Computer Graphics: Ray Casting and Rasterization

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In this chapter, you'll learn about two strategies for sampling the amount of light transported along a ray that arrives at the image plane. These strategies are called ray casting and rasterization.
This chapter is from the book

15.1. Introduction

Previous chapters considered modeling and interacting with 2D and 3D scenes using an underlying renderer provided by WPF. Now we focus on writing our own physically based 3D renderer.

Rendering is integration. To compute an image, we need to compute how much light arrives at each pixel of the image sensor inside a virtual camera. Photons transport the light energy, so we need to simulate the physics of the photons in a scene. However, we can’t possibly simulate all of the photons, so we need to sample a few of them and generalize from those to estimate the integrated arriving light. Thus, one might also say that rendering is sampling. We’ll tie this integration notion of sampling to the alternative probability notion of sampling presently.

In this chapter, we look at two strategies for sampling the amount of light transported along a ray that arrives at the image plane. These strategies are called ray casting and rasterization. We’ll build software renderers using each of them. We’ll also build a third renderer using a hardware rasterization API. All three renderers can be used to sample the light transported to a point from a specific direction. A point and direction define a ray, so in graphics jargon, such sampling is typically referred to as “sampling along a ray,” or simply “sampling a ray.”

There are many interesting rays along which to sample transport, and the methods in this chapter generalize to all of them. However, here we focus specifically on sampling rays within a cone whose apex is at a point light source or a pinhole camera aperture. The techniques within these strategies can also be modified and combined in interesting ways. Thus, the essential idea of this chapter is that rather than facing a choice between distinct strategies, you stand to gain a set of tools that you can modify and apply to any rendering problem. We emphasize two aspects in the presentation: the principle of sampling as a mathematical tool and the practical details that arise in implementing real renderers.

Of course, we’ll take many chapters to resolve the theoretical and practical issues raised here. Since graphics is an active field, some issues will not be thoroughly resolved even by the end of the book. In the spirit of servicing both principles and practice, we present some ideas first with pseudocode and mathematics and then second in actual compilable code. Although minimal, that code follows reasonable software engineering practices, such as data abstraction, to stay true to the feel of a real renderer. If you create your own programs from these pieces (which you should) and add the minor elements that are left as exercises, then you will have three working renderers at the end of the chapter. Those will serve as a scalable code base for your implementation of other algorithms presented in this book.

The three renderers we build will be simple enough to let you quickly understand and implement them in one or two programming sessions each. By the end of the chapter, we’ll clean them up and generalize the designs. This generality will allow us to incorporate changes for representing complex scenes and the data structures necessary for scaling performance to render those scenes.

We assume that throughout the subsequent rendering chapters you are implementing each technique as an extension to one of the renderers that began in this chapter. As you do, we recommend that you adopt two good software engineering practices.

1. Make a copy of the renderer before changing it (this copy becomes the reference renderer).
2. Compare the image result after a change to the preceding, reference result.

Techniques that enhance performance should generally not reduce image quality. Techniques that enhance simulation accuracy should produce noticeable and measurable improvements. By comparing the “before” and “after” rendering performance and image quality, you can verify that your changes were implemented correctly.

Comparison begins right in this chapter. We’ll consider three rendering strategies here, but all should generate identical results. We’ll also generalize each strategy’s implementation once we’ve sketched it out. When debugging your own implementations of these, consider how incorrectly mismatched results between programs indicate potential underlying program errors. This is yet another instance of the Visual Debugging principle.