Howto Raytracer: Ray / Sphere Intersection Theory


I will show you how to calculate the intersection point of a ray with a sphere.

A ray $r(t)$ can be represented by a point on the ray $e$ and the ray’s direction $d$. Any point on that ray can then be reached by walking $t$ times in the direction of $d$ from $e$ as $r(t)=e + t d$. The set $R$ of all points on the ray is then given by: $R = \{r(t) \mid t \in \mathbb{R}\}$

A sphere $S$ can be represented by its center point $c$ and its radius $r$. The set of all points $x$ whose distance from the center $c$ of the sphere equals the radius $r$, is by definition the set of points on the sphere: $S = \{ ||x - c|| = r \mid x \in \mathbb{R}^3\}$. ($||x||$ denotes the length of a vector.)

sphere equation

To find the intersection of the ray and the sphere now, we have to find the points that are in both sets. So we check if a point $r(t)$ on the ray also fullfills the distance equation of the sphere:

$||r(t) - c|| = r$

We now simply have to solve this equation. The way we do it is by rewriting the length of the vector as a dot product. For any vector $x = (a,b,c)$, its (euclidean) length is given by $||x|| = \sqrt{a^2 + b^2 + c^2}$. The dot product $\cdot$ of a vector $x$ with itself is the sum of its squared components $x \cdot x = a^2 + b^2 + c^2$.

So in the end we get the following relation:

$$ \begin{aligned} ||r(t) - c|| = &\sqrt{(r(t) - c) \cdot (r(t) - c)} = r \\\\ &(r(t) - c) \cdot (r(t) - c) = r^2 \end{aligned} $$

The dot product has the same distributive and associative properties as the scalar multiplication, so you can do your maths the normal way:

$$ \begin{aligned} (r(t) - c) \cdot (r(t) - c) &= r^2 \\\\ (e+td- c) \cdot (e+td - c) &= r^2 \\\\ e\cdot e + te\cdot d - e\cdot c &\\\\ +t e \cdot d + t^2 d\cdot d - t d\cdot c &\\\\ -c \cdot e - t c \cdot d + c \cdot c &= r^2 \end{aligned} $$

The dot product is commutative $(x \cdot y = y \cdot x)$, and after rearranging the terms according to our free paramter $t$ we end up with:

$$ \begin{aligned} && t^2 d\cdot d & \\\\ &&+t 2(e \cdot d - c \cdot d) &\\\\ && +e\cdot e -2(e \cdot c) + c \cdot c &= r^2 \\\\ t^2 d\cdot d &+t 2(e \cdot d - c \cdot d) &+ e\cdot e -2(e \cdot c) + c \cdot c - r^2 &= 0 \\\\ t^2 d\cdot d &+t 2d\cdot(e - c) &+ (e-c) \cdot (e-c) - r^2 &= 0 \end{aligned} $$

Now we reduced it to a quadratic equation in $t$. Quadratic equations of the form $at^2 + bt + c = 0$ have the two solutions: $t_{1,2} = \frac{-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}$

Applied to our equation we get:

$t_{1,2} = \frac{-2d\cdot(e - c) \pm \sqrt{(2d\cdot(e - c))^2-4 d\cdot d ((e-c) \cdot (e-c) - r^2) }}{2 d\cdot d}$

If and how many solutions exist depends on the discriminant, the term under the square root, $D =(2d\cdot(e - c))^2-4 d\cdot d ((e-c) \cdot (e-c) - r^2)$:

  • $D < 0$: No solution. The ray misses the sphere
  • $D = 0$: One solution. The ray touches the sphere in one point.
  • $D > 0$: Two solution. The ray hits the sphere in two points, one entry hit and the exit hit on the other side

To get the intersections you calculate the $t$ values and then evaluate the ray $r(t)$.

Left: No intersection Middle: One intersection Right: Two intersections Left: No intersection
Middle: One intersection
Right: Two intersections

Finally some C# code that implements the ray / sphere intersection test:

public RayTracer.HitInfo Intersect(Ray ray)
    RayTracer.HitInfo info = new RayTracer.HitInfo();

    Vector3 eMinusS = ray.origin - center;
    Vector3 d = ray.direction;
    double discriminant = Math.Pow(2 * Vector3.Dot(d, eMinusS), 2) - 4 * Vector3.Dot(d, d) *
                (Vector3.Dot(eMinusS, eMinusS) - Math.Pow(radius, 2.0f));

    if (discriminant < -Mathf.Epsilon)
    {   // 0 hits
        return info;
    else {      // there will be one or two hits
        float front = -2.0f * Vector3.Dot(d, eMinusS);
        float denominator = 2.0f * Vector3.Dot(d, d);
        if (discriminant <= Mathf.Epsilon)
        {   // 1 hit
            info.time = (float)(front + Math.Sqrt(discriminant)) / denominator;  // does not matter if +- discriminant
        else {  // 2 hits
            float t1 = (float)(front - Math.Sqrt(discriminant)) / denominator;  // smaller t value
            float t2 = (float)(front + Math.Sqrt(discriminant)) / denominator;  // larger t value
            if (t2 < 0) // sphere is "behind" start of ray
                return info;    // no hit
            else {  // one of them is in front
                if (t1 >= 0) info.time = t1; // return first intersection with sphere (usual case, smaller t)
                else info.time = t2;        // return second hit (ray's origin is inside the sphere)

    // if we are here, info.time has been set, otherwise the function would have returned
    info.hitPoint = ray.GetPoint(info.time);
    info.normal = (info.hitPoint - center).normalized;
    return info;

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