Microsoft’s DirectX 12 Ultimate standardizes smart performance-boosting graphics tricks

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.

DirectX 12 Ultimate supports DirectX Raytracing (DXR) tier 1.1, of course. 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.)

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 presumably DirectX 12 Ultimate, as the Xbox Series X is compatible with DXR 1.1.

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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