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Making a realistic-looking scene in a game so that the player will suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the experience is what drives many developers. Games are real-time simulations that will soon be running on multiple 4k screens. Just to drive those screens with today’s images is going to take a lot of graphics horsepower, and delivering that horsepower is what AMD and Nvidia do. But these companies do more, too: They generate algorithms and libraries, clever rendering techniques, and software tools to enable game developers to exploit the hardware.

To get the very best, physically accurate image that re-creates the illumination, colors, shadows, reflections, and subtleties of a scene, ray-tracing was always considered the ultimate solution, and it is. However, it requires an enormous amount of computation and defies the idea of real-time with the processors consumers have in their machines.

Lots of tricks help create good-looking scenes without requiring a supercomputer, but you’d never mistake such a scene for the real thing.

Nvidia has just released their latest supercomputer on a chip called Maxwell, GM204, and it will show up on graphics add-in boards (AIB) as the GTX 980. The GTX 980 isn’t just the next-gen AIB. The 980 will introduce Nvidia’s new, real-time global illumination capability, VXGI.

Nvidia GTX 980 comparison

Above: Nvidia GTX 980 comparison

Image Credit: Jon Peddie Research

To make a scene look realistic, you must generate not just the direct lighting in it but the subtle indirect or secondary lighting as well. Indirect lighting is what happens when light reflected off one object influences the color of another object. Indirect lighting is what creates soft shadows and shadows on shadows — realism. Ray-tracing can do that, it just takes a long time.

Nvidia will employ a technique called global illumination Voxel Cone Tracing. VXGI can eliminate the need for pre-illumination lighting (i.e., “baked in” — pre-ray tracing). With voxel illumination, it is possible to get specular and reflective light and Nvidia expects game engines to incorporate their voxel indirect illumination capability at the end of the year. Ambient occlusion (AO) is another tactic, and it’s often referred to as a “poor man’s” global-illumination technique. AO can add tremendous quality to an image, and Nvidia has developed an AO technique they’re calling HBAO+. Game developers will choose which technique they want to use depending on the complexity of the scene and the performance (frame rate) they are trying to achieve.

Jon Peddie

Above: Jon Peddie

Image Credit: Jon Peddie Research

Nvidia isn’t the first to use voxels. Voxels have been used for a long time, mostly in the medical-imaging market, and AO has been around for the past few years. However, Nvidia is the first to employ those techniques using a GPU as a parallel processor, and realizing real-time frame rates.

Naturally, AMD and Intel will also offer such capabilities, but Nvidia has the lead now, and first to market always has an advantage. You can expect to be playing incredibly realistic looking games by the end of this year that will use some of these new techniques. Games like Assassin’s Creed, and Eve Valkyree, and GRID2 will amaze you with realistic graphics, you’ll never want to leave the games they will be so real.

Jon Peddie is a longtime graphics expert at Jon Peddie Research.

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