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Nvidia announced today that it is unlocking DirectX Raytracing capabilities in its last-generation Pascal GPUs. Real-time ray tracing features like global illumination, reflections, and shadows were exclusive to Nvidia’s RTX GPUs. But now you can turn on those features on video cards like the GTX 1080.

Nvidia chief executive Jensen Huang announced this news during his keynote address at the company’s GPU Technology Conference in San Jose. But the company briefed the press on the details of this news earlier in the day. During that session, the Nvidia explained that it wants to expand the potential audience for DXR. It acknowledged that RTX cards are inherently faster with ray tracing due to their specialized cores, but it wants to give people the option to run these features even if it wrecks performance.

And real-time ray tracing is going to wreck your performance on even the most powerful cards. But some versions of DXR will run well even on Pascal cards. Battlefield V is an ideal example. DICE’s World War II shooter uses ray tracing to create accurate reflections. A powerful Pascal card can calculate the number of rays required for those kinds of reflections on low settings relatively quickly.

But Nvidia also confirmed that even a GTX 1080 Ti is going to struggle with Metro Exodus. That open-world shooter uses the global-illumination variation of ray tracing. That implementation requires significantly more ray calculations. In Nvidia’s testing, a 1080 Ti runs Metro Exodus at an average of 18 frames per second at 1440p. For comparison, the 2080 can run those same settings at 60 frames per second.

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While this is going to expand the potential audience for games with ray tracing, this is a potentially strategic move by Nvidia.

The reason the medium popcorn exists

Have you bought popcorn at a movie theater? If you have, you surely noticed the weird pricing between the medium popcorn and the large popcorn. It usually goes something like this: small is $4, medium is $7.25, and the large is $7.75. It’s odd that the large is only 50 cents more expensive than the medium, right? But that’s the point. The medium popcorn exists so you don’t think about the total cost of the snack or even how much popcorn you need. Instead, you are only thinking about how good of a deal it is to get a lot more food for a measly 50 cents extra.

The problem for Nvidia recently is that its RTX cards don’t have a medium popcorn. Its pricing has actually had the opposite effect. The RTX 2080 and GTX 1080 Ti are pretty close in traditional game performance, but the 2080 is a little bit more expensive. That’s a comparison that every customer is going to hate. Sure, 2080 could run RTX features in Battlefield V and Metro Exodus and the 1080 Ti couldn’t (until now). But then most people aren’t going to think of that as a direct comparison.

But by unlocking RTX features for Pascal cards, Nvidia can better make the value proposition for the RTX cards. Right now, the narrative is that Nvidia is selling RTX cards that can’t even run some intense ray tracing features at 60 frames per second in some games. But once people can turn on those features on their 1080 Ti, Nvidia can flip that script and start saying, “look at how much faster RTX cards run this game than the card you have right now.”

It’s the medium-popcorn effect. And it’s a smart way to simultaneously give people choice and FOMO.

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