Ray tracing: Computing ray-sphere intersections

03 Sep 2018
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Part 1: Ray tracing: Computing ray-circle intersections
Part 2: Ray tracing: Computing ray-sphere intersections

Whereas the previous post was about 2D ray-circle intersections with scalars, this one is about 3D ray-sphere intersections with vectors. We'll extend the circle standard equation to a sphere, and switch from scalar to vector notation for defining both line and sphere. With vectors, we can generalize and perform intersection calculations for any dimension in a succinct manner.

Sphere offset from origin

Except for the added third dimension, the equation of a sphere centered at a point \(c\) is identical to that of the circle. Its equation still follows from the Pythagorean theorem: $$(x - c_x)^2 + (y - c_y)^2 + (z - c_z)^2 = r^2$$ With the spherecentered at the origin the \(c\) terms disappears and the equation becomes $$x^2 + b^2 + c^2 = r^2$$

Vector standard form of a line

Defining a line in 3D isn't as straightforward as in 2D. We don't have anything similar to \(y = ax + b\). In 2D, the line equation expresses that a change in one dimension can cause a change in at most one other dimension. In 3D, a change in one dimension can cause a change in at up to two other dimensions, which makes it hard to express in a similar form.

Instead, a line is 3D is expressed as a starting position and an amount of movement in some direction. Statements about position and direction are best expressed with vectors and operations on vectors: $$\vec p = \vec{p_0} + t\vec{p_1}$$ Plugging in different values of \(t\), for time, result in a line described by the same origin but a position vector pointing at different points on the line (we consider a position vector and a point synonymous). Different values of \(t\) has the effect of scaling the position vector along the line and thus by varying \(t\) we can get to any position on the line.

In ray tracing we're only interested in the half-line where \(t > 0\). That half-line represents a ray traveling from the camera into the scene, and that's why we refer to it as a ray instead of a line. \(t < 0\) would describe a ray traveling out back of the camera.

As an example, we can find the parametric equation of the line passing through \((1,-1,4)\) in the direction of \((3,5,-1)\). We do so by plugging the two vectors into the vector equation for the line: $$\begin{eqnarray*} \vec p = (1,-1,4) + t(3,5,-2)\\ \vec p = (1,-1,4) + (3t,5t,-2t)\\ (x,y,z) = (1+3t,-1+5t,4-2t) \end{eqnarray*}$$ For any scalar \(t\) we get any position vector on the line. For ray-sphere intersections, we're after some values of \(t\) describing points of intersection. Once we have those values, we plug those into the parametric equation of a line to get the \((x,y,z)\) coordinate of intersection.

Line and sphere intersections, scalar edition

As an example, suppose we have the parametric equation of the line \((10 + 2t, 5 + t, 2)\) and the equation of a sphere in standard form \(x^2 + y^2 + z^2 = 9\). As with 2D intersection, we're after values for \(x\), \(y\), and \(z\) that when plugged into both equations make them equal. This implies we can plug in what we know about the unknowns of one equation into the other: $$\begin{eqnarray*} (10 + 2t)^2 + (5 + t)^2 + (2)^2 = 9 & & \textrm{\{plug in line equation\}}\\ (10 + 2t)(10 + 2t) + (5 + t)(5 + t) + 4 = 9 & & \textrm{\{expand squares\}}\\ 100 + 20t + 20t + 4t^2 + 25 + 5t + 5t + t^2 + 4 = 9 & & \textrm{\{expand parenthesis\}}\\ 5t^2 + 50t + 129 = 9 & & \textrm{\{simplify and rearrange in \(t^2\), \(t\), constants order\}}\\ 5t^2 + 50t + 120 = 0 & & \textrm{\{move 9 to left side to arrive at standard form of quadratic equation\}} \end{eqnarray*}$$ We went from one sphere equation with three unknowns, \(x\), \(y\), and \(z\) and ended up with a quadratic equation with one unknown \(t\). Solving for \(t\) means applying the same method as previous: $$\begin{eqnarray*} t = \dfrac{-b \pm \sqrt{d}}{2a} \textrm{, where \(d = b^2 - 4ac\)}\\ d = 50 - 4(5)(120) = 100\\ t_1 = \dfrac{-50 + \sqrt{100}}{2(5)} = \dfrac{-50 + 10}{10} = \dfrac{-40}{10} = -4\\ t_2 = \dfrac{-50 - \sqrt{100}}{2(5)} = \dfrac{-50 - 10}{10} = \dfrac{-60}{10} = -6\\ \end{eqnarray*}$$ Plugging these values of \(t\) into the parametric vector equation, we get the points of line-sphere intersection: $$\begin{eqnarray*} \vec{p_1} = (x_1,y_1,z_1) = (10 + 2(-4) = 2, 5+ (-4) = 1, 2) = (2,1,2)\\ \vec{p_2} = (x_2,y_2,z_2) = (10 + 2(-6) = -2, 5 + (-6) = -1, 2) = (-2,-1,2) \end{eqnarray*}$$

