Annotated Realtime Raytracing

Ever wonder how a raytracer works? No really, a line-by-line explanation, and not some academic paper filled with technical jargon? Want to see a GPU raytracer running in realtime, in your browser window? Well here you go: if you’re impatient, click here to go straight to the demo, or read on for the more detailed walkthrough.

So what exactly is ray tracing? Consider a lamp hanging from the ceiling. Light is constantly being emitted from the lamp in the form of light rays, which bounce around the room until they hit your eye. Ray tracing follows a similar concept by simulating the path of light through a scene, except in reverse. There is no point in doing the math for light rays you cannot see!

Algorithmically, ray tracing is very elegant. For each pixel, shoot a light ray from the camera through each pixel on screen. If the ray collides with geometry in the scene, create new rays that perform the same process for both reflection, as in a mirror, and refraction, as in through water. Repeat to your satisfaction.

Having worked extensively with OpenCL in the past, this seemed like a good candidate to port to a parallel runtime on a GPU. Inspired by the smallpt line-by-line explanation, I decided to write a parallel ray tracer with extensive annotations, using only the GLSL fragment shader drawing on a rectangle (i.e. “2D Quad”). I start with a simple ray definition, consisting of an origin point and a direction vector. I also define a directional light to illuminate my scene.

struct Ray {
    vec3 origin;
    vec3 direction;

struct Light {
    vec3 color;
    vec3 direction;

In real life, objects have many different material properties. Some objects respond very differently to light than others. For instance, a sheet of paper and a polished mirror. The former exhibits a strong diffuse response; incoming light is reflected at many angles. The latter is an example of a specular response, where incoming light is reflected in a single direction. To model this, I create a basic material definition. Objects in my scene share a single (RGB) color with diffuse and specular weights.

struct Material {
    vec3 color;
    float diffuse;
    float specular;

To render the scene, I need to know where a ray intersects with an object. Since rays have infinite length from an origin, I can model the point of intersection by storing the distance along the ray. I also need to store the surface normal so I know which way to bounce! Once I create a ray, it loses the concept of scene geometry, so one more thing I do is forward the surface material properties.

struct Intersect {
    float len;
    vec3 normal;
    Material material;

The last data structures I create are for objects used to fill my scene. The most basic object I can model is a sphere, which is defined as a radius at some center position, with some material properties. To draw the floor, I also define a simple horizontal plane centered at the origin, with a normal vector pointing upwards.

struct Sphere {
    float radius;
    vec3 position;
    Material material;

struct Plane {
    vec3 normal;
    Material material;

At this point, I define some global variables. A more advanced program might pass these values in as uniforms, but for now, this is easier to tinker with. Due to floating point precision errors, when a ray intersects geometry at a surface, the point of intersection could possibly be just below the surface. The subsequent reflection ray would then bounce off the inside wall of the surface. This is known as self-intersection. When creating new rays, I initialize them at a slightly offset origin to help mitigate this problem.

const float epsilon = 1e-3;

The classical ray tracing algorithm is recursive. However, GLSL does not support recursion, so I instead use an iterative approach to control the number of light bounces.

const int iterations = 16;

Next, I define an exposure time and gamma value. At this point, I also create a basic directional light and define the ambient light color; the color here is mostly a matter of taste. Basically … lighting controls.

const float exposure = 1e-2;
const float gamma = 2.2;
const float intensity = 100.0;
const vec3 ambient = vec3(0.6, 0.8, 1.0) * intensity / gamma;

// For a Static Light
Light light = Light(vec3(1.0) * intensity, normalize(vec3(-1.0, 0.75, 1.0)));

// For a Rotating Light
Light light = Light(vec3(1.0) * intensity, normalize(
               vec3(-1.0 + 4.0 * cos(iGlobalTime), 4.75,
                     1.0 + 4.0 * sin(iGlobalTime))));

