Imagination Technologies has announced it is opening up its PowerVR ray tracing intellectual property (IP) technology for licensing to the market beyond its own devices. The company believes there are disruptive opportunities for high quality graphics rendering in 5G applications.

In an exclusive interview with EE Times, Imagination told us ray tracing will enable state-of-the-art realistic image rendering using light-modelling techniques to be integrated into graphics processing units (GPUs) across mobile, automotive, server and other markets. In describing its thinking and reasoning behind opening up its IP to external licensing, I got the sense that it wants to do for 5G what Arm did for previous generations of mobile applications: be the go-to IP for high performance graphics rendering. The company believes we are at an inflexion point similar to the one Arm experienced back in the 2000s.

There is certainly now increased activity around ray tracing. For example, Intel only last week announced in a blog that its Intel Xe architecture roadmap for data-center-optimized rendering includes adding hardware acceleration for the Intel Rendering Framework family of APIs and libraries – including ray tracing. The company made the announcement at the FMX conference on animation, effects, games and immersive media in Stuttgart, Germany.

Catching up to ray tracing

Imagination had invested a lot of money in ray tracing, but then it paused. “Customers said there was no ecosystem. But now the market has caught up,” Imagination’s spokesperson said. “In a 5G world, ray tracing could potentially be disruptive. It could offer the opportunity to have a radically different model of what the handset terminal could like.” Ray tracing could be put somewhere else, say in the cloud, and be made available in the terminal.

The PowerVR ray-tracing architecture is a high-efficiency approach for the processing of billions of rays per second (“gigarays”). It makes it realistic for system-on-chip (SoC) manufacturers to offer ray tracing capable hardware within a range of power and thermal envelopes. The technology is ideal for adding realistic ray-traced light, shadow, and transparency capabilities to traditional GPUs – or even creating full ray-tracing solutions.

Nigel Leeder, executive vice-president PowerVR, Imagination Technologies, said, “Ray tracing today is where 3D graphics were just before we first introduced PowerVR GPUs for mobile. The solutions in the market are fine for PC and console, but don't offer the efficiency for mobile, augmented reality, or automotive applications.”

He added that Imagination’s approach differs in that it is designed from the ground up for power efficiency, with the ability to scale from battery-powered embedded designs to large-scale server farms. “We are confident that ray tracing is going to happen across many applications, and in a ‘5G world’ it is likely to be very disruptive. Our ray tracing architecture matches much larger and less power efficient solutions gigaray for gigaray.”

Photorealism as a goal

Jon Peddie, principle and founder, Jon Peddie Research, commented, “In 2012, I first saw real-time hybrid ray tracing from Imagination Technologies, and since then the company developed a dedicated ray tracing engine.” He added, “Where physically accurate photorealistic representation of objects is important – such as for concept design and virtual prototyping for industries such as automotive, architecture, and fashion as well as for gaming – ray tracing is rapidly evolving from a theoretical ‘nice to have’ to a real market disruption.”

He added that ray tracing has become a fundamental component of real-time rendering and virtual production. “One of the biggest breakthroughs to happen recently is the availability of real-time ray tracing in the viewport for content creators.”

Imagination car-render

This computer-generated image highlights how realistic ray tracing can be in terms of rendering light and shadows. Source: Imagination Technologies.

Imagination emphasized that not being confined to its own PowerVR GPU means that opportunities open up for many embedded applications to add high performance rendered graphics in a mobile environment. The company said it is already in discussions with an interesting pipeline of companies that represent both traditional and novel markets. One example is map display services on the windscreen (an extension of the head-up display) in vehicles. The technology could also be used in retail and design, for architectural walkthroughs, or for anything else requiring 3D real-time visualization.

In order to provide the whole package of tools, reference designs and support, the company is hiring people specifically for ray tracing support, mostly in the UK, but possibly elsewhere too.

The PowerVR ray tracing technology Imagination is making available for licensing today includes patents, architecture, GPU integration references, and standards-based API support for easy application integration. Imagination holds over 220 patents and applications based on its ray tracing technology.

Ray Tracing: a Quick Primer

In many 3D graphics scenes, the level of realism is dependent on the lighting. In traditional graphics rendering (known as rasterization), light maps and shadow maps are calculated first and then applied to the scene to simulate how the scene should look. Imagination says that this creates poor simulations at best. Ray tracing is different since it mimics how light behaves in the real world.

In real life, a virtual beam of light travels from the source of light (such as the sun or a light inside a room) onto an object. The light then interacts with that object, and depending on the surface properties of that object will then bounce onto another surface. The light will then carry on bouncing around, creating light and shade.

In ray tracing on a computer the light is virtually emitted by the camera viewpoint onto objects in the scene, and algorithms calculate how that light would interact with the surfaces, and then trace that path onto each object back to the light source. The result is a scene that is lit just like it would be by the light sources in the real world, with realistic reflections and shadows.

This has typically taken huge computing resources and has been restricted mostly to gaming and 3D animated movies. So by enabling a more power-efficient ray tracing technology to be used in mobile and embedded devices, the ability to deliver realistic real-time 3D images in many more ways and in many applications increases significantly.