For additional explanation on calculating line-sphere intersection, refer to this video.

Line and sphere intersections, vector edition

Above we established the standard vector equation for a line. For a sphere centered at \(c\) with radius \(r\), its corresponding standard vector equation is $$(\vec p - \vec c) \cdot (\vec p - \vec c) = r^2$$ \(\vec p\) represents position vectors on the sphere and \(\cdot\) is the dot product of two vectors. The term product in general refers to the result of a multiplication. But unlike the single definition of the product of scalars, vectors have two definitions of product: dot product and cross product. We're only using the dot product, defined as the sum of the products of the corresponding entries. The dot product of two vectors is a scalar, not another vector.

In the equations which follow, the use of scalar product or dot product can be inferred based on whether both operands are scalars or vectors. Strictly speaking, we don't need the \(\cdot\) symbol, but it's convention.

At first sight, the sphere standard vector equation looks nothing like its scalar counterpart. But note the definition of the dot product: $$\vec u \cdot \vec v = {u_x}{v_x} + {u_y}{v_y} + {u_z}{v_z} = r^2$$ With this definition, if \(\vec{u} = \vec{v}\), as is the case for the vector sphere definition, expanding the dot product turns it into the original standard equation of a sphere. So while at first sight the dot product and sphere seems unrelated, defining the sphere in terms of the dot product is valid: $$\vec u \cdot \vec u = {u_x}{u_x} + {u_y}{u_y} + {u_z}{u_z} = u_{x}^2 + u_{y}^2 + u_{z}^2 = x^2 + y^2 + z^2 = r^2$$ Similar as with scalars above, where we plugged in the line equation into the equation of the sphere, we can replace \(\vec p\) in the sphere equation by the vector equation of the line (don't be confused by the use of \(\vec p\) in both the line and sphere definitions. Those are different \(\vec p\)s): $$(\vec{p_0} + \vec{p_1}t - \vec c) \cdot (\vec{p_0} + \vec{p_1}t - \vec c) - r^2 = 0$$ Through rewriting and simplification, the goal is to turn this complicated looking equation into a quadratic one and solve for \(t\). For an actual line and sphere, \(\vec{p_0}\), \(\vec{p_1}\), \(\vec c\), and \(r\) are known quantities, leaving \(t\) as the only unknown.

