How To: Data Lookups Via Raytracing

In the not too distant future, I think it will be common to use raytracing for data lookups in real time graphics, much like we use textures currently. In fact, from a couple conversations I’ve had with folks on twitter, it seems as though some people are already doing this.

As strange as it sounds, raytracing has a significant advantage over texture lookups. A texture lookup is limited to data stored in a regular grid in pixels. Raytracing data lookups get their data from a mesh, with data stored in vertices (in a vertex buffer).

Storing data in the vertices of a mesh means that you can store data points wherever you want. If you need more detail in one area and less in another, you can put more vertices in the higher detail area, and fewer vertices in the low detail area. You could also store data in a blue noise sampling pattern to help fight aliasing problems you might have with the regular grid of a texture. Furthermore, you could actually have holes in your data for invalid data regions, by having holes in the mesh.

Essentially, a mesh is just a generalization of a texture. You are no longer locked to a grid!

How the data lookups are actually done is not too complex either.

For the 2d case where you have a function f(x,y), you would make a triangle mesh where the (x,y) position of each vertex was the location of a data point, and you would make the z value some constant such as 0.5.

To look up the value of the data for some (x,y) input, you could make a ray that started at (x,y,0) and went in direction (0,0,1). When you did your raytrace, you’d get as a result the triangle index and the barycentric coordinates of that triangle. From there you could look up the data from the 3 vertices of the triangle and use the barycentric coordinates to interpolate between the values. The interpolated value would be your result.

You can see how this process goes in the image below. The purple dot is the query location.

Just as there are volume textures to store 3d data in 3d textures, raytraced data lookups can also be extended to 3d.

For the 3d case where you have a function f(x,y,z), you would make a tetrahedral mesh where the (x,y,z) position of each vertex was the location of a data point.

To look up the value of the data for some (x,y,z) input, you need to be able to find what tetrahedron the point is in. To do this, you just shoot a ray starting at that (x,y,z) position in any arbitrary direction. That ray will hit one triangle in the tetrahedron. You then shoot a ray from the (x,y,z) position in the opposite direction to get a different triangle in the tetrahedron.

From these two triangles, you’ll have 6 vertices but only 4 will be unique. Those 4 vertices are the vertices of the tetrahedron. You can read the data from the vertices, calculate the barycentric coordinates of the point inside the tetrahedron, and then use those to interpolate the vertex data to get the result.

You can see how this process goes in the image below. The purple dot is the query location again.

The most immediate usage case I can think of for this technique would be for diffuse light probe grids. Whether you had a 2d or 3d light probe grid, you’d be able to make probes as dense as needed, or as sparse as you can get away with, in different sections of the geometry. You could also make holes in the mesh to make sure data didn’t interpolate through walls, leading to light leaking. You would use the techniques described above to interpolate the simplex data and get the result.

As this data is likely going to be relatively simple geometry compared to something like an actual game asset, it seems like it ought to be able to be pretty performant too.

Can this extend to 4d and beyond? Probably, but I’m not sure how. Do you know how, or have any interesting usage cases? Share if so, it’d be interesting to hear 🙂


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