Variance AOVs

A variance AOV measures the pixel variance of another AOV. It is always a buffer of floats. Variance AOVs are unavailable in vectorized or GPU rendering.


To indicate which AOV the variance AOV should monitor, the user can set the attribute reference_render_output to point to the appropriate RenderOutput object.

RenderOutput("beauty") { ... }

RenderOutput("beauty_var") {
    ["result"] = "variance aov",
    ["reference_render_output"] = RenderOutput("beauty"),
    ["channel_name"] = "beauty_var",

What is variance?

Variance is a statistical measure of sampled data points: it can be thought of as how spread out the sample points are. The variance of {8, 8, 8, 8}, for example, is 0 because the samples are not spread out. On the other hand, if our samples had instead been {6, 8, 3, 3}, the variance would be 6. However, with samples of {1, 7, 10, 2}, the mean is the same (5), but the variance is 18, signifying that the data is more spread out.

Higher variance values mean that as MoonRay sampled the pixel, the values it found were more spread out than other pixels. The variance will be zero with a single sample because there is no “spread” to the data (an image rendered with a single sample per pixel will generate a black variance AOV).

How does MoonRay calculate variance?

Calculating variance depends on the type of AOV that is being monitored. For example, for a single floating point AOV ( e.g., depth), we record the variance of the float values as added for each pixel sample. For RGB AOVs (e.g., beauty), MoonRay uses luminance for the variance calculation. For other types (e.g., normal), MoonRay keeps track of the variance for each component separately (e.g., x, y, and z in the normal) and outputs the maximum of the three variance values.

Here “error” refers to how closely a rendered pixel’s value is to “ground truth” or how close it is to what we would get if we could sample the pixel with an infinite number of rays. Does a high variance imply that the pixel is noisy or not converged? No. For example, assume it is possible to sample every value in this finite group {5, 8, 2, 5}. Even though the entire group is known, and there can be no error in finding the mean (which is the goal of the renderer), the variance is still 6 instead of 0.

Conversely, a low variance does not necessarily mean that the pixel is converged: the sampling could have just been unlucky and gotten similar values each time. However, a low variance value may indicate that the pixel is converged if many samples have been used. A naive adaptive sampling strategy would be to shoot a minimum number of samples and skip pixels where the variance is low enough or until a maximum number of samples is reached.

Variance can be used as an indicator of error, called the standard error. It relates the standard deviation (the square root of variance) to the square root of the number of samples taken, which is why, in general, four times as many samples must be taken to reduce the amount of noise in an image by half (and why MCRT rendering is a game of diminishing returns, further justifying a post-process de-noising step).


AOV Variance
Beauty Beauty Variance
Depth Depth Variance
Normal Normal Variance

In this simple example image, the beauty variance is insignificant since each pixel does not vary much per ray. However, the depth and geometry normal AOVs are much more interesting: the depth variance is high at the edges of the spheres because the rays for each pixel near the sphere’s edge can record vastly different depth readings. It is important to note that the same issue arises near the back of the floor. As the floor approaches the horizon, the depth readings for each sample can vary substantially. The geometry normal has the same issue near the edge of the spheres, where the normal of the sphere versus the background makes a hard edge.