Air tracking for smartphones is here, but is it the real thing?

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dated: 2022-11-19 19:39:37 .

Curtis Joe / Android Authority

While there was a lot to sniff out about Qualcomm’s announcement of its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform, the new feature that grabbed the headlines was undoubtedly the smartphone’s ray-traced graphics support. Qualcomm is adding hardware ray tracing support to Mediatek’s Dimensity 9200 and Samsung’s Exynos 2200, opening the door to fancy new graphics effects for mobile games.

With 2023 flagship phones supporting the feature almost everywhere, will this be the year mobile gaming stops playing second fiddle to console and PC graphics?

Well, yes, but also no. Air tracking on a smartphone is undoubtedly a neat feature that will most likely lead to better looking graphics and games. However, there are still a few hurdles to overcome, so a ray tracing reality check is in order.

Not all ray tracing implementations are created equal

It is important to recognize here that ray tracing is a graphical term that encompasses a wide range of possible implementations. You can think of them as “layers” of ray tracing, each with its own graphical advantages and associated performance costs. Just because smartphones support ray tracing doesn’t mean games will look the same as they do on console and PC.

Ultimately, it all comes down to whether you can render the entire scene with computationally intensive ray tracing, or opt for a hybrid approach that uses ray tracing only for some effects. With PC and consoles still taking a hybrid approach, we’re definitely looking at the latter in the smartphone space. At a high level, caustic can map the way light and reflections bounce off curved surfaces like water or glass, while less sophisticated implementations can improve shadow casting accuracy and support reflections on some surfaces. That’s still great, but keep those expectations in check for what ray tracing can and will be used for.

Mobile air tracking hardware is less powerful than consoles and PCs.

We know a bit about the ray tracing architectures used by Qualcomm and Arm, which gives us some insight into their capabilities. For starters, they both accelerate the intersection of the core frame and triangle, which are the basic building blocks of ray tracing. Calculating these ray intersections in hardware is many times faster than in software.

However, only Qualcomm supports Bounding Volume Hierarchical (BVH) (we don’t know about Samsung’s Xclipse GPU), a technique similar to that used by Nvidia and AMD in their high-end GPUs. The BVH speedup is important because it is used to speed up the calculation of ray intersections by searching groups of polygons to narrow the intersections, instead of casting each ray individually.

As such, we expect Qualcomm’s implementation to offer better frame rates and greater ray-tracing complexity, but that assumes its ray-counting capabilities are primarily comparable to Arm’s. However, there are other aspects of ray tracing acceleration, such as: B. Noise reduction and memory management, which can also be fine-tuned to improve performance. We don’t know how far Arm or Qualcomm have gone in optimizing their wider GPU for these needs.

Mobile GPUs differ in support and performance of ray tracing functions.

In numerical terms, Oppo claims a 5x increase for its PhysRay engine by switching from software to hardware acceleration with 8 Gen 2. Meanwhile, Arm claims a 3x increase in internal hardware over software with its Immortalis G715 GPU-Benchmarking company. Unfortunately, both metrics don’t tell us much about what kind of real-world performance and graphics capabilities we’re likely to see.

Qualcomm notes that it supports reflections, shadows, and global lighting, key techniques for producing decent, if not super-superior, ray tracing effects. Likewise, Arm notes that it uses hybrid halftoning to enhance highlights, shadows and reflections. However, layering these functions requires more and more processing power, and we don’t yet know how far the first smartphone chips can get support and at what frame rates.

Air tracking on a smartphone doesn’t scale like consoles

Adamya Sharma / Android Authority

While we’ll have to wait and see what actual mobile gaming brings, it’s safe to say that a smartphone chip designed for a graphics power budget of less than 5W won’t match the performance levels of a gaming console or PC graphics card.

Nvidia’s latest RTX4080 graphics card, for example, is a 320 W behemoth. At the same time, the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X each consume around 200 W (including their CPUs). 4K resolution with all its trappings is simply not an option for smartphone ray tracing.

Expect a compromise in frame rate and resolution when ray tracing is enabled.

The best approximation of real-world performance comes from Oppo’s talk about its PhysRay engine during the opening keynote on the first day of the Snapdragon Tech Summit. The company notes that it can hit 60fps at a modest 720p resolution, which can be sustained for 30 minutes on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform. That sounds OK, but it clearly highlights the compromises the phone has to make in terms of framerate or resolution. Not to mention that sustained performance could also be an issue given the limited cooling available for the smartphone form factor.

Our time at the Snapdragon Summit also included a hands-on demonstration. Qualcomm presented a short animation that gave us the ability to turn ray tracing on and off. It was easy to see the difference in lighting and reflections – even during the day and at night. However, we couldn’t adjust the camera or move around the room, so there’s no way of knowing how well the performance will hold up.

Doom and Gloom aside, smaller smartphone screens don’t need ultra-high resolutions or ultra-high fidelity levels of graphics to look great. 720p 60fps or 1080p 30fps games with fancy lighting and reflections can still provide a remarkable boost in mobile graphics fidelity.

It takes some time for the games to appear

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

During their recent announcements, Mediatek and Qualcomm mentioned that the first mobile game with ray tracing support will be released in the first half of 2023, just in time for the phones to hit the hands of consumers. The game is hardly the last straw and it will be many more, perhaps years, before ray tracing becomes mainstream for mobile devices.

This is partly because the games have to be profitable, meaning they will appeal to the mass market and not just be made for a handful of phones. While there’s always free marketing for first steps, raytracing implementations will be an afterthought for many developers, at least until the hardware gains widespread adoption. It was the same with games for consoles and PC. However, Mediatek notes that all major Chinese game studios are working on ray tracing support in the future. We’ve also spotted China’s Tencent and Netease Games on Qualcomm’s partner list, so some markets may move to support the feature sooner than others.

Support for games is coming, but mass adoption could take years.

Importantly, with Qualcomm on board, ray tracing is firmly on the map due to its massive sales volume. More and more titles are likely to be added gradually over the coming years, offering fancier reflections and lighting for phones that support it. Air tracking via the increasingly popular Vulkan API also means cross-platform plug-ins are more viable than ever. So once again we can have high hopes for the long term.

Should I buy a phone to track air?

We hope this article has convinced you; Not. You really shouldn’t rush into buying a new phone just because it supports ray-traced graphics. We haven’t even seen our first mobile game supporting this technology, so there’s no rush to be early adopters here. To be honest, it might even be better to wait for the second generation of GPUs with ray tracing to iron out the bugs and boost performance.

However, if you’re in the market for a new phone anytime soon and gaming is your top priority, it might be worth waiting until 2023 to grab a phone that’s a little more future-proof. We expect the first announcement of the monitoring of telephone lines before the end of the year.

See also: The best gaming phones you can buy today

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Air tracking for smartphones is here, but is it the real thing?

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