Ray Tracing Implementation

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In order to produce Ray Traced images, we follow the basic ray tracing algorithm, as follows:

for(each pixel (sample) on the viewing area)
   for(each primitive in the world model)
      if(ray-pixel intersection)
          select the frontmost intersection;
          recursively trace the relection and refraction rays;
          calculate color;


Unfortunately, computers are not able to accurately store real world, continuous data. Computers are discrete systems, having to represent everything digitally, i.e. as a string of 0's and 1's. In the context of computer graphics, images can be represented digitally as a 2D grid of dots, called pixels. Each pixel has a color value assignable to it. The proces of looking at the model, and calculating a color for every pixel position in the camera view is called Sampling.
The entire process of sampling can be thought of in the following four steps:
  1. Continuous 2D Signal - computer model which is defined at all points
  2. Sampling - Measuring rays
  3. Discrete 2D Image - Collection of all ray-color data
  4. Continuous 2D Image - an apporoximation, caused by averaging the color data for all the rays in a given pixel)

Different techniques are used for sampling to attempt to provide as accurate as representation as possible for a world which cannot be completely represented visually by a discrete computer. In other words, different sampling techniques are used to try to ensure that the model created in step 4 from the discrete date in step 3 closely resembles a real world view of the model described in step1.

Regular Sampling

The basic form of sampling, regular sampling, involves a fixed number of rays for each pixel. Each pixel has a constant position in the pixel. For example, a common example of regular sampling is to sample each pixel four times, once at each corner of the pixel, and once in the center of the pixel. Through ray tracing, the color of each of the rays can be calculated, and then a final color for the whole pixel can be calculated for the whole pixel. It should be noted that each pixel can only have one color for the whole pixel. The following is an image of regular sampling. Each large square represents a pixel, and each dot represents a sample. In this case, four samples are taken for each pixel, and they form a diamond pattern around the center of the pixel. Note that the sampling pattern for each pixel remains the same, the defining characteristic of regular sampling.

Ray-Surface Intersection Routines

As shown in the pseudo-code above, one of the main aspects of the Ray Tracing algorithm is the ability to test for the intersection of a primitive and a ray. A primitive is any object that exists in the world. Simple examples of primitives include spheres and polygons. A collection of polygons are usually connected along their edges to form more complicated objects. For example, a model of a human head might be made up of thousands of little trianges which are connected in a way that closely approximates the outer surface of a human head.

The first step in calculating Ray-Surface Intersection is to obtain a mathematical model for the image. The image can be defined in two ways as follows. [These two images are re-produced, with permission, from the Stanford Computer Graphics Lab Web Site @ http://graphics.stanford.edu. Reproduction is prohibited.]

For example, an infinite plane can be defined in both of these ways as follows.
Once we have a mathematical model of every primitive in the scene, we must test each primitive for intersection with each ray that we are tracing. All these calculations, which must be done recursively until the rays end cause ray tracing to be a very computationally intensive process.
These intersection problems can be solved algebraically, using a parametric representation of the primitive and the ray. The solution is not only whether the two intersect, but also, if there is an intersection, the exact co-ordinates of the intersection. The ray-tracer can then use information about that point on the model to calculate the appropriate color that that object contributes to the ray.

Precision problems - The self shadowing problem

Due to precision problems inherent to floating point arithmatic, the intersection point that is calculated can actually lie under the surface of the of sphere. If this happens, when the ray is recursively traced, it immediately hits itself, causing the unxepected result that the object lies in a shadow created by itself. Because of this phenomenon, dark splotches can appear on a surface for apparently no reason.

There are methods available to avoid this incorrect shadowing.
  1. Because the last intersection point of any sphere is known, we can pass a boolean flag to the ray tracing function telling it is the ray about to be calculated originates from a surface of a primitive.
  2. More simply, we can assume that all rays starting within a certain tolerance (for example 0.00001 inches) of the surface of a primitive actually lie on that surface. This number must be lower for extremely small, intricate models.
  3. One can take the given intersection point and use it as the origin for a ray which continues in the same direction as the calculated ray. In this way, we can find a more accurate intersection point, that will not be misinterpreted as underneath the surface of an object. This method must still be used in conjunction with a tolerance factor, but it does allow the progam to be certain that the final calculated point of intersection lies within a certain distance of the actual point.
  4. The ray tracer can also move new rays it generates to the appropriate side of the sphere. By following the normal to the surface, one can move the origin of a new ray to the appropriate side of the surface (the inside for refraction rays, the outside for reflection rays)

Color Calculation

Once the raytacer determines which primitives intersect the ray, the color of that ray, and its corresponding pixel, must be computed. On the basis of the materials of the objects that are intersected, one can calculate the colors that they reflect, and the colors that they absorb. These values are added together for all the objects that the ray intersects, and the total color is calculated. Objects which are farther away from the eye, or camera have a lesser effect on the final color than due objects closer to the camera/eye.

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