Ray tracing is the next generation of lighting technology for computer graphics, and Nvidia held a lengthy event in Germany today to reveal how its new GeForce RTX 2000-series cards will implement what it calls the “holy grail” for video game visuals. Ray tracing is the technical term for rendering the physical properties of light beams in 3D, and it’s such a huge jump because it can quickly and accurately replicate the behavior of light. Up to this point, for real-time games, developers have had to fake that effect by tweaking finicky tools.
But with the RTX 2070, 2080, and 2080 Ti launching next month for $500, $800, and $1,000, respectively, developers can now bring ray tracing into their games using Nvidia’s RTX tool and Microsoft’s DirectX Ray Tracing graphics protocol. Now, you may have some skepticism about the improvements that ray tracing will bring into games, so Nvidia used a portion of its event to parade multiple upcoming games to demonstrate just how stunning RTX illumination is.
For example, here is an explosion reflecting off the side of a car in Battlefield V in real-time.
This Battlefield V scene is impressive for a number of reasons. In the past, games could only reflect objects that were also on the screen. So if you were looking at a car and an explosion was happening around the corner, it wouldn’t reflect because the game wasn’t rendering the source of the lighting for you.
But with ray tracing, the light behaves realistically and bounces around corners even if you don’t see it at all. The car also has a complex surface, but the explosion’s light scatters across it in a way that I find mesmerizing.
I dig this other moment from the Battlefield V demo where a V1 rocked explodes at the end of a street, and you can see the massive fireball mirroring off of puddles and causing the ground and surrounding buildings to flash an orangish red.
Nvidia also brought the anticipated open-world role-playing adventure Metro: Exodus onstage to show off how accurate its indirect lighting model is.
The company showed off a room with a window during the day time. The sun’s light pierced through the windows like a spotlight on certain objects, but then a duller light reflected off of those surfaces to scatter across the rest of the room.
This is the way we expect light to behave in the real world, but I’ve never seen it in a game before.
Now, this still may not convince you, and only certain games are going to support ray tracing by the end of this year. So if you are buying one of the new RTX cards for this feature, you’re doing so for the promise of what’s to come. But it’s looking like a pretty good promise, and ray tracing is so useful for developers that it is also probably inevitable.
That said, we are definitely in a weird position for graphical power in video games. We’ve reached a point where the best-looking games can run at 1080p and 60 frames per second on relatively moderate hardware. Even 1440p at a framerate of 144 doesn’t require the most intense configuration. If you want 4K, you’ll need to move into the high-end, but I think it’s easy to be happy with how video games look right now.
Ray tracing represents the aspirational new technology that cannot run at all on current-gen systems. It is going to bring a new level of realism to games, and that’s great — but it also gives Nvidia a buzzword that should help it continue to push the consumer GPU market forward.
But I’m ready for it. Ray tracing will save developers time, and it does look amazing.