Video games depend on graphics engines to deliver top of the line, realistic graphics. Now there is a new development which may bring game graphics to a whole new level: ray tracing.

Recent releases such as Far Cry 5, Sea of Thieves, and A Way Out boast unique graphics. While they have different styles, the second and third games utilize Unreal Engine 4.

At GDC 2018, the team behind the Unreal Engine series debuted tech demos. If you have to take anything from this convention, it’s that real-time computer graphics are becoming the stuff of science fiction.

Just check out this side by side of a digital Andy Serkis and Osiris Black from 3Lateral:

But there was so much more revealed at GDC 2018 with the implementation of ray tracing. This technology, oft used in movies, is migrating to video games for even better graphics.

A Brief History of Unreal Engine and its Uses

Most people might be familiar with Unreal Engine thanks to popular video games. Versions of the engine have brought huge hits to life since 1998 such as:

  • Various Tom Clancy video games
  • Killing Floor – a multiplayer zombie hoard mode shooter
  • Bioshock games – a first-person shooter with an alternative history setting
  • The original Deus Ex – a cyberpunk game
  • Unreal Tournament – a fighting game
  • Various Alien games (based on the popular sci-fi film series)
  • Borderlands games – a pop-art themed first-person shooter
  • Injustice games – a fighting game that features DC and other franchise characters
  • The Mass Effect series – a third-person shooter set in space
  • Robo Recall – a VR first-person shooter

There are many more titles listed on this Wikipedia page, but you get the picture.

The engine works across many platforms such as PC, console, mobile, and VR. The games created on it are varied in genre and graphic detail. But the engine isn’t only for video games.

You can use it for photo-realistic 3D renderings, as well. The video below is from 2015, if you’ll believe it. But you can see just how realistic the lighting, particle effects, and texture rendering was even then.

The newest technology paired with Unreal Engine 4 to produce graphics is called ray tracing. It has been used in movies before, particularly in animation movies such as Monsters University.

Real-Time Reflections Using Ray Tracing Technology in Unreal Engine

Ray tracing, like other rendering techniques, depends on computational costs for greater performance. That’s one reason why movies used massive render farms.

It can generate an image when it races a path of light using pixels in an image plane. The result is a higher degree of realism for the objects created compared to other rendering methods. It differs from traditional rasterization in that it focuses on light rather than mesh processing.

This example uses NVIDIA’s RTX technology (for Volta GPUs) and Microsoft’s DXR framework. You can see some crazy reflective and distortion effects in the lighting.

These rendering and lighting techniques came about by a collaboration via ILMxLAB and NVIDIA using Unreal Engine. Real-time ray tracing is now not only a thing, it’s doable on hardware available to consumers (almost, at least).

It is still computationally intensive like rasterization, but developers are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

Quantum Ray Tracing: The Next Step in Graphics?

While there isn’t much out there about quantum ray tracing, the Internet has its musings.

Since quantum computers are the next big leap for processors, it makes sense that people would pair the next big leap for graphics with it. But the likelihood of consumer level quantum computers in the next year is unlikely.

Despite Google’s 72-qubit quantum chip Bristlecone invention, most people can’t afford a quantum computer yet. After all, they still cost around $15-million USD.

Too bad since quantum computers could create a “hack-proof” Internet.

Still, this hasn’t stopped the internet from theorizing over every possible outcome of this new potential tech.

Reddit user Aniso3d reminisced about when they first discovered ray tracing in the 90s. They also have a prediction about quantum computers:

image of Reddit comment by user Aniso3D via Reddit for article Next Gen Graphics Get an Upgrade With Ray Tracing
Reddit comment by user Aniso3D via Reddit

There is a brief from 2015 about the quantum acceleration of ray tracing available, too.

Even if we are years away from quantum ray tracing, next year’s video games are sure to be even more impressive than this year’s.

At the rate that graphics are improving, how long do you think it will be before photorealistic graphics are seen as the norm in gaming?

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