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Sponsored Feature: Changing the Game - Experimental Cloud-Based Ray Tracing

March 30, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Real-time ray tracing in games has been peeking over the horizon in recent years, promising a level of shadows, reflections and lighting effects not possible in standard rasterization. The biggest obstacle to pushing it above the horizon has been its heavy computational requirements, which have historically limited its use in gaming. But the cloud may be changing that.

Cloud-based rendering is gaining momentum in the gaming world. (At GDC, Gaikai and OnLive showcased server-based gaming.) So why not use server-side ray tracing for games? In this Intel-sponsored article, Daniel Pohl, a leading expert in ray tracing game technologies, focuses on cloud-based, real-time ray tracing, including its advantages and a demonstration of the cloud-based rendering approach using Intel® MIC Architecture.

For more of Daniels’ work, read Quake Wars Gets Ray Traced and visit his website:

-- Orion Granatir


A game-changing factor in computing is the rise of the cloud. While the word sometimes seems to be overused, the concept offers interesting benefits for both companies and end-users. One example of taking advantage of the cloud is related to computer games. Companies like OnLive and Gaikai are making a business out of offering a service in which the game itself runs on servers in the cloud. It processes user interactions from the game client, and the server sends back a compressed, rendered image of the game to the user.

There are many advantages of a cloud-based rendering approach. For instance, the user doesn't need to wait for the installation of the game and doesn't need to worry about patching the game to the latest state. The amount of used hard disk space on the user's machine is much lower. As the game can't be copied from the client side, there is no need for anti-piracy checks like putting the game DVD into your machine. For developers it also enables an easy way to release a demo version of the game, such as by providing a limited access time window to the full game so people can get a first impression of it.

Another advantage is that a game client could run on many different operating systems and might therefore save the amount of work that is sometimes used to port a game across different platforms. More platforms, such as netbooks, tablets, and smartphones, could run high-end games since intensive calculations are done on the server. This also opens the door to running high-end, even professional graphical capabilities on lightweight consumer devices. Current games are usually limited to using the hardware rasterizer that is on common graphics cards in order to achieve the required performance that gamers expect. While this approach has advantages, it also limits the choices a game developer could use for their game. There might be other rendering algorithms, like point rendering, voxel rendering, or ray tracing, that could enable games to look much more realistic.

Ray tracing is a rendering technique that uses the laws of physics to create more photorealistic graphics by accurately calculating effects like reflections, refractions, and shadows. However, the computational requirements of ray tracing limit its use for interactive consumer applications like games. The cloud gaming model provides one method to give more people access to the high-end hardware needed to perform the ray tracing in real-time.

In recent years, Intel Labs has shown steady progress towards developing real-time ray tracing engines running on multicore Intel® processor-based platforms. In 2008, we were able to show Quake Wars: Ray Traced running at 15-20 frames per second (fps) on an Intel® Xeon® processor-based server using four quad-core CPUs. After several months of making optimizations, we showed the demo using the same four socket server, but with the newly updated six-core Intel® Xeon® X7460 processors at 20-35 fps. The following year the next Intel processor allowed us to go down from a server to a workstation system with two sockets achieving the same frame. It is clear that we will see continued performance increases with higher core counts and new architectures like Intel® microarchitecture code name Sandy Bridge.

One specifically interesting platform for this algorithm is the upcoming Intel® Many Integrated Core Architecture (Intel® MIC Architecture) announced in May 2010. As ray tracing is a highly parallel algorithm, Intel MIC Architecture will help provide big gains in performance by increasing the number of available cores for highly parallel applications in the high performance computing (HPC) market and for datacenters. This leads us to the topic of this paper: bringing together the Intel MIC Architecture along with a cloud-based gaming model to enable more advanced and realistic image rendering with real-time ray tracing.

Ray Tracing Overview

Ray tracing is a rendering algorithm that simulates light rays found in nature, with one slight difference. In nature, the rays originate from a light source (e.g. the sun) and eventually hit the human eye. The ray tracing algorithm traces this process in reverse: from the eye (as a virtual camera) into the scene. The points where these rays hit geometric objects are calculated. Then, a shader program is called for the surfaces that got hit.

A ray from the virtual camera hits the car and gets reflected toward the house. A shadow ray is shot from the hit position at the car toward the light source.

Through this process, material properties such as reflectivity and transparency are evaluated. Colors from textures can be added, and secondary rays that test for lighting, reflection, and refraction can be traced from here.

Ray tracing is already heavily used in the professional graphics market. This usually is done for offline (i.e., non-interactive) tasks where a significant amount of time is spent on a single image. In order to enable some degree of interactivity, there are often previews of the final image that get refined over time. In some cases, large clusters have been the solution to gain interactivity.

The automotive industry is an important example of the professional use of ray tracing. Before a car gets built, it is valuable to be able to preview it first in a photorealistic way. Through this process, the manufacturer is able to accurately model the car to the desired properties and is able to detect flaws in the design easily-for instance, if a certain object or shape in the car would cause reflections that might irritate the driver. For modeling an object like a headlight, complex global illumination calculations where multiple rays bounce inside the object have to be solved. Ray tracing has proven to be the best solution for getting those physically correct images.

Offline-rendered headlight model of a car

Another application of ray tracing is in the area of medical visualization. Scanning devices used for computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) create 3D data of an object like the human brain or a skull. That volumetric information has to be displayed on a computer screen. While there are many different methods to do this, ray tracing is the most accurate one.

Volumetric data of a skull visualized using rays

In the movie industry ray tracing is an elegant and commonly used algorithm for solving reflections and refractions in a robust and stable manner.

Image from the movie MEGAMINDTM (©DreamWorks Animation) showing ray traced special effects.

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