So far the new Voxel ray tracing system I am working out is producing amazing results. I expect the end result will look like Minecraft RTX, but without the enormous performance penalty of RTX ray tracing.
I spent the last several days getting the voxel update speed fast enough to handle dynamic reflections, but the more I dig into this the more complicated it becomes. Things like a door sliding open are fine, but small objects moving quickly can be a problem. The worst case scenario is when the player is carrying an object in front of them. In the video below, the update speed is fast, but the limited resolution of the voxel grid makes the reflections flash quite a lot. This is due to the reflection of the barrel itself. The gun does not contribute to the voxel data, and it looks perfectly fine as it moves around the scene, aside from the choppy reflection of the barrel in motion.
The voxel resolution in the above video is set to about 6 centimeters. I don't see increasing the resolution as an option that will go very far. I think what is needed is a separation of dynamic and static objects. A sparse voxel octree will hold all static objects. This needs to be precompiled and it cannot change, but it will handle a large amount of geometry with low memory usage. For dynamic objects, I think a per-object voxel grid should be used. The voxel grid will move with the object, so reflections of moving objects will update instantaneously, eliminating the problem we see above.
We are close to having a very good 1.0 version of this system, and I may wrap this up soon, with the current limitations. You can disable GI reflections on a per-object basis, which is what I would recommend doing with dynamic objects like the barrels above. The GI and reflections are still dynamic and will adjust to changes in the environment, like doors opening and closing, elevators moving, and lights moving and turning on and off. (If those barrels above weren't moving, showing their reflections would be absolutely no problem, as I have demonstrated in previous videos.)
In general, I think ray tracing is going to be a feature you can take advantage of to make your games look incredible, but it is something you have to tune. The whole "Hey Josh I created this one weird situation just to cause problems and now I expect you to account for this scenario AAA developers would purposefully avoid" approach will not work with ray tracing. At least not in the 1.0 release. You're going to want to avoid the bad situations that can arise, but they are pretty easy to prevent. Perhaps I can combine screen-space reflections with voxels for reflections of dynamic objects before the first release.
If you are smart about it, I expect your games will look like this:
I had some luck with real-time compression of the voxel data into BC3 (DXT5) format. It adds some delay to the updating, but if we are not trying to show moving reflections much then that might be a good tradeoff. Having only 25% of the data being sent to the GPU each frame is good for performance.
Another change I am going to make it a system that triggers voxel refreshes, instead of constantly updating it no matter what. If you sit still and nothing is moving, then the voxel data won't get recalculated and processed, which will make the performance even faster. This makes sense if we expect most of the data to not change each frame.
I haven't run any performance benchmarks yet, but from what I am seeing I think the performance penalty for using this system will be basically zero, even on integrated graphics. Considering what a dramatic upgrade in visuals this provides, that is very impressive.
In the future, I think I will be able to account for motion in voxel ray tracing, as well as high-definition polygon raytracing for sharp reflections, but it's not worth delaying the release of the engine. Hopefully in this article I showed there are many factors, and many approaches we are can use to try to optimize for different aspects of the effect. For the 1.0 release of our new engine, I think we want to emphasize performance above all else.