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Scientists turn to ray-tracing for advanced graphics effects

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Scientists turn to ray-tracing for advanced graphics effects

San Diego (CA) – It is no secret anymore that lots of people and scientist are looking for new ways to increase the realism of graphics other then pushing the limits of traditional rasterization techniques. Ray-tracing is a term that comes up frequently these days and apparently, there is a lot of potential in tuning already existing algorithms to make them more suitable for general computing platforms: UCSD scientists have discovered a “lightweight” approach to simulate fog and possibly other materials and surfaces such as skin, milk and plants.

There are very few obvious advantages of multi-core computers today. Your Windows system doesn’t run much faster than it did two years ago, your office software does not provide much more benefit, many games do not take advantage of the added horsepower and even if we have HD today available on PCs, watching videos isn’t that much more breathtaking on quad-cores than it was on dual-cores or high-end single-cores.

But if you look into very specific computing categories, there are truly amazing projects out there, some of which could revolutionize the way you are working with your computer today. Look, for example, at deskside supercomputers with a floating-point that was available in multi-million-dollar supercomputers only a few years ago. Much of the developments focus on visualization and graphics in particular. Intel and Nvidia are in what some may call a rather accidental, but unavoidable fight, how visualization will be created in three, five or ten years from now.

Especially Intel is stressing the potentials of ray-tracing and if we believe the company as well as new research results, we could be seeing much more of much more realistic graphics effects in video games soon. UC San Diego computer scientists claim to have created a “fog and smoke machine” that dramatically for computer graphics that cuts the computational cost of making realistic smoky and foggy 3D images.

The foundation for this technology comes from an already existing ray tracing algorithm – photon mapping (which is a subset of ray tracing algorithms). However, instead of calculating thousands of discrete points along a ray between the camera and the object, this new approach computes the lighting along the whole length of the ray all at once. According to the project group, this way requires a lot less computing horsepower, while cit is able to create more realistic scenes with reduced visual noise. If this technology can be translated to run on multi-core computers, consumers may be looking into big advances in computer graphics.

To date, ray tracing algorithms are primarily used in settings where ultimate realism is required and where heavy computation can be tolerated, such as offline environments that do not require real-time image rendering. For example, ray-tracing is often used in commercials and animated movies, such as Final Fantasy. If the hardware power grows and the processing requirements of ray-tracing drops further, we could be in for a big treat on our everyday computers.  

“We took an algorithm that is already great and made it more efficient,” said Wojciech Jarosz, a Ph.D. candidate from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering. He believes that this more “efficient” approach to photon mapping could be extended well beyond foggy and smoky scenes, because many materials, including skin, milk and plants, behave like fog or smoke, but on a more limited basis. While photon mapping and other ray tracing algorithms that more closely mimic the natural world are making their way into movie special effects and animated films, Jarosz does not expect movies and video games to strictly follow the laws of nature.

“In live action movies, the lighting is incredibly controlled. If a character walks into a shadow, they will add light to the face even if you would never get that kind of light in a real shadow. The composition on the screen must tell the story and not distract the viewer. Realism doesn’t always matter. It’s the movies.”

Jarosz believes that new computing devices such as Intel’s Larrabee board may be “just one indication that ray tracing technologies may play an increasing important role in consumer oriented graphics of the future”.