Porting a Ray Tracer to Rust, part 3

It’s been a little while since my last post on tray_rust as I’ve been a busy with classes, but I’ve had a bit of free time to implement some extremely cool features. In this post we’ll look at porting over the path tracing code and adding a bounding volume hierarchy, along with adding support for triangle meshes and measured material data from the MERL BRDF Database introduced by Matusik et al. in 2003 in A Data-Driven Reflectance Model. In the process of implementing the BVH we’ll get a taste of Rust’s generic programming facilities and use them to write a flexible BVH capable of storing any type that can report its bounds. In the spirit of fogleman’s gorgeous Go Gopher in Go we’ll wrap up by rendering the Rust logo in Rust using a model made by Nylithius on BlenderArtists.

If you’ve been following Rust’s development a bit you have probably noticed that the timing of this post is not a coincidence, since Rust 1.0.0 is being released today!

Path Tracing

Path tracing, introduced by Kajiya in 1986 in The Rendering Equation, is a standard and surprisingly simple method for computing photo-realistic images in computer graphics. This simplicity and quality does come at a cost and path traced images typically require thousands of samples per pixel to compute a mostly noise-free image (some more on this shortly). While I won’t try and fully explain path tracing since I won’t be able to cover it as well as other resources around, a short overview of the method is helpful. I’ll also include some links to other resources where you can read up more on the topic and get a more in depth explanation.

The concept underlying path tracing is pretty straightforward: if we think about a point on a surface in some scene, the light we see at this point is the result of all light incident on the point from other surfaces and lights modulated by the surface’s reflectance properties at the point, along with any light emitted by the surface itself at the point. Considering a point on a plane this gives us an integral over a hemisphere centered at the point. Note that this doesn’t constrain us to planar objects, eg. a point on some edge would just integrate over a larger hemi-spherical region. This idea gives us the rendering equation and solving this equation will compute the illumination at every point in the scene.

The equation on Wikipedia is a bit more than we’ll be needing here as we’ll only be rendering static scenes and won’t consider wavelength dependent effects, allowing us to drop \(t\) and \(\lambda\). This lets us write down an easier to parse version of the equation:

\[ L_o(x, w_o) = L_e(x, w_o) + \int_{\Omega} f(x, w_i, w_o) L_i(x, w_i) w_i \cdot n \; \text{d}w_i \]

Here \(L_o(x, w_o)\) is the computed outgoing radiance along direction \(w_o\) leaving \(x\), \(L_e\) is the equivalent for light emitted at the point and \(L_i(x, w_i)\) is the incident light coming from direction \(w_i\) arriving at the point. \(f(x, w_i, w_o)\) is the surface’s Bidirectional reflectance distribution function (BRDF) which describes how light arriving at the point along direction \(w_i\) is reflected back along \(w_o\). The BRDF is used to describe opaque surfaces and in general the Bidirectional scattering distribution function (BSDF) applies, eg. to transparent objects or subsurface scattering effects and so on. The final \(w_i \cdot n\) term is the geometry term and weakens light that arrives at glancing angles. We then integrate this expression over the hemisphere \(\Omega\) to account for all light incident on the point. This is of course a very shortened look at the rendering equation, for an excellent explanation on this topic (and many more) I highly recommend reading Physically Based Rendering. If you’d like more detail but don’t want to buy a whole book on rendering Realistic Raytracing by Zack Waters and Global Illumination in a Nutshell linked in fogleman’s readme look to be good as well.

While it’s possible to solve the rendering equation analytically for some very simple scenes our situation is pretty hopeless in most cases. To compute the integral for general scenes we turn to random sampling and employ Monte Carlo integration. Solving the rendering equation with path tracing amounts to tracing millions of rays, taking thousands of samples per pixel to sufficiently sample the integral. Starting with an eye ray we find the first surface it hits, sample a light source for direct illumination (if there’s many we just pick one at random) and compute \(f(x, w_l, w_o)\) to modulate this incident light coming along \(w_l\). Next we pick a random direction from a cosine weighted distribution on the hemisphere to shoot another ray to sample indirect lighting and again compute \(f(x, w_i, w_o)\) for this direction to modulate the incident indirect light then find what this secondary ray hits and repeat. This process can continue infinitely so we’ll terminate the ray at some configurable number of bounces, since the indirect light reaching our first hit is attenuated at each bounce after a certain depth there’s very little illumination coming back along the path and it’s ok to terminate the ray. The pseudo-code on Wikipedia gives a decent overview of the algorithm.

