The product of a decade's work, Nvidia have announced today that they are releasing technologies that will make real-time ray tracing a reality.
Now we could see cinematic graphics in video games as soon as this year and not in the way that's been used as a meaningless buzzword for years.
Ray tracing is a rendering technique that was previously limited to films and television. Render farms could plug away at it in their own time to get the right results, it was not something that could be achieved on home hardware. Not without things catching on fire, taking a long time or both.
It renders realistic graphics by simulating rays on all of the objects in a scene - calculating reflections, refraction, shadows, the whole shemozzle - then turning those into images that can be indistinguishable from those captured on camera. Basically it's a way to accurately imitate light.
Doing this in real time wasn't possible. Now it is and Nvidia think this will set the way for the next 20 years of computer graphics.
"GPUs are only now becoming powerful enough to deliver real-time ray tracing for gaming applications, and will usher in a new era of next-generation visuals," said Tony Tamasi, senior vice president of content and technology at Nvidia.
The new technology is called Nvidia RTX and it's a set of hardware and software solutions that allows for what Nvidia describe as "real-time cinematic renderings". This is the product of a decade of research and development into graphics hardware and software algorithms.
Let's get something out of the way. The only hardware capable of making full use of this technology is Nvidia's Volta GPUs. There's only one of those available right now - the Titan V. It costs $4700 and is targeted at developers. The hardware side of this equation is still out of reach for now.
Yet there's also the software side which is being used in demos shown at GDC today from Unity, Epic and Remedy. We might not see RTX's full potential for some years but the early seeds are starting to sprout.
Microsoft and Nvidia have worked together to create DirectX Raytracing. This is separate from RTX but will potentially kickstart the use of real-time ray tracing by making it available through more technologies. More importantly, the widespread use of DirectX should allow for faster adoption of this new ray tracing technology. DirectX Raytracing is expected to work on a wide range of graphics cards.
"DirectX Raytracing is the latest example of Microsoft's commitment toward enabling developers to create incredible experiences using cutting-edge graphics innovation," say Max McMullen, Microsoft's development manage of Windows Graphics and AI.
Nvidia are also introducing ray tracing tools to their Gameworks software development kit. Right now it is in early access to allow for a small group of developers to experiment with ray traced shadows, reflections and ambient occlusion. Soon it will be made more widely available. Again, this is limited to Volta GPUs.
The focus is to get this technology into the hands of developers. Tools take time to learn. Games take time to make. The sooner those aspects gets handled, the sooner RTX-featured games can make their way into our hands.
"We were surprised just how quickly we were able to prototype new lighting, reflection and ambient occlusion techniques, with significantly better visual fidelity than traditional rasterization techniques. We are really excited about what we can achieve in the future with the Nvidia RTX technology. Gamers are in for something special," says Mikko Orrenmaa, technology team manager at Remedy Entertainment, makers of the Northlight engine.
In fact, we could even see games that use elements of this technology later this year. It's ambitious but what about RTX isn't?