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Ray Tracing and VR: A Match Made in Heaven?

Image: Nvidia Press
Although GPU technology has been coming along in leaps and bounds for the last few years, nothing truly revolutionary has happened. We experienced a massive leap in graphical fidelity at the start of the Xbox 360 era, but everything since has been steadily incremental. Then Nvidia came out of left field with real time ray tracing hardware. Games that can make use of this technology are still scarce, hut with showcases such as Control and Minecraft RTX, it’s clear that there is no going back from here.

What’s This Ray Tracing Stuff?

In case the term Ray Tracing is news to you, here’s a quick explanation. Ray tracing is the premier technique for rendering photorealistic graphics. It’s used to make CG effects and films. Its very rough on computing power and can’t be done in real time, which is what a video game would need. In traditional game graphics the way light behaves is faked using many tricks and shortcuts developed over the years. Modern traditional game graphics looks superb, but it’s still a long way from being photorealistic.

Ray tracing does not take shortcuts. It simulates the path of light rays bouncing through a scene, providing a final result thats pretty much photoreal.

Nvidia’s RTX cards have dedicated hardware that only work to perform ray tracing in real time. It’s a hybrid approach, with RT applied to some elements of the scene and the rest handled the old way. Still, it pushes real time interactive graphics closer to prerendered ray tracing than ever before.

Why is Ray Tracing so Important for VR?

It has to be seen to be believed, but RT graphics represent a huge jump in realism. It turns simpler titles like Minecraft and Quake 2 into something that looks like the real world, but as a sort of diorama. It gives the brain what it expects to see in the real world and removes a significant layer that prevents the VR illusion from being complete.

Its not just about the fun and games. Other than providing action-packed, fun-filled entertainment for the entire family, VR plays a big role to help humanity as developers use it to help those in need in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago. Some use it to cure phantom pain among amputee victims, while others rely on VR to provide therapy for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. VR has also been proven to help children with autism by teaching them social cues and real world lessons. It is being used as a practice board for surgical students before they make the first cut. There is even a VR content targeted at young adults that simulates their physical condition when they get to their 60s, and thus encourages them to save for the future.

Seriously, just look at thus Minecraft RTX demo.

If your jaw doesn’t drop to the floor, check your pulse.

Why We Can’t Have Ray Tracing in VR Just Yet?

The short answer is simply poor performance.

This first generation of RTX hardware is more a proof of concept than a mainstream solution. Even with our lowly RTX 2060 test bench, we’ve seen some amazing RT tech, but even at 1080p a thirty FPS experience is a blessing with all the eye candy turned up. It will take a few more generations of RT development before this tech can be pushed at the frame rates and latencies VR needs to work. As VR fans, we need to keep a close eye on this technology and look forward to a photorealistic future.
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