Although we’re able to render any scene with path tracing our usage of Monte Carlo integration requires that we must take huge numbers of samples to accurately sample the integral. The effect of sampling rate on image quality is shown below, with very few samples per pixel the result is quite poor and very noisy but as we take more and more it converges to a high quality image. As you would expect, taking more samples per pixel comes with an increased rendering cost. On a machine with an i7-4790k using 8 threads the image with 2 samples per pixel takes a mere 90ms to render while with 2048 samples it takes 94.203s to render the 200x200 pixel image. A massive increase in render time of three orders of magnitude!

2 samples

8 samples

32 samples

128 samples

512 samples

2048 samples

Bounding Volume Hierarchy

If we wanted to render a scene with millions (or billions!) of triangles the process of finding the first intersection along a ray can become incredibly expensive, eg. using a naive loop over the triangles would probably have us waiting days or even weeks for our render. To avoid this issue we use some form of spatial partitioning data structure that will let us ignore objects that the ray has no chance of hitting. There are many possibilities for choosing a spatial data structure but the two most popular in ray tracing are Bounding Volume Hierarchies and K-d trees.

I’ve chosen to implement a BVH since building a reasonably high quality one is not too costly a process and traversal is pretty straightforward. At a high level we construct a tree of bounding axis aligned boxes that contain geometry in the scene and partition them into groups such that the estimated cost of testing the geometry in each child is as equal as possible. This method is known as the surface area heuristic as we use the object’s surface area (or that of its bounding box) to estimate the cost of entering a node in the BVH. Traversal is then done by testing the bounding boxes of each child node of an internal node, if a child is intersected then we traverse it recursively. When enter a leaf node storing some geometry we test our ray for intersection against the objects inside. Typically actual recursive calls are avoided and we manage the stack of nodes to be traversed ourselves. Again I’ll defer the detailed explanation to PBRT and instead we’ll focus on some cool Rust features in this section related to the implementation.

We’d like our BVH to be generic over the type it stores and only require the information needed to construct the BVH be provided by the type, ie. that the types being stored can report their bounds as an axis aligned box. As I mentioned in the first post of this series by doing this we’ll be able to use the same type to store our instances of geometry in the world and triangles in a mesh and re-use the code. After some helpful discussion in the comments of that post I’ve settled on a flexible and powerful implementation that takes advantage of Rust’s trait system. For some really great discussion and background on traits in Rust take a look at Aaron Turon’s Abstraction without overhead post.

To provide a generic BVH that only requires types can report their world space bounds we’ll need two things. First we’ll need a trait to implement on these objects that provides a function to get their bounds and we’ll need a way to pass a function to be called during the BVH traversal so the caller can run eg. intersection tests. Additionally we’d like to return whatever this function returns from our traversal (eg. this is information about the nearest hit triangle) and we’d like it to be possible for this function to be inlined as it will be called a lot in our rendering loop. Using Rust’s traits we can meet all these demands handily.

We’ll start by putting together a Boundable trait for types that can report their bounds in space:

// Trait implemented by scene objects that can report an AABB describing their bounds
pub trait Boundable {
    // Get an AABB reporting the object's bounds in space
    fn bounds(&self) -> BBox;

Now we can put a constraint on the types that our BVH will accept:

pub struct BVH<T: Boundable> {
    geometry: Vec<T>,

impl<T: Boundable> BVH<T> {

Finally we can put together our intersection function for the BVH. This function will take a mutably borrowed ray and traverse it through the BVH, calling the user’s function on objects within leaf nodes that the ray enters, the user’s function will then return an Option type indicating if an intersection occured for example. After traversal has completed we’ll return an Option type to indicate if an intersection happened or not. Additionally the caller’s function may need to modify the ray’s max t value (how long it is) as we find intersections with geometry during traversal. We can require an appropriate user function by taking a generic type and constraining it to implement the Fn trait with the parameters and return values we expect. As an extra bonus, since we’ve made our intersect function generic on the caller’s function and we take it by value the compiler can even inline calls to the Fn passed, similar to C++11 lambdas.

The signature of our BVH intersect function then comes out like below. Note that the lifetime annotations are required as we may be returning a reference to objects in the BVH in R and the compiler needs to know these references will be valid after the call. This actually turned out to be a tough error to work through and the Rust IRC channel was very helpful.

pub fn intersect<'a, F, R>(&'a self, ray: &mut Ray, f: F) -> Option<R>
        where F: Fn(&mut Ray, &'a T) -> Option<R>

Now to traverse geometry in the BVH and intersect the instances or triangles within is as simple as passing a closure! For example, here’s the intersect call of a BVH<Instance> in scene.rs. Here our Fn takes a &mut Ray and &Instance and returns an Option which represents the closest intersection with an instance found. The BVH will then traverse the hierarchy and call our function on the geometry in each leaf node that our ray enters.

