DirectX 12 Ultimate unifies ray tracing, speed-boosting graphics tricks across PCs and Xbox

Microsoft has announced DirectX 12 Ultimate, a new version of the graphics technology underpinning both Windows and the upcoming Xbox Series X. Unveiled on Thursday, it’s one of many announcements originally scheduled for GDC 2020 that are carrying on despite the show’s cancellation.

Nvidia shared details of what to expect before Microsoft’s official presentation, and it’s easy to see why: Even though Microsoft’s next-gen console is powered by AMD, DirectX 12 Ultimate enshrines several innovative technologies first introduced by GeForce RTX 20-series graphics cards as a new industry standard—one that now spans both PCs and consoles, earning it the “Ultimate” name.

“By unifying the graphics platform across PC and Xbox Series X, DX12 Ultimate serves as a force multiplier for the entire gaming ecosystem,” Microsoft’s announcement post says. “No longer do the cycles operate independently! Instead, they now combine synergistically: when Xbox Series X releases, there will already be many millions of DX12 Ultimate PC graphics cards in the world with the same feature set, catalyzing a rapid adoption of new features, and when Xbox Series X brings a wave of new console gamers, PC will likewise benefit from this vast surge of new DX12 Ultimate capable hardware! The result? An adrenaline shot to new feature adoption, groundbreaking graphics in the hands of gamers more quickly than ever before.”

DirectX 12 Ultimate supports DirectX Raytracing (DXR) tier 1.1, which is an incremental update to the first iteration. The cutting-edge lighting technology stole the spotlight in GeForce RTX 20-series GPUs to the extent that Nvidia ditched its traditional “GTX” branding for “RTX,” and it’s a key feature of the next-gen Xbox Series X. (The PlayStation 5 also supports hardware-based ray tracing, but Sony’s systems don’t rely on DirectX technology.) The most notable addition in DXR 1.1 is inline ray tracing, a new technique that “gives developers the option to drive more of the raytracing process, as opposed to handling work scheduling entirely to the system,” per Microsoft.

Ray tracing can look positively breathtaking when used to good effect, as it has been in Control and Metro Exodus.  While its adoption has been limited to this point, expect to see ray tracing explode in popularity once it’s in the consoles.

AMD’s forthcoming RDNA2-based Radeon graphics cards will also support hardware ray tracing and DirectX 12 Ultimate, the company has confirmed, along with releasing the video above. 

Ray tracing isn’t the only tech introduced by Nvidia’s Turing architecture that’s being codified by DirectX 12 Ultimate, though. Two other intelligent rendering capabilities make your GPU work smarter, not harder, supercharging the performance potential of your graphics card (or Xbox) if developers wind up embracing them.

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DX12 Ultimate hardware also needs to support Variable Rate Shading (VRS) tier 2. Here’s how we described Variable Rate Shading in our Nvidia Turing GPU deep dive:

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