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In this series we explore the wonderful world of the bounding volume hierarchy: the mysterious data structure that enables real-time ray tracing on recent GPUs, in complex, animated scenes. Despite the broad adoption of ray tracing in games, in-depth understanding of the underlying technology seems to be reserved to a select few. In this article we show how a proper BVH is implemented without support from DXR / RTX / OptiX / Vulkan, in easy-to-read ‘sane C++’. Whether this is actually useful for you, or just interesting as background information, depends on your needs, obviously.

This series consist of ten articles. For each article, full source code is available on Github, in easy-to-read ‘Sane C++’. Contents:

In this first article we discuss the bare basics: what the BVH is used for, and how a basic BVH is constructed and traversed with a ray. The end product is a simple but reasonably efficient CPU ray tracer, which we will further improve upon in subsequent articles.

The BVH is an acceleration structure. It serves to reduce a pretty fundamental problem in ray tracing: the sheer cost of finding the nearest intersection of a ray and a scene consisting of (potentially) millions of polygons. The basic principle is easy to understand: if we have 64 polygons, we could split them into two groups of 32 polygons, each group enclosed by a bounding volume such as a box or a sphere. When intersecting the scene, we can skip 32 polygons if the ray does not intersect the enclosing volume, nearly halving the processing time. Next, we do the same to each of the two groups: split in two halves, encapsulate, recurse. The resulting bounding volume hierarchy brings down processing time to manageable levels: with each level, we halve the number of polygons. Starting with 64 polygons, we traverse a tree in six steps to arrive at a single polygon.

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