What is AMD’s plan for ray tracing?

AMD has a plan for ray tracing, but it's not ready yet

Even with a small list of supporting games, ray tracing has become a focal feature of modern day graphics cards. With a new, refreshed generation of Nvidia GPUs that support it, AMD’s lack of support is becoming more apparent.

But its plans for the technology are anything but, with seemingly conflicting statements, confusing non-stances, and a murky roadmap of when we can expect AMD to trace its first rays on a gamer’s PC.

So, we decided to sit down and dig in to exactly what AMD has said on the matter and what we know about its future hardware plans. Just when can we expect AMD fans to be able to enjoy the kind of visual features that have been an Nvidia exclusive for the best part of a year?

Ray tracing for the masses

Ray tracing low — Screenshot 5

Following the surprise announcement of ray tracing technology by Nvidia with its RTX Turing GPU debut in August 2018, AMD’s response was lukewarm. It and many commenters at the time, suggested that the technology wasn’t ready for the mainstream just yet; The price tags on the new RTX graphics cards certainly seemed to back up that theory.

“Utilization of ray tracing games will not proceed unless we can offer ray tracing in all product ranges from low end to high end,” David Wang, AMD’s senior vice president of engineering at the Radeon Technologies Group, told 4Gamer in an interview in November, 2018.

Although that statement wasn’t clear on whether it was the games or the hardware that AMD wanted to catch up to ray tracing before it would implement it, it did suggest AMD itself wasn’t invested in it. But just two months later at CES 2019, AMD CEO Lisa Su told reporters that the company was “deep in development,” on ray tracing technology.

It would seem to have been doing so for quite some time, too. A patent application came to light in July 2019, which pointed to AMD utilizing a “hybrid” hardware and software approach to ray tracing. This patent suggests that AMD’s plan for ray tracing involves leveraging bespoke hardware to accelerate it, whilst performing the bulk of the work on more general hardware via software. This, it claims, makes it so that there isn’t too much of a performance hit, without requiring game developers to work with its very specific definition of ray tracing rendering.

AMD can already do ray tracing

While AMD may be planning a new (or at least iterative) process for handling ray tracing, its arms-length distancing from the topic on most fronts has been somewhat surprising. Most notably, because AMD hardware can already do ray tracing. It showcased professionally-targeted real-time ray tracing in the form of Radeon ProRender four months before Nvidia’s RTX reveal, but we didn’t hear much after that.

What was even more impressive, though, was that Crytek released its Neon Noir demo in May 2019, showcasing ray tracing running at a stable 30 FPS at 1080p on an AMD Radeon Vega 56. Although that’s hardly high frame rates, especially considering it’s for ray-traced reflections only, it shows that general compute power can be leveraged for ray tracing.

But AMD hasn’t come out swinging with backdated ray tracing support for that “fine wine” approach that its GPUs so often enjoy. For that, we’ll need to look forward.

Navi… but not yet

AMD’s new generation Navi GPUs, built on its RDNA architecture, can ray trace. We know this, because ray tracing is a key component of the next-generation of games consoles from Microsoft and Sony and both systems will use a custom AMD Navi graphics core alongside an AMD Zen 2 Ryzen CPU. With the desktop PC “Navi” RX 5700 XT and 5700 set to release in early July, that should mean ray tracing hardware from AMD is right around the corner, right?

Not so, because ray tracing is not a feature that AMD has planned for these new cards. They don’t have any dedicated hardware, nor additional headroom to handle it.

One suggestion is that AMD plans to implement ray tracing with its next-generation graphics core, often codenamed Navi 20. It’s currently expected to debut in 2020 with much greater performance than the new RX 5700 cards. That might make sense for AMD’s timeline of development, but it does raise further questions about its next-gen console plans. If AMD’s Navi 20 GPU ends up taking the top-tier spot in AMD’s graphics card stack, it would be far too expensive a part to instill in next-gen consoles, which typically offer comparatively weak computing power to desktop computers, but enjoy the benefits of game optimization to compete at least somewhat favorably with mid-range gaming PCs.

But it could be that AMD plans a wider product line with an enhanced Navi GPU, alongside some additional boosts for performance and features, to make ray tracing possible for everyone.

Cloud power

At E3 2019, AMD revealed its “Ray Tracing Vision,” which included a series of steps and developmental milestones which it expects to hit on its road to ray tracing. AMD will launch a second-generation of its RDNA architecture in 2020, known as RDNA+ built on an enhanced version of TSMC’s 7nm process node used in the new RX 5700 cards. It will reportedly include the same hardware acceleration that the next-gen consoles will use to enable certain ray tracing lighting effects at the local level.

But to enable full-scene ray tracing, AMD plans to leverage the power of cloud computing. It’s not yet clear how AMD will handle the combination of local and cloud rendering at the same time, but Google Stadia may well help pave the way for such technologies and considering AMD hardware is at the heart of that venture, the red team could be at the forefront of such ongoing developments.

It’s certainly possible that this is in line with what AMD’s “hybrid” rendering patent discusses, leveraging bespoke hardware for some of it and a glut of general computing power for the rest, with the cloud providing the additional performance required to make that possible.

So, when will AMD support ray tracing?

It’s hard to answer this question as it still up in the air and up for debate. Our best guess is sometime in mid-2020 with the launch of AMD’s next, next-generation graphics cards based on a second-generation RDNA architecture, a few months ahead of the next-gen console launch that holiday season. At that point there will be more games that support it and many more coming down the pipe to take advantage of the new console features.

Assuming that the next-gen cards take another general leap in performance, we should be able to expect the current mid-range GPUs from AMD and Nvidia to shift down to entry-level status, making basic ray tracing possible for even those on more modest budgets. That would tick off the box AMD created when it said it would only deliver ray tracing when it could deliver ray tracing for everyone.

That said, it’s likely that ray tracing will remain a premium visual feature for gamers even with the launch for such cards and the next-gen consoles. Gamers may need to choose between higher frame rates and resolutions, or higher visual fidelity with fancy lighting effects. But with AMD finally bringing its ray tracing vision to the public, we will likely see a much more competitive environment for ray tracing hardware, which is good for everyone.

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