How 3-D Graphics Work

What Are 3-D Graphics?

For many of us, games on a computer or advanced game system are the most common ways we see 3-D graphics. These games, or movies made with computer-generated images, have to go through three major steps to create and present a realistic 3-D scene:

  1. Creating a virtual 3-D world.
  2. Determining what part of the world will be shown on the screen.
  3. Determining how every pixel on the screen will look so that the whole image appears as realistic as possible.

Creating a Virtual 3-D World

A virtual 3-D world isn't the same thing as one picture of that world. This is true of our real world also. Take a very small part of the real world -- your hand and a desktop under it. Your hand has qualities that determine how it can move and how it can look. The finger joints bend toward the palm, not away from it. If you slap your hand on the desktop, the desktop doesn't splash -- it's always solid and it's always hard. Your hand can't go through the desktop. You can't prove that these things are true by looking at any single picture. But no matter how many pictures you take, you will always see that the finger joints bend only toward the palm, and the desktop is always solid, not liquid, and hard, not soft. That's because in the real world, this is the way hands are and the way they will always behave. The objects in a virtual 3-D world, though, don’t exist in nature, like your hand. They are totally synthetic. The only properties they have are given to them by software. Programmers must use special tools and define a virtual 3-D world with great care so that everything in it always behaves in a certain way.


What Part of the Virtual World Shows on the Screen?

At any given moment, the screen shows only a tiny part of the virtual 3-D world created for a computer game. What is shown on the screen is determined by a combination of the way the world is defined, where you choose to go and which way you choose to look. No matter where you go -- forward or backward, up or down, left or right -- the virtual 3-D world around you determines what you will see from that position looking in that direction. And what you see has to make sense from one scene to the next. If you're looking at an object from the same distance, regardless of direction, it should look the same height. Every object should look and move in such a way as to convince you that it always has the same mass, that it's just as hard or soft, as rigid or pliable, and so on.

Programmers who write computer games put enormous effort into defining 3-D worlds so that you can wander in them without encountering anything that makes you think, “That couldn't happen in this world!" The last thing you want to see is two solid objects that can go right through each other. That’s a harsh reminder that everything you’re seeing is make-believe.

The third step involves at least as much computing as the other two steps and has to happen in real time for games and videos. We'll take a longer look at it next.