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How 3-D Graphics Work

Fluid Motion for Us Is Hard Work for the Computer

All the factors we've discussed so far add complexity to the process of putting a 3-D image on the screen. It's harder to define and create the object in the first place, and it's harder to render it by generating all the pixels needed to display the image. The triangles and polygons of the wireframe, the texture of the surface, and the rays of light coming from various light sources and reflecting from multiple surfaces must all be calculated and assembled before the software begins to tell the computer how to paint the pixels on the screen. You might think that the hard work of computing would be over when the painting begins, but it's at the painting, or rendering, level that the numbers begin to add up.

Today, a screen resolution of 1024 x 768 defines the lowest point of "high-resolution." That means that there are 786,432 picture elements, or pixels, to be painted on the screen. If there are 32 bits of color available, multiplying by 32 shows that 25,165,824 bits have to be dealt with to make a single image. Moving at a rate of 60 frames per second demands that the computer handle 1,509,949,440 bits of information every second just to put the image onto the screen. And this is completely separate from the work the computer has to do to decide about the content, colors, shapes, lighting and everything else about the image so that the pixels put on the screen actually show the right image. When you think about all the processing that has to happen just to get the image painted, it's easy to understand why graphics display boards are moving more and more of the graphics processing away from the computer's central processing unit (CPU). The CPU needs all the help it can get.