$$\begin{eqnarray*} (\vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_1}t - \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec c) + (\vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec{p_1}t - \vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec c) + (-\vec c \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_1}t + \vec c \cdot \vec c) - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{expand square into 3 * 3 + 1 terms\}}\\ \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_1}t - \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec c + \vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec{p_1}t - \vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec c - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_1}t + \vec c \cdot \vec c - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{remove parenthesis included as a visual aid in previous step\}}\\ \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_1}t - \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec c + \vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec{p_0} + t^2(\vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}) - \vec{p_1}t \cdot \vec c - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_1}t + \vec c \cdot \vec c - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{factor out \(t\) in term where it appears twice\}}\\ t^2(\vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}) + t(\vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_1} + \vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec{p_1} \cdot \vec c - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_1}) + \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec c - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec c \cdot \vec c - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{factor out \(t\) in terms where it appears once\}}\\ t^2(\vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}) + t\vec{p_1}(\vec{p_0} + \vec{p_0} - \vec c - \vec c) + \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec c - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec c \cdot \vec c - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{factor out common \(\vec{p_1}\) in \(t(...)\) part\}}\\ t^2(\vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}) + t\vec{p_1}(2\vec{p_0} - 2\vec c) + \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec c - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec c \cdot \vec c - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{group similar element inside \(t(...)\) part\}}\\ t^2(\vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}) + 2t \vec{p_1} \cdot (\vec{p_0} - \vec c) + \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{p_0} - \vec{p_0} \cdot \vec c - \vec c \cdot \vec{p_0} + \vec c \cdot \vec c - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{apply distributive law inside \(t(...)\) part: \(ab - ac = a(b - c)\) and remove extra parenthesis\}}\\ t^2(\vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}) + 2t \vec{p_1} \cdot (\vec{p_0} - \vec c) + \vec{p_0}^2 + \vec{c}^2 - 2\vec{p_0} \cdot \vec{c} - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{group similar elements in constants part\}}\\ t^2(\vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}) + 2t \vec{p_1} \cdot (\vec{p_0} - \vec c) + (\vec{p_0} + \vec c)^2 - r^2 = 0 & & \textrm{\{apply binomial square law in constants part: \(a^2 + b^2 - 2ab = (a - b)^2\)\}}\\ \end{eqnarray*}$$ Or in terms of the standard form of a quadratic equation: \(at^2 + bt + c\) \begin{eqnarray*} a = \vec{p_1} \cdot \vec{p_1}\\ b = 2\vec{p_1} \cdot (\vec{p_0} - \vec c)\\ c = (\vec{p_0} + \vec c)^2 - r^2 \end{eqnarray*} Because the dot product of two vectors results in a scalar, once we plug in the known elements (\(\vec{p_0}\), \(\vec{p_1}\), \(\vec c\), and \(r\)) and simplify, we're left with a quadratic equation of the form \(at^2 + bt + c\).

Carrying out the simplification steps requires the memorization of rules. Given an equation, a site such as Symbollab.com can help identity the rule by name and carry out the simplification.

Continuing with the scalar example from above in which \(\vec{p_0} = (10,5,2)\), \(\vec{p_1} = (2,1,0)\), \(\vec c = (0,0,0)\), and \(r^2 = 9\): $$\begin{eqnarray*} t^2((2,1,0) \cdot (2,1,0)) + 2t(2,1,0) \cdot ((10,5,2)-(0,0,0)) + ((10,5,2) + (0,0,0) \cdot ((10,5,2) - (0,0,0)) - 3^2 = 0\\ t^2(5) + 2t(2,1,0) \cdot (10,5,2) + ((10,5,2) \cdot (10,5,2)) - 9 = 0\\ t^2(5) + 2t(2,1,0) \cdot (10,5,2) + (129) - 9 = 0\\ t^2(5) + 2t(25) + 120 = 0\\ t^2(5) + t(50) + 120 = 0\\ 5t^2 + 50t + 120 = 0 \end{eqnarray*}$$ which shows that the scalar and vector editions yield identical results.

For additional explanation of the vector and parametric equations of a line, refer to this video. For an intuitive explanation of the dot product, refer to this one. Lastly, for a brush-up on basic vector algebra, refer this video.


In computer graphics, we almost always want equations expressed in terms of vectors. This gives us the ability to treat the \(x\), \(y\), and \(z\) components of a vector as a single unit, making equations shorter and clearer. Similarly, defining and applying vector operations in code makes the code shorter and less error-phone. Working with vectors like this isn't much different than in object oriented programming when we create a class to group related data and operations.

With the derived line-sphere vector intersection equation, we now have the mathematical tool required to create a first ray tracer; one that shoots rays from the camera, through each pixel, and into the scene, coloring pixels on ray-sphere intersections.

For an approachable introduction to linear algebra in general, the Essence of linear algebra video series is highly recommended. For book length coverage, Linear Algebra (also available for free) is definitely worth a read.