There is creativity, but not true innovation.  Rather, it is a slow and expensive process of iterations, each a bit better than the last.

Daniel Pohl does not believe in this style of development.  In college he broke with tradition and redesigned Quake 3's engine to work with ray-tracing, as opposed to rasterization which nearly all traditional engines used.  He was hired out of college by Intel and is currently creating some quite possibly ground breaking work for them.

Ray-tracing is used to render most CGI movies, for example the orcs and various monsters in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.  It provides realistic lighting, shadows, and reflection, among other benefits.  However, this technique, like radiosity-based rendering, has taken a back seat to rasterization rendering, due to its high computational costs.

However, early potential was shown when OpenRT, a graphics API similar to OpenGL, was released in 2005.

Now Daniel Pohl has shown that with modern quad-core gaming machines, high performance ray-traced graphics is achievable at acceptable frame rates.  Pohl has been showcasing his new work for Intel at various technology shows across the country this year. 

His new work brings ray-tracing up to the modern era, with a redesigned Quake 4 engine, which use ray-tracing.

The engine yields breathtaking results.  First, raytracing allows for a dramatic increase in polygon count, without significant extra overhead.  This is due to the fact that the engine is based on a set number of rays, and the number of polygons simply affects their course, but does not add extra rays.  Thus a higher level of detail can be obtained at little cost.  In his example, he takes a 2 polygon wall from the rasterized Quake 3 engine and makes it into a 5,000 polygon wall, which process nearly as fast.

A second benefit from ray casting is realistic shadows.  Shadows in today's highest profile games are an ugly business.  They often are lower resolution, have artifacts, look distorted and have various other problems which all stem from the fact that shadows are not naturally processed in rasterization rendering and have to be synthetically added.  Ray-tracing inherently calculates shadows at little cost and displays lighting-realistic shadows at full resolution.

A final key graphical aspect where ray tracing dominates is in reflection and refraction effects.  Most games today limit reflections to the occasional mirror or water surface.  You will seldom see your face reflecting off computer monitors or "fancy" effects such as that.  Further, refraction/reflection effects such as water are typically poorly done.  Some games do not even include water reflections, while others, such as FarCry make an admirable effort, but end up only rendering partial reflections at low resolution, even at the highest settings.  Ray-tracing offers far superior, full resolution, full image reflections at little cost.

Two other aspects that seem to make ray-tracing poised to take over are scaling and ease of programming.  Ray-tracing is based mainly on repeated calculations to a finite set of rays, so it is easily divisible into separate tasks, unlike rasterization.  The result is that frame rates increase approximately linearly with frame count, so a screen that is rendered at 4 fps in a single core machine, would run at about 16 fps on a quad-core machine.  Rasterization engines fare far poorer in this aspect.  The ray-tracing engine also allows effects to be programmed far easier.  Reflections and refractions are inherently calculated, and the only real work to be done is designating the polygonal object's light reflection and refraction indexes.  This is in contrast with rasterization engines, which must design complex algorithms to simulate individual lighting effects.

The best proof of the engine's potential is simply by looking at the screenshots attached.  Unlike most new engines where you have to squint to see the differences of various effects, the upgrade provided by the ray-tracing engine is, in most cases, glaringly obvious.  Daniel Pohl and his team at Intel are hard at working revolutionizing the computer gaming industry.  If his engine succeeds, it has the potential to shatter a 10+ year tradition of rendering monotony by ditching the old--rasterization--for the new--ray-tracing.

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen
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