Graphics pipeline

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In 3D computer graphics, the graphics pipeline or rendering pipeline refers to the sequence of steps used to create a 2D raster representation of a 3D scene.[1] Plainly speaking, once a 3D model has been created, for instance in a video game or any other 3D computer animation, the graphics pipeline is the process of turning that 3D model into what the computer displays.[2] In the early history of 3D computer graphics, fixed purpose hardware was used to speed up the steps of the pipeline through a fixed-function pipeline. Later, the hardware evolved, becoming more general purpose, allowing greater flexibility in graphics rendering as well as more generalized hardware, and allowing the same generalized hardware to perform not only different steps of the pipeline, like in fixed purpose hardware, but even in limited forms of general purpose computing. As the hardware evolved, so did the graphics pipelines, the OpenGL, and DirectX pipelines, but the general concept of the pipeline remains the same.


The 3D pipeline usually refers to the most common form of computer 3D rendering, 3D polygon rendering, distinct from raytracing, and raycasting. In particular, 3D polygon rendering is similar to raycasting. In raycasting, a ray originates at the point where the camera resides, if that ray hits a surface, then the color and lighting of the point on the surface where the ray hit is calculated. In 3D polygon rendering the reverse happens, the area that is in view of the camera is calculated, and then rays are created from every part of every surface in view of the camera and traced back to the camera.[3]

Programmable graphics pipeline

Computers began undergoing a significant change in recent years with the introduction of a separate video card and the rise of hardware accelerated graphics.[4] This has led to the need for a programmable graphics pipeline which can be manipulated by shaders.[5] Since the introduction of the programmable graphics pipeline most fixed-function pipeline implementations have become obsolete, such as OpenGL's immediate mode, or Direct3D's built in hardware Transform, clipping, and lighting.[6][7]

Stages of the graphics pipeline

3D geometric primitives

First, the scene is created out of geometric primitives. Traditionally this is done using polys, which are particularly well suited to this as they always exist on a single plane.

Modelling and transformation

Transform from the local coordinate system to the 3d world coordinate system. A model of a teapot in abstract is placed in the coordinate system of the 3d world.[3]

Camera transformation

Transform the 3d world coordinate system into the 3d camera coordinate system, with the camera as the origin.[3]


Illuminate according to lighting and reflectance. If the teapot is a brilliant white color, but in a totally black room, then the camera sees it as black. In this step the effect of lighting and reflections are calculated.[3]

Projection transformation

Transform the 3d world coordinates into the 2d view of the camera, for instance the object the camera is centered on would be in the center of the 2d view of the camera.[3] In the case of a Perspective projection, objects which are distant from the camera are made smaller. This is achieved by dividing the X and Y coordinates of each vertex of each primitive by its Z coordinate(which represents its distance from the camera). In an orthographic projection, objects retain their original size regardless of distance from the camera.


Geometric primitives that now fall completely outside of the viewing frustum will not be visible and are discarded at this stage.

Scan conversion or rasterization

Rasterization is the process by which the 2D image space representation of the scene is converted into raster format and the correct resulting pixel values are determined. From now on, operations will be carried out on each single pixel. This stage is rather complex, involving multiple steps often referred as a group under the name of pixel pipeline.

Texturing, fragment shading

At this stage of the pipeline individual fragments (or pre-pixels) are assigned a color based on values interpolated from the vertices during rasterization, from a texture in memory, or from a shader program.

The graphics pipeline in hardware

The rendering pipeline is mapped onto current graphics acceleration hardware such that the input to the GPU is in the form of vertices. These vertices then undergo transformation and per-vertex lighting. At this point in modern GPU pipelines, a custom vertex shader program can be used to manipulate the 3D vertices prior to rasterization. Once transformed and lit, the vertices undergo clipping and rasterization resulting in fragments. A second custom shader program can then be run on each fragment before the final pixel values are output to the frame buffer for display.

The graphics pipeline is well suited to the rendering process because it allows the GPU to function as a stream processor since all vertices and fragments can be thought of as independent. This allows all stages of the pipeline to be used simultaneously for different vertices or fragments as they work their way through the pipe. In addition to pipelining vertices and fragments, their independence allows graphics processors to use parallel processing units to process multiple vertices or fragments in a single stage of the pipeline at the same time.

See also


  1. ^ Graphics pipeline. (n.d.). Computer Desktop Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 13, 2005, from [1]
  2. ^ Raster Graphics and Color 2004 by Greg Humphreys at the University of Virginia
  1. "Graphics Pipeline". Microsoft. Retrieved 15 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Lecture: Graphics pipeline". Retrieved 15 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4
  5. "A Crash Course on Programmable Graphics Hardware". Retrieved 15 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Fixed Function Pipeline". Retrieved 15 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Fixed Function Vertex Processing (Direct3D 9)". Microsoft. Retrieved 15 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links