I strongly dislike this line. I needed to know when a ray hits or misses a surface. If it hits geometry, I returned the point at the surface. Otherwise, the ray misses all geometry and instead hits the sky box. In a language that supports dynamic return values, I could return false, but that is not an option in GLSL. In the interests of making progress, I created an intersect of distance zero to represent a miss and moved on.

const Intersect miss = Intersect(0.0, vec3(0.0), Material(vec3(0.0), 0.0, 0.0));

As indicated earlier, I implement ray tracing for spheres. I need to compute the point at which a ray intersects with a sphere. Line-Sphere intersection is relatively straightforward. For reflection purposes, a ray either hits or misses, so I need to check for no solutions, or two solutions. In the latter case, I need to determine which solution is “in front” so I can return an intersection of appropriate distance from the ray origin.

Intersect intersect(Ray ray, Sphere sphere) {
    // Check for a Negative Square Root
    vec3 oc = sphere.position - ray.origin;
    float l = dot(ray.direction, oc);
    float det = pow(l, 2.0) - dot(oc, oc) + pow(sphere.radius, 2.0);
    if (det < 0.0) return miss;

    // Find the Closer of Two Solutions
             float len = l - sqrt(det);
    if (len < 0.0) len = l + sqrt(det);
    if (len < 0.0) return miss;
    return Intersect(len, (ray.origin + len*ray.direction - sphere.position) / sphere.radius, sphere.material);

Since I created a floor plane, I likewise have to handle reflections for planes by implementing Line-Plane intersection. I only care about the intersect for the purposes of reflection, so I only check if the quotient is non-zero.

Intersect intersect(Ray ray, Plane plane) {
    float len = -dot(ray.origin, plane.normal) / dot(ray.direction, plane.normal);
    return (len < 0.0) ? miss : Intersect(len, plane.normal, plane.material);

In a real ray tracing renderer, geometry would be passed in from the host as a mesh containing vertices, normals, and texture coordinates, but for the sake of simplicity, I hand-coded the scene-graph. In this function, I take an input ray and iterate through all geometry to determine intersections.

Intersect trace(Ray ray) {
    const int num_spheres = 3;
    Sphere spheres[num_spheres];

I initially started with the smallpt scene definition, but soon found performance was abysmal on very large spheres. I kept the general format, modified to fit my data structures.

spheres[0] = Sphere(2.0, vec3(-4.0, 3.0 + sin(iGlobalTime), 0), Material(vec3(1.0, 0.0, 0.2), 1.0, 0.001));
spheres[1] = Sphere(3.0, vec3( 4.0 + cos(iGlobalTime), 3.0, 0), Material(vec3(0.0, 0.2, 1.0), 1.0, 0.0));
spheres[2] = Sphere(1.0, vec3( 0.5, 1.0, 6.0),                  Material(vec3(1.0, 1.0, 1.0), 0.5, 0.25));

Since my ray tracing approach involves drawing to a 2D quad, I can no longer use the OpenGL Depth and Stencil buffers to control the draw order. Drawing is therefore sensitive to z-indexing, so I first intersect with the plane, then loop through all spheres back-to-front.

Intersect intersection = miss;
Intersect plane = intersect(ray, Plane(vec3(0, 1, 0), Material(vec3(1.0, 1.0, 1.0), 1.0, 0.0)));
if (plane.material.diffuse > 0.0 || plane.material.specular > 0.0) { intersection = plane; }
for (int i = 0; i < num_spheres; i++) {
    Intersect sphere = intersect(ray, spheres[i]);
    if (sphere.material.diffuse > 0.0 || sphere.material.specular > 0.0)
        intersection = sphere;
return intersection;

This is the critical part of writing a ray tracer. I start with some empty scratch vectors for color data and the Fresnel factor. I trace the scene with using an input ray, and continue to fire new rays until the iteration depth is reached, at which point I return the total sum of the color values from computed at each bounce.

vec3 radiance(Ray ray) {
    vec3 color, fresnel;
    vec3 mask = vec3(1.0);
    for (int i = 0; i <= iterations; ++i) {
        Intersect hit = trace(ray);

