O Rayly? Ya Rayly. No Ray!

Yup. That raytracing… but it’s to supplement rasterization for now.

Microsoft has just announced a raytracing extension to DirectX 12, called DirectX Raytracing (DXR), at the 2018 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco.

The goal is not to completely replace rasterization… at least not yet. This effect will be mostly implemented for effects that require supplementary datasets, such as reflections, ambient occlusion, and refraction. Rasterization, the typical way that 3D geometry gets drawn on a 2D display, converts triangle coordinates into screen coordinates, and then a point-in-triangle test runs across every sample. This will likely occur once per AA sample (minus pixels that the triangle can’t possibly cover — such as a pixel outside of the triangle's bounding box — but that's just optimization).

For rasterization, each triangle is laid on a 2D grid corresponding to the draw surface.
If any sample is in the triangle, the pixel shader is run.
This example shows the rotated grid MSAA case.

A program, called a pixel shader, is then run with some set of data that the GPU could gather on every valid pixel in the triangle. This set of data typically includes things like world coordinate, screen coordinate, texture coordinates, nearby vertices, and so forth. This lacks a lot of information, especially things that are not visible to the camera. The application is free to provide other sources of data for the shader to crawl… but what?

  • Cubemaps are useful for reflections, but they don’t necessarily match the scene.
  • Voxels are useful for lighting, as seen with NVIDIA’s VXGI and VXAO.

This is where DirectX Raytracing comes in. There’s quite a few components to it, but it’s basically a new pipeline that handles how rays are cast into the environment. After being queued, it starts out with a ray-generation stage, and then, depending on what happens to the ray in the scene, there are close-hit, any-hit, and miss shaders. Ray generation allows the developer to set up how the rays are cast, where they call an HLSL instrinsic instruction, TraceRay (which is a clever way of invoking them, by the way). This function takes an origin and a direction, so you can choose to, for example, cast rays only in the direction of lights if your algorithm was to, for instance, approximate partially occluded soft shadows from a non-point light. (There are better algorithms to do that, but it's just the first example that came off the top of my head.) The close-hit, any-hit, and miss shaders occur at the point where the traced ray ends.

To connect this with current technology, imagine that ray-generation is like a vertex shader in rasterization, where it sets up the triangle to be rasterized, leading to pixel shaders being called.

Even more interesting – the close-hit, any-hit, and miss shaders can call TraceRay themselves, which is used for multi-bounce and other recursive algorithms (see: figure above). The obvious use case might be reflections, which is the headline of the GDC talk, but they want it to be as general as possible, aligning with the evolution of GPUs. Looking at NVIDIA’s VXAO implementation, it also seems like a natural fit for a raytracing algorithm.

Speaking of data structures, Microsoft also detailed what they call the acceleration structure. Each object is composed of two levels. The top level contains per-object metadata, like its transformation and whatever else data that the developer wants to add to it. The bottom level contains the geometry. The briefing states, “essentially vertex and index buffers” so we asked for clarification. DXR requires that triangle geometry be specified as vertex positions in either 32-bit float3 or 16-bit float3 values. There is also a stride property, so developers can tweak data alignment and use their rasterization vertex buffer, as long as it's HLSL float3, either 16-bit or 32-bit.

As for the tools to develop this in…

Microsoft announced PIX back in January 2017. This is a debugging and performance analyzer for 64-bit, DirectX 12 applications. Microsoft will upgrade it to support DXR as soon as the API is released (specifically, “Day 1”). This includes the API calls, the raytracing pipeline resources, the acceleration structure, and so forth. As usual, you can expect Microsoft to support their APIs with quite decent – not perfect, but decent – documentation and tools. They do it well, and they want to make sure it’s available when the API is.

Example of DXR via EA's in-development SEED engine.

In short, raytracing is here, but it’s not taking over rasterization. It doesn’t need to. Microsoft is just giving game developers another, standardized mechanism to gather supplementary data for their games. Several game engines have already announced support for this technology, including the usual suspects of anything top-tier game technology:

  • Frostbite (EA/DICE)
  • SEED (EA)
  • 3DMark (Futuremark)
  • Unreal Engine 4 (Epic Games)
  • Unity Engine (Unity Technologies)

They also said, “and several others we can’t disclose yet”, so this list is not even complete. But, yeah, if you have Frostbite, Unreal Engine, and Unity, then you have a sizeable market as it is. There is always a question about how much each of these engines will support the technology. Currently, raytracing is not portable outside of DirectX 12, because it’s literally being announced today, and each of these engines intend to support more than just Windows 10 and Xbox.

Still, we finally have a standard for raytracing, which should drive vendors to optimize in a specific direction. From there, it's just a matter of someone taking the risk to actually use the technology for a cool work of art.

If you want to read more, check out Ryan's post about the also-announced RTX, NVIDIA's raytracing technology.