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2.2. Why Write Shaders?

Until recently, OpenGL has presented application programmers with a flexible but static interface for putting graphics on the display device. As described in Chapter 1, you could think of OpenGL as a sequence of operations that occurred on geometry or image data as it was sent through the graphics hardware to be displayed on the screen. Various parameters of these pipeline stages could be altered to select variations on the processing that occurred for that pipeline stage. But neither the fundamental operation of the OpenGL graphics pipeline nor the order of operations could be changed through the OpenGL API.

By exposing support for traditional rendering mechanisms, OpenGL has evolved to serve the needs of a fairly broad set of applications. If your particular application was well served by the traditional rendering model presented by OpenGL, you may never need to write shaders. But if you have ever been frustrated because OpenGL did not allow you to define area lights, or because lighting calculations are performed per-vertex rather than perfragment or, if you have run into any of the many limitations of the traditional OpenGL rendering model, you may need to write your own OpenGL shader.

The OpenGL Shading Language and its supporting OpenGL API entry points allows application developers to define the processing that occurs at key points in the OpenGL processing pipeline by using a high-level programming language specifically designed for this purpose. These key points in the pipeline are defined to be programmable in order to give developers complete freedom to define the processing that occurs. This lets developers utilize the underlying graphics hardware to achieve a much wider range of rendering effects.

To get an idea of the range of effects possible with OpenGL shaders, take a minute now and browse through the color images that are included in this book. This book presents a variety of shaders that only begin to scratch the surface of what is possible. With each new generation of graphics hardware, more complex rendering techniques can be implemented as OpenGL shaders and can be used in real-time rendering applications. Here's a brief list of what's possible with OpenGL shaders:

  • Increasingly realistic materialsmetals, stone, wood, paints, and so on

  • Increasingly realistic lighting effectsarea lights, soft shadows, and so on

  • Natural phenomenafire, smoke, water, clouds, and so on

  • Advanced rendering effectsglobal illumination, ray-tracing, and so on

  • Non-photorealistic materialspainterly effects, pen-and-ink drawings, simulation of illustration techniques, and so on

  • New uses for texture memorystorage of normals, gloss values, polynomial coefficients, and so on

  • Procedural texturesdynamically generated 2D and 3D textures, not static texture images

  • Image processingconvolution, unsharp masking, complex blending, and so on

  • Animation effectskey frame interpolation, particle systems, procedurally defined motion

  • User programmable antialiasing methods

  • General computationsorting, mathematical modeling, fluid dynamics, and so on

Many of these techniques have been available before now only through software implementations. If they were at all possible through OpenGL, they were possible only in a limited way. The fact that these techniques can now be implemented with hardware acceleration provided by dedicated graphics hardware means that rendering performance can be increased dramatically and at the same time the CPU can be off-loaded so that it can perform other tasks.

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