Ray tracing is a set of computer graphics algorithms and techniques which create synthetic images that are photorealistic. These images are created by modeling light beams and tracing light rays bouncing off of the surfaces of three-dimensional objects.

Introduced and demonstrated by Turner Whitted in 1979, ray tracing is the best technique to create an accurate rendering of objects by articulating lighting effects such as reflection, refraction, transmission, shadow and global lighting that naturally occur. The ray tracing algorithm uses rays that trace the path of light in an image plane and simulate its encounters with virtual objects. When a ray (primary ray) encounters an object surface, it generates three new rays (reflection, refraction, and shadow rays), and these resultant rays then radiate and intersect with other objects, also producing a set of secondary rays. Just like having two mirrors facing each other, these rays can continue to bounce until they decay in intensity. The combination of all of these rays is combined to produce a composite image.

This cutting-edge technique is incredibly powerful when rendering complex optical phenomena. Producing cinema-quality 3D images is already the mainstream for movies and high end games production using  3D computer graphics in software and cloud computing that implement ray tracing algorithms. It took about twenty more years before ray-tracing started to get used on large computer servers, due to its high computational cost, for specialized applications like movie production and scientific visualization, but has become available on PCs in 2018 and is appearing in game consoles in 2020.

Ray Tracing Graphics

Ray tracing allows accurate rendering of objects by articulating natural lighting effects such as reflection, refraction, transmission, shadow and global lighting.

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Hybrid Rendering

Path tracing is an advanced form of ray tracing that can produce soft shadows, depth of field, motion blur, caustics, ambient occlusion, and indirect lighting. Path tracing as a theoretical approach came almost ten years later than ray tracing and another 10 years before the technique was refined to produce higher quality images than just ray tracing.

SiliconArts Ray Tracing White Paper 2020

SiliconArts white paper on ray tracing and why it is the future of graphics