It's nearly impossible to discuss graphics tech in 2019 without bringing up real-time ray tracing. The rendering technique has been popularized by Nvidia, Microsoft, and an increasing number of game developers over the last few months. AMD's stayed pretty quiet about how it plans to support hardware-accelerated ray tracing, but a patent application published on June 27 offered a glimpse at what it's been working on.
AMD filed the patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in December 2017. It describes a hybrid system that enables real-time ray tracing using a variety of software and hardware methods rather than relying on just one solution. The company said this approach should allow it to overcome the shortcomings associated with previous attempts to bring ray tracing to the masses.
In the application, AMD said that software-based solutions "are very power intensive and difficult to scale to higher performance levels without expending significant die area." It also said that enabling ray tracing via software "can reduce performance substantially over what is theoretically possible" because they "suffer drastically from the execution divergence of bounded volume hierarchy traversal."
Basically: using software to enable ray tracing on hardware that hasn't been optimized for the rendering technique requires a significant performance sacrifice. Most people don't like it when their hardware is hamstrung by software, even if it's supposed to enable some fancy new graphics, and the inability to handle other processing tasks at the same time can also make the graphics look worse anyway.
AMD didn't think hardware-based ray tracing was the answer either. The company said those solutions "suffer from a lack of programmer flexibility as the ray tracing pipeline is fixed to a given hardware configuration," are "generally fairly area inefficient since they must keep large buffers of ray data to reorder memory transactions to achieve peak performance," and are more complex than other GPUs.
So the company developed its hybrid solution. The setup described in this patent application uses a mix of dedicated hardware and existing shader units working in conjunction with software to enable real-time ray tracing without the drawbacks of the methods described above. Here's the company's explanation for how this system might work, as spotted by "noiserr" on the AMD subreddit:
It's worth noting that this application was filed a year-and-a-half ago; AMD might have developed a new ray tracing system in the interim. But right now it seems like the company doesn't want to go the exact same route as Nvidia, which included dedicated ray tracing cores in Turing-based GPUs, and would rather use a mix of dedicated and non-dedicated hardware to give devs more flexibility.
Not that AMD's in much of a rush. When the company announced its latest Navi-based graphics cards, the company didn't include any hardware devoted to ray tracing, and told us that it believes it will be a few years before real-time ray tracing catches on anyway. It might be a while before we see the solution described in this application--and that's assuming it ever makes its way to a real product.