As a long-time PC industry observer, it’s been fascinating to watch the evolution in quality that computer graphics have gone through over the last several decades. From the early days of character-based graphics, through simple 8-bit color VGA resolution displays, to today’s 4K rendered images, the experience of using a PC has dramatically changed for the better thanks to these advances. The improvements in computer graphics aren’t just limited to PCs, however, as they’ve directly contributed to enhancements in game consoles, smartphones, TVs, and virtually every display-based device we interact with. The phenomenal success of gaming across all these platforms, for example, wouldn’t be anywhere near as impactful and wide-ranging if it weren’t for the stunning image quality that today’s game designers can now create.
Of course, these striking graphics are primarily due to graphics processing units (GPUs)—chips whose creation and advancement have enabled this revolution in display quality. Over the years, we’ve seen GPUs used to accelerate the creation of computerized images via a number of different methods including manipulating bitmaps, generating polygons, programmable shaders, and, most recently, calculating how rays of light bounce off of images in a scene to create realistic shadows and reflections—a technique referred to as ray tracing.
Ray tracing isn’t a new phenomenon—indeed, some of the earliest personal computers, such as the Amiga, were famous for being able to generate what—at the time—felt like very realistic looking images made entirely on a PC via ray tracing. Back then, however, it could often take hours to complete a single image because of the enormous amount of computing power necessary to create the scene. Today, we’re starting to see the first implementations of real-time ray tracing, where GPUs are able to generate extremely complex images at the fast frame rates necessary for compelling game play.
Nvidia kicked off the real-time, PC-based ray tracing movement with the debut of their Turing GPU architecture and the RTX 2000 series graphics cards based on those GPUs last year. Now the company is working to push the momentum forward with their second-generation desktop graphics cards, the RTX Super line, including the RTX Super 2060, RTX Super 2070, and RTX Super 2080. All three cards offer performance improvements in both ray tracing and traditional graphics acceleration. At the high end ($999), the RTX 2080 TI remains as the highest performing card in the Nvidia line, while at the low end ($349), the original RTX 2060 remains as the lowest priced option. In between, the original 2070 and 2080 are being replaced by their Super versions (but at the same $499 and $699 prices), while the Super 2060 at $399, ups the onboard graphics memory to 8 GB and nearly matches the performance of the original RTX 2070. As a bonus, all three RTX Super cards come bundled with two games that support real-time ray tracing: Control and Wolfenstein: Youngblood.
Nvidia faced some criticism (and, reportedly, saw somewhat muted sales) after the launch of the first generation RTX cards because of the limited support for real-time ray tracing in many popular PC gaming titles. Since then, the major gaming engines, including Unreal and Unity announced support for ray tracing, as well as Microsoft’s Direct X Ray Tracing (DXR) API, and several AAA gaming titles, including Cyberpunk 2077 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In addition, other games, such as Quake II RTX and Bloodhound have also announced support for accelerated ray tracing hardware.
On top of this, recent announcements from both Microsoft (Project Scarlett) and Sony (PlayStation V) made it clear that the next generation of game consoles (expected in 2020) will incorporate hardware-based support of real-time ray tracing as well. Interestingly, both of those devices will be powered by AMD-designed GPUs, strongly suggesting that AMD will be bringing real-time ray tracing hardware technology to future generations of their Radeon line of desktop and laptop GPUs.
As the market has demonstrated, not everybody currently feels the need to purchase GPUs with dedicated ray tracing accelerated hardware. Many gamers focus on purchasing desktop graphics cards (or gaming laptops) that can play the current titles they’re interested in at the fastest possible frame rates and the highest possible screen resolutions at price points they can afford. For those gamers who are thinking ahead, however, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of momentum starting to build around real-time ray tracing. In addition to the previous examples, both Nvidia and AMD have announced software-based support of ray tracing in the latest drivers for their existing GPUs, which will likely encourage more game developers to add support for the technology in their next generation games. While the software-based solutions won’t run as fast, nor provide the same level of image quality for ray traced effects as hardware accelerated solutions, they will at least make people more aware of the kind of graphics enhancements that ray tracing can provide.
The evolution of computer graphics is still clearly moving ahead and, as a long-time industry -watcher, it’s great to see the once far-off concept of real-time ray tracing finally come to life.