Ray Tracing

A set of five interrelated extensions provide ray tracing support in the Vulkan API.

Additional SPIR-V and GLSL extensions also expose the necessary programmable functionality for shaders:

Many ray tracing applications require large contiguous memory allocations. Due to the limited size of the address space, this can prove challenging on 32-bit systems. Whilst implementations are free to expose ray tracing extensions on 32-bit systems, applications may encounter intermittent memory-related issues such as allocation failures due to fragmentation. Additionally, some implementations may opt not to expose ray tracing extensions on 32-bit drivers.


Acceleration structures are an implementation-dependent opaque representation of geometric objects, which are used for ray tracing. By building objects into acceleration structures, ray tracing can be performed against a known data layout, and in an efficient manner. The VK_KHR_acceleration_structure extension introduces functionality to build and copy acceleration structures, along with functionality to support serialization to/from memory.

Acceleration structures are required for both ray pipelines (VK_KHR_ray_tracing_pipeline) and ray queries (VK_KHR_ray_query).

To create an acceleration structure:

  • Populate an instance of VkAccelerationStructureBuildGeometryInfoKHR with the acceleration structure type, geometry types, counts, and maximum sizes. The geometry data does not need to be populated at this point.

  • Call vkGetAccelerationStructureBuildSizesKHR to get the memory size requirements to perform a build.

  • Allocate buffers of sufficient size to hold the acceleration structure (VkAccelerationStructureBuildSizesKHR::accelerationStructureSize) and build scratch buffer (VkAccelerationStructureBuildSizesKHR::buildScratchSize)

  • Call vkCreateAccelerationStructureKHR to create an acceleration structure at a specified location within a buffer

  • Call vkCmdBuildAccelerationStructuresKHR to build the acceleration structure. The previously populated VkAccelerationStructureBuildGeometryInfoKHR should be used as a parameter here, along with the destination acceleration structure object, build scratch buffer, and geometry data pointers (for vertices, indices and transforms)


The VK_KHR_ray_tracing_pipeline extension introduces ray tracing pipelines. This new form of rendering pipeline is independent of the traditional rasterization pipeline. Ray tracing pipelines utilize a dedicated set of shader stages, distinct from the traditional vertex/geometry/fragment stages. Ray tracing pipelines also utilize dedicated commands to submit rendering work (vkCmdTraceRaysKHR and vkCmdTraceRaysIndirectKHR). These commands can be regarded as somewhat analagous to the drawing commands in traditional rasterization pipelines (vkCmdDraw and vkCmdDrawIndirect).

To trace rays:

  • Bind a ray tracing pipeline using vkCmdBindPipeline with VK_PIPELINE_BIND_POINT_RAY_TRACING_KHR

  • Call vkCmdTraceRaysKHR or vkCmdTraceRaysIndirectKHR

Ray tracing pipelines introduce several new shader domains. These are described below:

Ray Tracing Shaders
  • Ray generation shader represents the starting point for ray tracing. The ray tracing commands (vkCmdTraceRaysKHR and vkCmdTraceRaysIndirectKHR) launch a grid of shader invocations, similar to compute shaders. A ray generation shader constructs rays and begins tracing via the invocation of traceRayEXT(). Additionally, it processes the results from the hit group.

  • Closest hit shaders are executed when the ray intersects the closest geometry. An application can support any number of closest hit shaders. They are typically used for carrying out lighting calculations and can recursively trace additional rays.

  • Miss shaders are executed instead of a closest hit shader when a ray does not intersect any geometry during traversal. A common use for a miss shader is to sample an environment map.

  • The built-in intersection test is a ray-triangle test. Intersection shaders allow for custom intersection handling.

  • Similar to the closest hit shader, any-hit shaders are executed after an intersection is reported. The difference is that an any-hit shader are be invoked for any intersection in the ray interval defined by [tmin, tmax] and not the closest one to the origin of the ray. The any-hit shader is used to filter an intersection and therefore is often used to implement alpha-testing.


The VK_KHR_ray_query extension provides support for tracing rays from all shader types, including graphics, compute, and ray tracing pipelines.