pub fn intersect(&self, ray: &mut Ray) -> Option<Intersection> {
    self.bvh.intersect(ray, |r, i| i.intersect(r))

Lifetime Errors can be Challenging to Decipher

The hardest problems I encountered when writing the traversal were lifetime errors encountered in the course of trying to return a reference to an object in the BVH from the closure, eg. in the Intersection or DifferentialGeometry structures we return a reference to the hit Instance or Geometry respectively. Since the error itself is given at the call to intersect it wasn’t clear what I’d need to do to help the compiler sort out the lifetimes. A short self-contained example of the error can be found on Rust playpen if you’d like to see the compiler error yourself (this may change as the compiler on playpen is updated). In the end to make sense of the error I asked folks on the Rust IRC, who have always been extremely helpful. They pointed out that I need to tie the lifetime of the &T passed to the caller’s Fn with the lifetime of the BVH itself, thus indicating to the compiler that the reference will be valid as long as the BVH is alive. This is done with the 'a lifetime annotations in the intersect function signature.

Without the help of people in IRC this probably would have taken much longer to figure out (if I could have figured it out at all). Since Rust is a very young language the documentation and compiler are still being worked on and I think more advanced lifetime handling and error reporting are areas that both could be improved. The concepts of lifetime and ownership are key features in Rust but can be difficult to reason about and errors related to them can sometimes be hard to interpret.

Triangle Meshes

Because we’ve implemented our BVH to be generic on the type it stores it’s simple for us to also write a triangle mesh that uses a BVH internally to accelerate intersection testing against its triangles. The triangles share Arcs to Vecs containing the position, normal and texture coordinate information and the index of each of their vertices within these Vecs. This is different than my C++ implementation where the Mesh would store these vectors and the triangles would store a reference to the Mesh instead of shared_ptr’s to the vectors. However the C++ implementation will result in dangling references unless used very carefully, eg. if the mesh is moved, copied or such we’ll end up with dangling pointers. When I first tried to implement the Mesh I tried my C++ approach and the Rust compiler correctly gave me some lifetime errors. Although there’s a bit of added size to each triangle to store the Arc to each Vec this implementation is actually safe to use in general, unlike my C++ one (which I should correct). I use a standard triangle intersection test from PBRT and after building a BVH on the mesh’s triangles we end up with a very simple mesh type. The struct is just a BVH containing its triangles:

pub struct Mesh {
    bvh: BVH<Triangle>,

Testing the triangles of the mesh for intersection is the same as testing for intersections against Instances of geometry, but instead we return an Option<DifferentialGeometry>.

impl Geometry for Mesh {
    fn intersect(&self, ray: &mut linalg::Ray) -> Option<DifferentialGeometry> {
        self.bvh.intersect(ray, |r, i| i.intersect(r))

Publishing Crates on Cargo

Now that we can quickly intersect rays against triangle meshes lets load up some models and render them! The Wavefront OBJ format is relatively simple to load (at least if you’re only doing triangles/triangle strips) and is widely supported in modeling software like Blender, making it easy to find meshes and convert them if needed. While it’s possible to write an OBJ loader integrated into the ray tracer I thought this seemed like a cool opportunity to learn about publishing my own Crates (a Rust library) with Cargo (Rust’s package manager), especially since managing dependencies with Cargo is very smooth.

To load OBJ files I’ve written tobj (Tiny OBJ Loader) which takes inspiration from the OBJ loader I use in my C++ projects, tinyobjloader. To figure out how to publish the crate online I followed the guide on publishing and here it is! Adding this library as dependency to tray_rust can be done by adding tobj = "0.0.8" to the [dependencies] list in the project’s Cargo.toml and the crate will be downloaded and available for use via extern crate tobj;.

For some extra fun I used the Travis-CI integration discussed in Huon’s “Travis on the Train” series (part 1, part 2) and can now take advantage of Travis-CI to run tests and even build and upload rustdoc for tobj, which is really convenient. I’ve started using this for tray_rust as well.

Measured Material Data

The final thing we need to make some really nice images are accurate material models, ie. ones that can closely approximate the reflectance properties of various types of materials. There are a wide range of analytic models that we can choose from that attempt to accurately model various types of materials, Wikipedia has a decent list. The current analytic models supported in tray_rust are Lambertian (an ideal diffuse material), Oren-Nayar (more accurate model of rough surface reflectance) and specular reflection (perfect mirror) and specular transparency (perfectly smooth glass). An alternative to analytic models is to use measured data acquired by taking real world objects and scanning them in some way to measure their BRDF. These measured models can be a bit harder to use as they don’t offer much artist flexibility, but since I’m a terrible artist this isn’t a problem. One excellent source of measured BRDF data is the MERL BRDF Database which has a wide variety of regularly sampled isotropic material data, and is what we’ll be using here.

