Sunday, November 06, 2011

WebGL Pre-Tutorial, Part 1

I've recently tried to learn WebGL, and it turns out that it's pretty complicated. Most of the tutorials that I've found on the web have been geared towards getting the learner doing 3d as quickly as possible by skipping over a lot of details. This is probably what most learners want, but I find that this approach doesn't suit my learning style. I, personally, want to understand the details so that I can write my own 3d code instead of haphazardly cutting and pasting together code snippets that I've found on the Internet. People who just want to do 3d as quickly as possible would probably be better served by using a higher-level 3d graphics engine. The purpose of this pre-tutorial is to fill in some of the details that are left out of other WebGL tutorials. This should make it easier to understand what the code in those tutorials is trying to do. I will try my best to keep the explanations of this pre-tutorial as simple as possible, but WebGL is inherently a pretty low-level API, so it helps if people have some limited systems and 3d programming experience first.

WebGL is the JavaScript version of the 3d library OpenGL ES 2.0. OpenGL ES 2.0 is targeted as a low-level 3d API for phones and other mobile devices. Unlike the full OpenGL for desktop computers, OpenGL ES 2.0 leaves out support for high-precision numbers, which are mostly needed for scientific computation or engineering design, and it leaves out support for a lot of older library calls that aren't used in modern 3d programs. Despite this missing functionality, OpenGL ES 2.0 and WebGL are still great for games, and they are designed to provide good performance on modern 3d graphics hardware.

WebGL is designed for a hardware architecture like that shown below:

The architecture assumes that a machine's graphics hardware is separated from its CPU. The graphics hardware likely has separate memory from the CPU. The graphics processing unit (GPU) specializes in running multiple copies of a single program at the same time. Unlike a normal CPU, these programs must be small and simple, but a GPU can run many, many copies of these programs simultaneously, making it faster than a normal CPU for graphics tasks. With this sort of hardware architecture, one of the biggest bottlenecks for fast 3d programs is the communication between the CPU and GPU.

The general design philosophy of WebGL is based on the idea that this communication between CPU and GPU should be minimized. Instead of repeatedly sending instructions and graphics resources from the CPU to the GPU, all of this data should be copied over only once and kept on the GPU. This minimizes the communication that needs to happen between the CPU and GPU. The communication that does happen is batched together into clumps so that the GPU can work independently from the CPU.

WebGL Graphics Model

WebGL presents a certain abstract model of how the graphics hardware works to the programmer. In the WebGL graphics model, the window or area where 3d graphics are displayed is modeled as a cube. The (x,y,z) values of one corner of the cube is (-1,-1,-1), and the values of the opposite corner are (1,1,1).

An x value of -1 refers to the left side of the window while an x value of 1 refers to the right side of the window. Similarly, a y value of -1 refers to the bottom of the window while a y value of 1 refers to the top of the window. Different z values refer to how close or how far an object is.

You create graphics by drawing triangles in this cube. If you provide the 3d coordinates of the three corners of a triangle, WebGL will draw them on the window. Since the sides of the cube refer to the sides of the window, WebGL will chop off any parts of the triangle that fall outside of the cube.

Triangles are a little limiting, and it takes a lot of communication overhead to transfer all the triangle coordinates from the CPU to the GPU. To overcome this problem, WebGL offers two mechanisms for programming how these triangles are displayed.

The first mechanism is called the fragment shader. When drawing the pixels that make up a triangle, WebGL runs a little program for each pixel that says what color the pixel should be. You can have the triangle be a single color, rainbow-colored, or even a complex pattern.

The second mechanism is called the vertex shader. The main purpose behind the vertex shader is to reduce the amount of communication between the CPU and GPU. Suppose you have a complex 3d model made up of lots of triangles, and you send all of these triangles to the GPU to draw them. If you then want to move the model over to the left a little bit, you would normally need to change the positions of all the points of all the triangles and then send all those new coordinates from the CPU to the GPU. This is a bit wasteful because the coordinates of all those triangles are already stored at the GPU. You just wanted to move them a bit, but you had to send all the coordinates a second time. With a vertex shader, you can send a program to the GPU that will enable the GPU to rewrite the coordinates of all the triangles itself. This means you only have to send the triangles of the 3d model once, plus a little program for moving the coordinates of the triangles.

So the WebGL graphics model can be thought of as a pipeline that processes triangles through different stages. You initially provide WebGL with some triangles to draw. The triangles can be moved around and shifted by vertex shader programs. Any triangles that fit within the cube at (-1,-1,-1) and (1,1,1) will be drawn. WebGL does this by running a fragment shader program for each pixel of the triangle to determine which color to draw there.

Part 2 of the pre-tutorial demonstrates some code for a very basic WebGL program.


  1. Wow! Begins at the beginning, which explains so much. Wish I'd started here.

  2. "I, personally, want to understand the details so that I can write my own 3d code instead of haphazardly cutting and pasting together code snippets that I've found on the Internet"
    My thoughts exactly! I'm right at the beginning of learning WebGL and most tutorials I found so far don't cover the true basics, which is quite unsatisfying. Your post has truly been enlightening!

  3. yeah, thanks for this. found it on stackoverflow of how to learn webgl fast

  4. really nice for beginners.

  5. Wow, just what I was looking for. I too like to have the basics laid out for me before jumping into crazy implementation. A well built foundation is always preferred.

  6. one of the best webGL and graphics programming in general part 1 I have found. Good job

  7. Really well explained! Thanks!