Ray query requires that ray traversal code is explicitly included within the shader. This differs from ray tracing pipelines, where ray generation, intersection testing and handling of ray-geometry hits are represented as separate shader stages. Consequently, whilst ray query allows rays to be traced from a wider range of shader stages, it also restricts the range of optimizations that a Vulkan implementation might apply to the scheduling and tracing of rays.

The extension does not introduce additional API entry-points. It simply provides API support for the related SPIR-V and GLSL extensions (SPV_KHR_ray_query and GLSL_EXT_ray_query).

The functionality provided by VK_KHR_ray_query is complementary to that provided by VK_KHR_ray_tracing_pipeline, and the two extensions can be used together.

rayQueryEXT rq;

rayQueryInitializeEXT(rq, accStruct, gl_RayFlagsTerminateOnFirstHitEXT, cullMask, origin, tMin, direction, tMax);

// Traverse the acceleration structure and store information about the first intersection (if any)

if (rayQueryGetIntersectionTypeEXT(rq, true) == gl_RayQueryCommittedIntersectionNoneEXT) {
    // Not in shadow


VK_KHR_pipeline_library introduces pipeline libraries. A pipeline library is a special pipeline that was created using the VK_PIPELINE_CREATE_LIBRARY_BIT_KHR and cannot be bound and used directly. Instead, these are pipelines that represent a collection of shaders, shader groups and related state which can be linked into other pipelines.

VK_KHR_pipeline_library does not introduce any new API functions directly, or define how to create a pipeline library. Instead, this functionality is left to other extensions which make use of the functionality provided by VK_KHR_pipeline_library. Currently, the only example of this is VK_KHR_ray_tracing_pipeline. VK_KHR_pipeline_library was defined as a separate extension to allow for the possibility of using the same functionality in other extensions in the future without introducing a dependency on the ray tracing extensions.

To create a ray tracing pipeline library:

  • Set VK_PIPELINE_CREATE_LIBRARY_BIT_KHR in VkRayTracingPipelineCreateInfoKHR::flags when calling vkCreateRayTracingPipelinesKHR

To link ray tracing pipeline libraries into a full pipeline:

  • Set VkRayTracingPipelineCreateInfoKHR::pLibraryInfo to point to an instance of VkPipelineLibraryCreateInfoKHR

  • Populate VkPipelineLibraryCreateInfoKHR::pLibraries with the pipeline libraries to be used as inputs to linking, and set VkPipelineLibraryCreateInfoKHR::libraryCount to the appropriate value


VK_KHR_deferred_host_operations introduces a mechanism for distributing expensive CPU tasks across multiple threads. Rather than introduce a thread pool into Vulkan drivers, VK_KHR_deferred_host_operations is designed to allow an application to create and manage the threads.

As with VK_KHR_pipeline_library, VK_KHR_deferred_host_operations was defined as a separate extension to allow for the possibility of using the same functionality in other extensions in the future without introducing a dependency on the ray tracing extensions.

Only operations that are specifically noted as supporting deferral may be deferred. Currently the only operations which support deferral are vkCreateRayTracingPipelinesKHR, vkBuildAccelerationStructuresKHR, vkCopyAccelerationStructureKHR, vkCopyMemoryToAccelerationStructureKHR, and vkCopyAccelerationStructureToMemoryKHR

To request that an operation is deferred:

  • Create a VkDeferredOperationKHR object by calling vkCreateDeferredOperationKHR

  • Call the operation that you wish to be deferred, passing the VkDeferredOperationKHR as a parameter.

  • Check the VkResult returned by the above operation:

    • VK_OPERATION_DEFERRED_KHR indicates that the operation was successfully deferred

    • VK_OPERATION_NOT_DEFERRED_KHR indicates that the operation successfully completed immediately

    • Any error value indicates that an error occurred

To join a thread to a deferred operation, and contribute CPU time to progressing the operation:

  • Call vkDeferredOperationJoinKHR from each thread that you wish to participate in the operation

  • Check the VkResult returned by vkDeferredOperationJoinKHR:

    • VK_SUCCESS indicates that the operation is complete

    • VK_THREAD_DONE_KHR indicates that there is no more work to assign to the calling thread, but that other threads may still have some additional work to complete. The current thread should not attempt to re-join by calling vkDeferredOperationJoinKHR again

    • VK_THREAD_IDLE_KHR indicates that there is temporarily no work to assign to the calling thread, but that additional work may become available in the future. The current thread may perform some other useful work on the calling thread, and re-joining by calling vkDeferredOperationJoinKHR again later may prove beneficial

After an operation has completed (i.e. vkDeferredOperationJoinKHR has returned VK_SUCCESS), call vkGetDeferredOperationResultKHR to get the result of the operation.

