According to this article we are finally getting close to ray traced video games. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the disconnect between the ray traced images of chrome spheres on checkerboards we were amazed that the Amiga could render in the late 80’s, and the ray cast 3D game graphics that were used in Doom and are still in use (although in much more sophisticated form) in the game systems we have today. Although ray tracing has been around a long time, we’re only now getting to the point where it can be rendered fast enough for games.
The ray casting used in games today is able to generate 3D scenes from models, but all light effects like shadows, reflection, light sources, and refraction are approximated using clever programming tricks. However ray tracing traces light through the entire scene, so light behavior is all rendered very accurately and naturally.
After Mario 64, the advances in video game graphics over the last 10 years have rarely impressed me. But I’ve been looking forward to real time ray tracing for a while and I think the results will be stunning. It’s weird to think how obvious, cool, and simple a Marble Madness style game would be, rendered in true 3D with levels that are all reflective chrome, and that we just don’t have the technology to do that yet.
And ray tracing is much simpler to program than the current approximated lighting tricks used in games, so it could actually simplify game design. Plus it can be parallelized efficiently, so the speed of the rendering is nearly multiplied by the number of processors (or cores) you have available. Cool.