Wednesday, 30 December 2009

How To Build A Raytracer: Part I

This is the first of what I hope to be a few posts that describe the fundamental theories behind building a raytracer. I will specifically look at how to build one in flash using AS3, but the theories should be easily transferrable to any other scripting language so whether you use C++ and openGL, Java, Python or AS3 this set of tutorials will point you in the right direction.

This is not just source code that I'm posting up, I will describe everything that I feel is needed to build a ray tracing engine without necessarily giving too much code. In the end I feel this is a far more rewarding way of learning flash and creating new projects, and is how I have taught myself in the past. Certain aspects of maths throughout the tutorial may be of a reasonable level but most high school vector course books should give enough knowhow to be able to see what is going on. So lets begin.

Note: the image to the right shows the kinds of lighting effects a raytracer can produce.

What is a raytracer

In nature a ray of light travels from a light source - interacts with some objects and either disappears into space or reaches our eyes. What we see depends on what the ray has collided with on the way to our eye. For example taking a light source to be the sun, trillions of rays hit earth every second, each of these reflects, refracts and is absorbed by trees, by roads, by cars and by other people. For us, the onlookers, only a tiny fraction of these rays hit our eyes, but when they do, the individual rays (photons) create the scene we see in front of us on the back of our eyes ready for our brains to untangle and interpret.

The idea of a raytracer - at least in the sense of this tutorial - takes what happens in nature and reverses all of the processes. Rays are created in the back of our eyes and are fired in a range of directions at our scene. Each ray passes through a point in our image and will either pass through our scene or hit an object. The image to the left helped me understand the ray firing process. When a ray hits an object there are 3 possibilities:

(i) The ray absorbs the ray
(ii) The ray reflects the ray
(iii) The ray refracts the ray

In the first case, a new ray is case from the point where the ray scene collision occurred, in the direction of any light sources in the scene. If there are no objects in the way then the object is lit, otherwise the object is in shadow.

In the second case a new ray can be cast depending on the surface normal of the object which can interact with the scene again. The ray can keep colliding with objects up to an arbitrary number of times so theoretically a ray could bounce between objects forever.

In the third case a new ray can be cast depending on the surface normal and refractive index of the material. As above this ray can continue to interact with the scene.

These three cases are not mutually exclusive. In a scene there can be any amount of refraction, refraction, absorption and shadowing, which gives ray tracers their realism. Take a look at the top image for examples of all three, and the image by pixar below is another example.

We've seen that a raytracer is just a way to render a scene which is physically realistic and can produce effects like shadowing, reflection and refraction in a far simpler way than many other rendering methods.

In my next post I'll explain how the camera works and how to set up our first scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment