Path Tracing Part 3 - Acceleration Structure


I recently added an acceleration data structure to my path tracer. This resulted in a large performance improvement.

The acceleration structure improves the speed of the global ray intersection test, an integral part of any path tracer.

The source code can be found here.

Global Ray Intersection Test

The global ray intersection test is the most computationally expensive part of a path tracer. The test takes a ray, and checks to see if it intersects with any of the objects in the scene.

A ray is defined as an origin vector and a (unit) direction vector:

type vector { x, y, z float64 }

type ray { origin, dir float64 }

Objects in the scene are defined as:

type object interface {
    intersect(ray) (unitNormal vector, distance float64, hit bool)

If the ray intersects the object, then intersect(ray) will return the unit normal at the hit site, along with the distance to the hit site from the ray origin.

To calculate the intersection between a ray and all objects in the scene, we must complete the following code:

type dataStructure struct {
    // ...

func newDataStructure([]object) *dataStructure {
    // ...

func (d *dataStructure) intersect(r ray) (unitNormal vector, distance float64, hit bool) {
    // ...

There are lots of different ways to implement the global ray intersection test, and performance will always be an important consideration. This is because:

Naive Implementation

The naive implementation sequentially checks each object in the scene, keeping track of the closest intersection found so far. This is easy to implement, but has the worst possible performance.

type objectList struct {
    objs []object

func newObjectList(objs []object) *objectList {
    return &objectList{objs}

func (o *objectList) intersect(r ray) (unitNormal vector, distance float64, hit bool) {
    var closest struct {
        unitNormal vector
        distance   float64
        hit        bool

    for _, obj := range o.objs {
        unitNormal, distance, hit := obj.intersect(r)
        if !hit {
        if !closest.hit || distance < closest.distance {
            closest.unitNormal = unitNormal
            closest.distance = distance
            closest.hit = true

    return closest.unitNormal, closest.distance, closest.hit

The main problem with the naive implementation is that it has to check each object in the scene for an intersection. If we can reduce the amount of intersection tests with individual objects, we can increase the overall performance.

Fast Implementation

A “grid” data structure can allow us to dramatically increase the speed of the global ray intersection test. It does this by cleverly reducing the number of individual object intersections tests we have to perform.

The algorithm is split into two parts:

  1. The data structure is populated using the set of objects in the scene.

  2. The data structure is then traversed to solve the global ray intersection test.

Grid Population

First a 3D grid created, the same size as the scene. Each object in the scene is checked to see which grid cell(s) it falls into. The objects are then stored into an array representing the grid for fast access. This data structure allows the list of scene objects in a given grid cell to be accessed in constant time.

A 2D example is shown below:

Grid Population

Grid Traversal

When performing the global ray intersection test, the first step is the find the cell in the grid that is first hit by the ray. Each scene object in that cell is then tested for a ray intersection. If any of the objects in that cell intersect with the ray, then the result of the global ray intersection test is the intersection with the individual object that’s closest to the start of the ray. If no object is detected, then we continue to the next cell and repeat. The global ray intersection check finishes when an intersection has been found or we have traversed all the way to the other side of the grid.

There’s a non-obvious edge case that must be accounted for. An object may be partially inside a particular cell, and also intersect with a ray. However, if the intersection doesn’t occur inside that cell, then we shouldn’t count this intersection.

The algorithm is fast because it’s computationally cheap to iterate through the cells in the grid that intersect with the ray. This is done using the DAA method.

The following is an example of the grid traversal:

Grid Traversal

  1. The first cell the ray enters is (0, 3). There is a single object in the cell, but it doesn’t intersect with the ray. So we continue to the next cell.

  2. The next cell the ray enters is (1, 3). There are two objects in the cell. The ray doesn’t intersect with the circle. However, there is also a triangle in the cell (just a small part of its corner). The ray does intersect with the triangle, but not inside the cell we are currently in (this is the edge case describe previously). We ignore this intersection and continue on to the next cell.

  3. The next cell the ray enters is (1, 2). There are no objects in this cell, so we continue to the next cell.

  4. The next cell is (2, 2). There are two objects in this cell, both intersecting with the ray. The closest intersection is the circle. Since we have found a valid intersection, the global ray intersection check is complete.

Performance Improvements and Computational Complexity

The rendering time for my existing scenes was decreased by a factor between 1.5 and 100 (depending on the size scene being rendered). Anecdotally, I found that the acceleration structure had a bigger impact on scenes containing more objects (10s or 100s of thousands). For scenes with only a few dozen objects, the acceleration structure had only a minor effect.

The computational complexity of the naive global ray intersection test is linear in the number of objects in the scene. This is fairly obvious, since we iterate through each object in the scene, checking for an intersection. Each object ray intersection test is constant time on its own.

I haven’t performed any formal computational complexity analysis of the grid algorithm. Assuming that the objects in the scene are evenly distributed, I suspect that the computational complexity is O(n^(1/3)) (where n is the number of objects in the scene). We are essentially iterating through a one dimensional sequence of grid cells in a 3 dimensional grid. So we only need to visit O(m^(1/3)) cells (where m is the total number of cells). It follows that if there are n objects in the scene, then we would only have to perform O(n^(1/3)) individual object ray intersect test per global ray intersection test.

© Peter Stace 2015-2023