The frequency of us hearing this term in industry is increasing at an alarming rate. "...blah blah supports ray tracing...", "... you'll need this card for ray tracing..." etc. But what exactly is Ray Tracing and what does it mean for the future of gaming?
Now, I know that this will be a dated post, somewhat, but there are still people out there that have either been ignorant to the usual tech jargon spouted by game industry giants, or simply, are fairly new to the industry.
Ray tracing technology and technique has actually been around for years and was actually described by Albrecht Dürer back in the 16th century as an idea. Since then advances in tech and a plethora of algorithms later, and we have the ability to project it into graphical context.
In film, an example of ray tracing being used is in the 2013 film Monsters University and you can absolutely see the clarity it instils in terms of lighting.
So, ray tracing is the act of tracing rays....woah! Who'd have guessed?
No, seriously, instead of the now-dated method of generating lighting effects in studios and other means or relying on modders to upgrade lighting and graphics in our favourite games in order for us to experience the level of graphical prestige we desire, ray tracing can now be tapped into in a more accessible way and is a rendering technique that uses algorithms to accurately simulate the behaviour of light rays through an environment. The result? - ultra realistic lighting.
Without going into too much scientific or mathematical detail, it essentially boils down to this residual description (in terms of gaming): tracing a ray or line from an Imaginary eye through each and every pixel in a virtual screen to an object and then to the light source, calculating the colour of said object based on set parameters and limitations.
Although, it's the furthest from "as simple as that" as you can see from the algorithm used for just 1 pixel.
You can imagine the sheer amount of calculation to be carried out for all possible rays through all pixels at any given milli or nano, or even pico second of time through, let's say, a cut scene, nevermind gameplay. And accompanying that, is the physical hardware you require to compute at that magnitude, hence its slow drip-feed into the industry from day dot...but we are getting there at long last.
Whilst ray tracing has been supported by graphics cards for a period of time prior to present day, the cards themselves back then were astronomically priced with only a small list of games constructed with the technology and technique in mind...up to now.
We will see it become a standard going forward with Nvidia and AMD leading the charge releasing all of their units going forward with ray tracing support, and at an affordable price for the common gamer (not just the gaming elite). Not only that, most, if not all games henceforth will also support it so we are going to see a sharp incline into ray tracing being a standard, and with it comes a new age of photo realism in game.
I could go on to give my two cents on auxiliary factors like increasing resolutions, dropping frame-rates etc. But I'll leave that to more experienced engineers and scientists sourced by google to explain to you.