How DirectX 12 Ultimate supercharges graphics on Windows PCs and Xbox

Microsoft’s DirectX 12 Ultimate, a new version of the graphics technology underpinning both Windows and the Xbox Series X, seeks to bind the two platforms even closer together with an array of cutting-edge features. Better yet, you can now actually buy DX12 Ultimate hardware in the form of Nvidia GeForce RTX 30-series graphics cards, AMD Radeon RX 6000-series graphics cards, and of course the Xbox Series X.

Nvidia shared details of what to expect before Microsoft’s official presentation at GDC 2020 in March, 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 from March 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, Minecraft, and Metro Exodus. While its adoption has been limited to this point, expect to see ray tracing explode in popularity now that it’s in the consoles. Many of this holiday’s top releases support the technology, including Watch Dogs: Legion, the new Call of Duty game, and the hotly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077.

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:

“Variable Rate Shading is sort of like a supercharged version of the multi-resolution shading that Nvidia’s supported for years now. Human eyes only see the focal points of what’s in their vision at full detail; objects at the periphery or in motion aren’t as sharp. Variable rate shading takes advantage of that to shade primary objects at full resolution, but secondary objects at a lower rate, which can improve performance.

One potential use case for this is Motion Adaptive Shading, where non-critical parts of a moving scene are rendered with less detail. The image above shows how it could be handled in Forza Horizon. Traditionally, every part of the screen would be rendered at full detail, but with Motion Adaptive Shading, only the blue sections of the scene get such lofty treatment.”

Variable Rate Shading can also be used in other ways, such as the Content Adaptive Shading technology that shipped in Wolfenstein II. Content Adaptive Shading applies the same basic principles as Motion Adaptive Shading, but it dynamically identifies portions of the screen that have low detail or large swathes of similar colors, and shades those at lower detail—and more so when you’re in motion—to increase overall performance with minimal loss of perceptible visual quality.

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