Synchronization for Ray Tracing

  • For trace or query calls in a shader, use VK_ACCESS_ACCELERATION_STRUCTURE_READ_BIT_KHR with the relevant shader stage(s) for the acceleration structure

  • For accesses to the shader binding table in the ray tracing pipeline, use VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_RAY_TRACING_SHADER_BIT_KHR with either VK_ACCESS_SHADER_READ_BIT or VK_ACCESS_2_SHADER_BINDING_TABLE_READ_BIT_KHR

  • For acceleration structure builds, use VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_ACCELERATION_STRUCTURE_BUILD_BIT_KHR with access bits corresponding to the resource being accessed:


    • Source AS (e.g. for updates) uses VK_ACCESS_ACCELERATION_STRUCTURE_READ_BIT_KHR


    • Vertex/Index/Instance/Transform buffers use VK_ACCESS_SHADER_READ_BIT

  • For acceleration structure copy commands, use VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_2_ACCELERATION_STRUCTURE_COPY_BIT_KHR or VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_ACCELERATION_STRUCTURE_BUILD_BIT_KHR, again with access flags dependent on sources:



    • Destination buffer uses VK_ACCESS_TRANSFER_WRITE_BIT

    • Source buffer uses VK_ACCESS_TRANSFER_READ_BIT

  • For indirect trace calls, the indirect buffer is VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_DRAW_INDIRECT_BIT with VK_ACCESS_INDIRECT_COMMAND_READ_BIT

  • For indirect acceleration structure builds, the indirect buffer is VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_ACCELERATION_STRUCTURE_BUILD_BIT_KHR with VK_ACCESS_INDIRECT_COMMAND_READ_BIT

  • For micromap builds, use VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_2_MICROMAP_BUILD_BIT_EXT with access bits corresponding to which resource is being accessed:

    • Destination micromap uses VK_ACCESS_2_MICROMAP_WRITE_BIT_EXT


    • Input buffers use VK_ACCESS_SHADER_READ_BIT

  • For micromap copy commands, use VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_2_MICROMAP_BUILD_BIT_EXT, again with access flags dependent on sources:

    • Destination micromap uses VK_ACCESS_2_MICROMAP_WRITE_BIT_EXT

    • Source micromap uses VK_ACCESS_2_MICROMAP_READ_BIT_EXT

    • Destination buffer uses VK_ACCESS_TRANSFER_WRITE_BIT

    • Source buffer uses VK_ACCESS_TRANSFER_READ_BIT

Unlike other copy operations, VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_TRANSFER_BIT does not work for acceleration structure copies.



Ray Tracing Best Practices

Minimize the Number of Concurrently Active Ray Query Objects

Ray query objects may be expensive in terms of thread private storage, so for performance, it’s best to use as few as possible. In most cases it should be possible to use a single ray query object even if tracing multiple rays since a terminated ray that’s issuing a new ray can use the same object. Multiple ray queries in the same shader should only be needed when multiple traversals need to be active concurrently, and shaders should be designed to minimize the number of active traversals.

Minimize the Size of Ray Payloads, Hit Attributes and Callable Data

The ray tracing shader stages can communicate parameters and results using ray payload structures between all traversal stages, hit attribute structures from the traversal control shaders, and callable data structures for callable shaders.

All three of these structures consume driver-managed memory, the total quantity of which may scale based on the size of the structures themselves, the number of concurrently active rays, and additional factors such as levels of recursion.

Shaders should aim to keep the size of these structures low.

Prefer Device-Local Memory

While acceleration structures can be built on any Vulkan memory heap, tracing rays on accelerations structures located in device-local memory should be expected to deliver the best performance, and should be preferred. The use of host-local memory (i.e. GPU accessible system memory) may be necessary in situations where applications are limited by the quantity of available device-local memory, but this is unlikely to deliver equivalent performance to tracing rays on device-local memory.