Raytracing: Beyond Triangles

CS 481 Lecture, Dr. Lawlor

The basic idea in all raytracing is to write down an analytic expression for a point on a ray, which is just a line starting from a point:
    vec3 S=...; // starting point of ray--often the camera location
    vec3 D=...; // direction ray is travelling--e.g., through a screen pixel
    float t=...; // distance along ray to travel (typically unknown)
    vec3 P=S+t*D;  // a point on the ray

So given a ray (that is, S and D vectors) and given a t value, we can find the point on the ray.  Given a ray, and some equation the point on the ray has to satisfy, we can actually solve for the t value.

For example, say we want to intersect the ray with a plane.  Points P on a plane satisfy the equation dot(P,N)=d, where N is the plane's normal.  So the point where the ray intersects the plane must have

Notice that we can rearrange the ray-plane intersection equation to solve for the t value along the ray that intersects the plane!  In other words, with just a little bit of arithmetic, we can *find* the ray-plane intersection point!

This is raytracing:
  1. Write an equation for the points along your ray.  It's almost always P=S+t*D, where the float t is the only unknown.
  2. Write an equation that points on your object must obey.  This can be as complicated as you want!
  3. Plug the ray-points equation (1) into the object equation (2), and solve for t, the position along the ray.
  4. The actual intersection point is P=S+t*D
  5. Texture and shade using this intersection point.
For another example, here's how you raytrace a sphere:
  1. For points on the ray, P=S+t*D
  2. For points on a sphere, distance(P,C)=r, where C is the center point of the sphere and r is the radius.
  3. For points on the ray that hit the sphere, distance(S+t*D,C)=r.  Solve for t like so:
  4. Plug in the t from step 3 into the ray equation, P=S+t*D to get the intersection location.
  5. Shade normally!
All of this can be done from inside a pixel shader, which has the nice effect of allowing us to draw spheres using just one quad--the depth and color variation are all computed via raytracing, and are analytically accurate. 

In software, we normally find the color down one ray by hit-testing all possible geometry, and computing the color based on the closest (smallest hitting t) geometry.  This makes it easy to find the color in any direction, which lets us easily compute true reflections (just shoot a ray in each direction), or compute true shadows (if a ray makes it from you to the light source without hitting anything, you're lit).  It's not clear how to implement this "geometry search" raytracing on the graphics card, although people have done so using one long texture that lists all (relevant) geometry.

But because in general every pixel could hit every piece of geometry, with classic raytracing we've got O(pg) work to do to render p pixels and g pieces of geometry.  OpenGL "feed-forward" or "rasterization-style" rendering, where you first think about a piece of geometry, then look at the pixels it covers, is normally O(p+g): there's a certain amount of work to do per pixel, and a certain amount per piece of geometry (vertex setup).  For a scene with p=1 million pixels and g=100,000 polygons, the difference between O(pg) and O(p+g) is substantial--with equal constants, feedforward rendering is 100,000 times faster.  Of course, smart raytracers try to optimize away most hit tests using a spatial search structure (bounding volume trees, grids, etc.), so the advantage of being able to find light in any direction might only slow down rendering by a factor of ten or so.