Ray Tracing 009: Diffuse Materials

Diffuse Materials

The next few chapters will be about materials. This chapter will start with simple diffuse or matte materials.

Diffuse objects take on the color of their surroundings, but they modulate it with their own color.

And light that reflects off a diffuse surface gets reflected in a random direction. If there are two diffuse objects touching each other you can end up with rays that reflect off the first object and never touch the second, or rays that reflect off the first, then the second before they move away from the objects. You could also see rays that relect off the first, then the second to hit the first again before they leave the objects.

Rays may also get absorbed rather than reflected. The darker the surface, the more likely it gets absorbed.

One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is to place a unit sphere tangent to the hitpoint P, pick a random point S in that unit sphere, and then send the ray from the hitpoint P through S.

The unit sphere has its center at (P+N). To find the random point S on the unit sphere we can use a rejection method. Basically, I pick a random point in a unit cube with x, y, z ranging from -1 to +1. If the point is outside of the sphere, we reject it and try again until we find a point that’s inside the sphere. This is pretty easy:

vec3 random_in_unit_sphere() {
  vec3 p;
  do {
    p = 2.0*vec3(random_double(), random_double(), random_double()) - vec3(1,1,1);
  } while (p.squared_length() >= 1.0);
  return p;

Squared_length() returns $x^2 + y^2 + z^2$ the equation for a sphere. For a unit sphere the radius could be 1.0. If the squared length is larger than that we are somewhere in the space between the unit sphere and the unit cube, so we repeat with a new set of random numbers.

Next we update the color() method to use the random point in the unit sphere. Here we absorb half the energy and reflect the other half. To process the color for the reflected ray we call color() for a ray from hit point P in the direction of the random point. If a ray gets reflected several times the last rays will only affect a fraction of the color.

if (world->hit(r, 0.0, INFINITY, rec)) {
  vec3 target = rec.p + rec.normal + random_in_unit_sphere();
  return 0.5 * color( ray(rec.p, target - rec.p), world );
else {
  vec3 unit_direction = unit_vector(r.direction());
  float t = 0.5 * (unit_direction.y() + 1.0);
  return (1.0-t) * vec3(1.0, 1.0, 1.0) + t*vec3(0.5, 0.7, 1.0);

This produces the following image:

This picture appears darker than it’s supposed to be. This is because almost all image viewers assume that the image is gamma-corrected, where the 0-1 values have been transformed before they were stored in a byte. The first book doesn’t go into further explanations, but states that we need to be aware of it. The solution is to use “gamma 2.” In this first approximation we simply rause the color to the power $1/gamma$ or in this case 12 which is just a square root.

col /= float(ns);
col = vec3( sqrt(col[0]), sqrt(col[1]), sqrt(col[2]) );

There is another small problem in this picture. Some of the reflected rays are not reflected at exactly t=0, but t=+/-0000001 due to floating point approximation errors. This can be fixed by increasing t_min a little, for example: 0.001.

if (world->hit(r, 0.001, INFINITY, rec)) { ...

Here’s a before/after comparison. Move the slider to the left to see the image with “shadow acne” and to the right to see the fixed image.

Room for Optimizations?

When I updated my Javascript implementation of the ray tracer I was wondering if there was any room for further optimizations. One thing I noticed in the following block is that we add rec.normal and the random unit sphere point to the hit point to define the target, but then we subtract it from the target again:

if (world->hit(r, 0.0, INFINITY, rec)) {
  vec3 target = rec.p + rec.normal + random_in_unit_sphere();
  return 0.5 * color( ray(rec.p, target - rec.p), world );

Removing rec.p should be a safe change that doesn’t change the output at all. We may write:

if (world->hit(r, 0.0, INFINITY, rec)) {
  vec3 target = rec.normal + random_in_unit_sphere();
  return 0.5 * color( ray(rec.p, target), world );

This makes sense, because the ray still starts at hit point rec.p and the second parameter in the ray() constructor is B, the ray’s direction.

Since we’re only interested in direction, and the point in the sphere is randomized anyway, do we need rec.normal? Let’s see, move the slider to the left for the test result, to the right to see the correct image:

Well, yes, we do! Without the surface normals we still get something that resembles a sphere with a hint of a shadow, but it’s flatter, less defined, and darker. It makes sense, I suppose, since normals describe the shape of the surface for light that hits it. However, I’m not very clear why this example at this stage of development depends so much on normals. I mean, if you add random numbers to a normal, shouldn’t the result be just as random? This is something I need to develop some intuition about. My current guess is that the randomized range is smaller than the value range of the normal vector, and it may not be large enough to change the orientation all that much.

The other idea for a possible optimization was to use keep unit-cube and dismiss the extra checks to to see if the point happened to be in the unit-sphere. The loop to find points in the unit-sphere might add quite a bit of time to the computation. It could finish in the first or second iteration, but it could also take many more iterations. Here’s what it looks like if I use the unit-cube instead of a sphere (slider to the left = test image, slider to the right = control image):

There are some noticeable differences, but they are not as bad as the previous attempt to optimize the performance. If the image doesn’t have to be super-accurate… who knows, this may be a way to squeeze out some time.

Here’s also the link to the Javascript implementation:

Please see my repository at github.com/celeph/ray-tracing for the complete code. For more details, check out Peter Shirley’s excellent book that inspired this episode: “Ray Tracing in One Weekend” and his original book and code repo.

Credits and Further Reading

Next Steps