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1.2. OpenGL Evolution

Because of its fundamental design as a fixed function state machine, before OpenGL 2.0, the only way to modify OpenGL was to define extensions to it. Therefore, a great deal of functionality is available in various OpenGL implementations in the form of extensions that expose new hardware functionality. OpenGL has a well-defined extension mechanism, and hardware vendors are free to define and implement features that expose new hardware functionality. Since only OpenGL implementors can implement extensions, there was previously no way for applications to extend the functionality of OpenGL beyond what was provided by their OpenGL provider.

To date, close to 300 extensions have been defined. Extensions that are supported by only one vendor are identified by a short prefix unique to that vendor (e.g., SGI for extensions developed by Silicon Graphics, Inc.). Extensions that are supported by more than one vendor are denoted by the prefix EXT in the extension name. Extensions that have been thoroughly reviewed by the ARB are designated with an ARB prefix in the extension name to indicate that they have a special status as a recommended way of exposing a certain piece of functionality. Extensions that achieve the ARB designation are candidates to be added to standard OpenGL. Published specifications for OpenGL extensions are available at the OpenGL extension registry at http://oss.sgi.com/projects/ogl-sample/registry.

The extensions supported by a particular OpenGL implementation can be determined by calling the OpenGL glGetString function with the symbolic constant GL_EXTENSIONS. The returned string contains a list of all the extensions supported in the implementation, and some vendors currently support close to 100 separate OpenGL extensions. It can be a little bit daunting for an application to try and determine whether the needed extensions are present on a variety of implementations, and what to do if they're not. The proliferation of extensions has been primarily a positive factor for the development of OpenGL, but in a sense, it has become a victim of its own success. It allows hardware vendors to expose new features easily, but it presents application developers with a dizzying array of nonstandard options. Like any standards body, the ARB is cautious about promoting functionality from extension status to standard OpenGL.

Before version 2.0 of OpenGL, none of the underlying programmability of graphics hardware was exposed. The original designers of OpenGL, Mark Segal and Kurt Akeley, stated, "One reason for this decision is that, for performance reasons, graphics hardware is usually designed to apply certain operations in a specific order; replacing these operations with arbitrary algorithms is usually infeasible." This statement may have been mostly true when it was written in 1994 (there were programmable graphics architectures even then). But today, all of the graphics hardware that is being produced is programmable. Because of the proliferation of OpenGL extensions and the need to support Microsoft's DirectX API, hardware vendors have no choice but to design programmable graphics architectures. As discussed in the remaining chapters of this book, providing application programmers with access to this programmability is the purpose of the OpenGL Shading Language.


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