The file format itself may seem a bit odd but is well explained in PBRT and after loading the data in access is actually quite efficient. The file stores scaled RGB values for samples taken at various angles of incident and outgoing light where components are scaled by (1500, 1500, 1500 / 1.66) for (R, G, B) in the file, so we must apply the inverse. Additionally the values in the files are stored in little Endian double precision and in chunks, so all the red values come first, followed by green and then blue. To load these binary files I made use of the byteorder crate, which brings up another cool feature of Rust: extension traits. It’s possible for libraries to add new traits to existing types, extending them with new methods. This is kept in check by only having traits be in scope if you use them, eg. use my_lib::CoolTrait will make CoolTrait’s methods available on implementing types. The byteorder crate extends methods on types that implement Read with ReadBytesExt (see the Implementors section at the bottom) to add on typed binary io methods. This makes integrating new libraries with existing types really clean, and if I had some struct that implemented Read using ReadBytesExt would make those same functions available on my type!


The result of this work is some really gorgeous eye-candy! To celebrate Rust’s 1.0 release I’ve rendered a Rust logo model made by Nylithius on BlenderArtists with a few different materials and with some friends from the computer graphics community: the Buddha and Dragon from the Stanford 3D Scanning repository. The Rust logo has 28,844 triangles, the version of the Buddha I used has 1,087,474 triangles and the version of the Dragon has 871,306 triangles. The render times are from a reasonably beefy machine we have at the lab with dual Xeon E5-2680’s @ 2.7GHz, I ran tray_rust with 32 threads for these renders. There is also still a bug in my BVH construction which is leading to less than optimal BVHs so I think these times could be improved a bit once I get that fixed. Area lights are also still on my todo list so these scenes are just lit by a single point light and as such we don’t get any nice soft shadows. Render times are formatted as hh:mm:ss along with the total time in milliseconds shown in parenthesis.

800x600, 1024 samples, using a black oxidized steel material. Render time: 00:09:00.208 (540208ms)

800x600, 1024 samples, using a two layer silver material. Render time: 00:08:53.74 (533727ms)

800x600, 1024 samples, using a black obsidian material. Render time: 00:08:58.33 (538330ms)

800x600, 1024 samples, using a brass material. Render time: 00:08:59.78 (539784ms)

800x600, 1024 samples, smallpt scene with specularly reflective and transparent spheres. Render time: 00:03:15.86 (195862ms)

1920x1080, 2048 samples. The Rust logo is using black oxidized steel, the Stanford Buddha is using gold metallic paint and the Stanford Dragon is using blue acrylic. Render time: 01:13:52.13 (4432127ms)

Final Thoughts

There are still a few things left on my todo list for tray_rust. I need to fix my BVH construction so it doesn’t give some poor quality splits, add support for area lights and make some kind of scene file format so that changing the scene doesn’t require re-compiling. I’d also like to implement some more material models, I have a few nice microfacet based analytic models in tray to port over and would like to add some sort of rough glass model. Materials with subsurface scattering properties would also be really cool to implement. Depending on how much free time I find, I’ve also got some more advanced rendering methods on my list such as bidirectional path tracing and vertex connection and merging, a recently introduced powerful and robust rendering approach that has seen fast adoption in commercial renderers. There are of course other methods that are fun to work with as well, such as photon mapping and its variants, but I’m not sure how much more I want to add to tray_rust. I’m definitely not aiming to implement something as massive and impressive as Mitsuba, which supports pretty much everything under the sun.

After working with Rust for a longer period and following changes and development up to 1.0 more closely I’m pretty happy with the language, and look forward to continuing to use it, though there are of course some complaints and annoyances I’ve run into. Good learning material can be a bit hard to come by but this is being worked on and should be solid by 1.0. Compiler error messages can be a bit difficult to figure out sometimes, especially relating to lifetime issues. Fortunately the community is very helpful in working through these and it sounds like this is on the list of post-1.0 work. It’s also not possible at the moment to implement memory pool style patterns in Rust, something which I used extensively in my C++ ray tracer. Compile times can be pretty slow, especially when compiling with optimization level 3 and link time optimization. Rust is still a young language and I think all of these issues (and more) are on the priorities after 1.0 list and will be addressed in the future.

If you have comments, suggestions for improvements or just want to say “hi” feel free to comment below, tweet at me or ping me on IRC (I’m Twinklebear on freenode and moznet). The code for the Rust ray tracer is MIT licensed and available on GitHub.

Published: 15 May 2015

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