This goes back to the dummy “miss” intersect. Basically, if the scene trace returns an intersection with either a diffuse or specular coefficient, then it has encountered a surface of a sphere or plane. Otherwise, the current ray has reached the ambient-colored sky box.

if (hit.material.diffuse > 0.0 || hit.material.specular > 0.0) {

Here I use the Schlick Approximation to determine the Fresnel specular contribution factor, a measure of how much incoming light is reflected or refracted. I compute the Fresnel term and use a mask to track the fraction of reflected light in the current ray with respect to the original.

vec3 r0 = hit.material.color.rgb * hit.material.specular;
float hv = clamp(dot(hit.normal, -ray.direction), 0.0, 1.0);
fresnel = r0 + (1.0 - r0) * pow(1.0 - hv, 5.0);
mask *= fresnel;

I handle shadows and diffuse colors next. I condensed this part into one conditional evaluation for brevity. Remember epsilon? I use it to trace a ray slightly offset from the point of intersection to the light source. If the shadow ray does not hit an object, it will be a “miss” as it hits the skybox. This means there are no objects between the point and the light, at which point I can add the diffuse color to the fragment color since the object is not in shadow.

if (trace(Ray(ray.origin + hit.len * ray.direction + epsilon * light.direction, light.direction)) == miss) {
color += clamp(dot(hit.normal, light.direction), 0.0, 1.0) * light.color
       * hit.material.color.rgb * hit.material.diffuse
       * (1.0 - fresnel) * mask / fresnel;

After computing diffuse colors, I then generate a new reflection ray and overwrite the original ray that was passed in as an argument to the radiance(…) function. Then I repeat until I reach the iteration depth.

vec3 reflection = reflect(ray.direction, hit.normal);
ray = Ray(ray.origin + hit.len * ray.direction + epsilon * reflection, reflection);

This is the other half of the tracing branch. If the trace failed to return an intersection with an attached material, then it is safe to assume that the ray points at the sky, or out of bounds of the scene. At this point I realized that real objects have a small sheen to them, so I hard-coded a small spotlight pointing in the same direction as the main light for pseudo-realism.

else {
    vec3 spotlight = vec3(1e6) * pow(abs(dot(ray.direction, light.direction)), 250.0);
    color += mask * (ambient + spotlight); break;

The main function primarily deals with organizing data from OpenGL into a format that the ray tracer can use. For ray tracing, I need to fire a ray for each pixel, or more precisely, a ray for every fragment. However, pixels to fragment coordinates do not map one a one-to-one basis, so I need to divide the fragment coordinates by the viewport resolution. I then offset that by a fixed value to re-center the coordinate system.

void mainImage(out vec4 fragColor, in vec2 fragCoord) {
    vec2 uv    = fragCoord.xy / iResolution.xy - vec2(0.5);
         uv.x *= iResolution.x / iResolution.y;

For each fragment, create a ray at a fixed point of origin directed at the coordinates of each fragment. The last thing before writing the color to the fragment is to post-process the pixel values using tone-mapping. In this case, I adjust for exposure and perform linear gamma correction.

Ray ray = Ray(vec3(0.0, 2.5, 12.0), normalize(vec3(uv.x, uv.y, -1.0)));
fragColor = vec4(pow(radiance(ray) * exposure, vec3(1.0 / gamma)), 1.0);

If all goes well, you should see an animated scene below, assuming your computer isn’t a potato! Alternately, you can check out the complete source code on Shadertoy.

So, to recap, this was my first foray into ray tracing. Originally, I wanted to write this using the OpenGL Compute Shader. That was harder to setup than I originally anticipated, and I spent a fair bit of time mucking around with OpenGL and cmake before deciding to just sit down and start programming.

All things considered, this is a pretty limited ray tracer. Some low hanging fruit might be to add anti-aliasing and soft shadows. The former was not an issue until I ported this from a HiDPI display onto the WebGL canvas. The latter involves finding a quality random number generator.