What is Ray tracing? Explained to the core!

Ray tracing is a clever computer graphics technology that will become much more common in the upcoming years. You may not have heard of it or understand how it works, but if you’re into gaming or technology at all, it’s important to know what ray tracing is and how it can improve your favorite games and even other forms of software.

What is Ray tracing?

Ray tracing is a rendering technique for generating an image by tracing the path of light as pixels in an image plane and simulating the effects of its encounters with virtual objects.

Ray tracing has been used to create images of complex virtual scenes, and it is currently being used for special effects in movies like Toy Story and Jurassic Park.

Ray tracing works by following rays of light around in a scene, which can be thought of as working out where shadows will be cast if you shine a torch on something in particular.

This allows ray tracers to produce highly realistic images, but they take very long to compute because they have to work out all sorts of complicated calculations every time a character moves their head around.

A brief history of ray tracing

Albrecht Dürer
Image credit: Wikipedia

Albrecht Dürer, who is credited with its invention, first defined the concept of ray tracing in the 16th century.

Ray tracing is a rendering technique for generating an image by tracing the path of light as pixels in an image plane and simulating the effects of its encounters with virtual objects

It is capable of producing a very high degree of visual realism, more so than typical scanline rendering methods, but at a greater computational cost.

It produces more realistic images than are possible with traditional rasterization-based rendering, but it is also more computationally expensive.

Ray tracing has been used for visual effects in movies since 1969 and was popularized by various studios using the technique to produce realistic images in animated movies.

Albrecht Dürer ray tracing enhanced
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pixar Animation Studios noticeably used the technique in two shots of “A Bug’s Life” to create the reflections on a glass bottle, but it only became the main part of the rendering process with “Cars,” where it was used to create the sharp shadows and detailed reflections the filmmakers needed.

Where is Ray tracing used?

Ray tracing is not restricted to just computer graphics. It can be applied to other fields, such as architecture, engineering, and lighting design.

In general, these applications require accurate models of how waveforms propagate through space over time due to interactions with matter at various points in three dimensions; this leads naturally to modeling entire rays rather than just their start/end points or surface normals which then must be traced outwards from those positions until some type of interaction occurs.

Ray tracing application

The primary application of ray tracing is in computer graphics, both non-real-time (film and television) and real-time (video games).

Ray tracing uses complex mathematical formulas such as de Casteljau’s Algorithm to calculate intersection points between rays and surfaces; these intersection points are then stored in a list, which can be used to determine whether or not a pixel will appear onscreen given its distance from the camera and view angle.

Traditionally, the higher number of calculations required to perform ray tracing makes it unsuitable for real-time applications such as video games due to their need for fast frame rates; it was mostly used in still images or film/television visual effects where ray tracing provides greater realism than other methods because it simulates how light reflects off surfaces rather than simply illuminating them according to preassigned colors called textures.

Current computing powers, however, currently allow real-time ray tracing. NVIDIA made real-time ray tracing a reality with NVIDIA RTXTM, the first real-time ray-tracing GPU, and has since continued to lead the way in the field.

How ray tracing compares with other techniques

The main advantage of ray traced rendering over traditional rasterization is that it can simulate many effects that are difficult to achieve with other techniques, such as reflections, refractions, and shadows.

Ray tracing can be more accurate than other algorithms in depicting how light behaves in different circumstances and it takes into account how materials reflect or absorb certain wavelengths of light (if that was modeled).

However, due to its computational cost (often thousands of times higher than screen-space algorithms), it has been mostly confined to offline renderers used for special effects in feature film post-production until recently.

Ray tracing software

Ray tracing is essential to photorealistic computer graphics. It is capable of simulating a wide variety of optical effects, such as reflection and refraction, scattering, and dispersion phenomena (such as chromatic aberration).

Ray tracing software allows one to design and animate images using ray tracing. If one wants to create CGI effects for a video game, animation, movie, or TV show, ray tracing software is essential for creating realistic graphics.

Ray tracing is also used in architecture and engineering projects, which is important for rendering high-quality images.

Ray tracing software can be divided into three main categories: products designed specifically for games; products designed specifically for animation and movies; and products designed to meet specific needs (such as architecture or medical).

Ray tracing is essential to photorealistic computer graphics. It’s used by most of the top animation software, including Autodesk Maya, Pixar RenderMan, and Mental Ray. Ray tracing is also applied in 3D game engines like Unreal Engine 4 or Unity 5.

Role of NVIDIA

In the market for consumer graphics cards, NVIDIA’s enhanced ray-tracing capability is one of its key advantages versus competitors.

NVIDIA has a key role in the rise of ray tracing technology.

NVIDIA is one of the pioneers of this rendering technique and has been developing it since its venture into the gaming industry. It’s also significant that NVIDIA is leading ray tracing technology today with its RTX platform which enables real-time ray tracing for video games and other applications.

NVIDIA made real-time ray tracing possible with NVIDIA RTX™ the first-ever real-time ray-tracing GPU—and has continued to pioneer the technology since.

As we’ve seen here, the hunt for ray tracing technology is a long one. While this tech has been around for years, it wasn’t until NVIDIA started to dabble that it really caught on.

Nowadays, ray tracing is becoming a standard in video games and entertainment experiences. The future of gaming looks bright, thanks in part to NVIDIA’s contributions!

Importance of real-time ray tracing

Real-time ray tracing makes it easier than ever for games to imitate the depth and detail of reality by providing a more accurate simulation of light. Consider how lighting affects so many scenarios, and it becomes pretty obvious why real-time ray tracing is important.

Ray tracing in games

Ray tracing is used in games to create realistic lighting and shadows, reflections, refractions (i.e., the way light bends when it enters a different material), and dispersion (or chromatic aberrations).

Ray tracing is also useful for creating real-time lighting effects such as caustics—the light patterns that appear on an object when a direct or indirect source illuminates it. Caustics can be seen on table tops where the shape of your glass causes sunlight to bounce off of it at certain angles.

Check the video below on how ray tracing affects graphics

Ray tracing ON/OFF

How does ray tracing work?

Ray tracing can be used to create photorealistic scenes, but typically requires many more steps than non-raytraced rendering techniques such as scanline rendering, radiosity rendering, or ray casting.

Ray tracing works by calculating what rays would hit particular points on various surfaces within a scene. This is done by tracing a path from an imaginary eye through each pixel in a virtual screen, and calculating the color of the object visible through it.

The process of ray tracing starts with identifying rays that originate from (or terminate on) pixels and then following those rays through a display to simulate how they would have been displayed on the screen if they had hit something solid.

In this way, it allows for reflections, refractions, shadows, and other optical phenomena that can not be captured by other techniques such as scanline rendering or rasterization.

The most common type of ray tracer today is GPU based (that means it uses graphics processing units). They’re often called “GPU renderers” because they were designed with games first in mind – at least until recently when artists realized how powerful these tools could be when used for still images instead of animated worlds.


As we’ve seen, ray tracing is a cutting-edge technology that promises to revolutionize the world of computer graphics. It has the potential to create photorealistic visuals in games and movies. With continued development, it could even be used to simulate environments in real-time applications like virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses. Large companies like NVIDIA and Microsoft are already using this exciting new field. However, it’s still young enough that there are many opportunities for independent developers to get involved and help shape its future.

If you’re looking for a beginner’s guide to setting up your first ray tracing game on your computer, we recommend the Unreal Engine tutorials ( You can search for this on Google or YouTube for options). They’ll help you get started with the basics of rendering and lighting in real-time, which is great if you’re just starting out.

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