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3 Review of Graphics Programming

Before designing a simulation of the visual impairments described in Section 2, it was necessary to review the general principles of computer graphics and graphics programming.

3.1 Introduction

"Computer graphics is concerned with all aspects of producing pictures or images using a computer" [23]. Early computer systems used patterns of illuminated bulbs or crude paper printouts to convey useful information to computer users [36]. In 1950, the Whirlwind Computer, developed at MIT, had computer-driven cathode ray tube (CRT) displays for output [25]. The term 'Computer Graphics' was later coined by William Fetter at Boeing in 1960 [27]. In 1963, Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad became the first extensive interactive drawing program [27] which contained many fundamental ideas and techniques that are still in use in modern graphics packages [25].

3.2 Raster Graphics

Raster Graphics

Figure 3.1- Raster Graphics

A raster graphics image is a pixmap, a two-dimensional array of pixels. Typically each pixel has a red, green and blue colour component, which when combined, determine the colour of the pixel. A rastered image cannot be scaled up without the apparent loss of quality [28].

3.3 Vector Graphics

Vector Graphics

Figure 3.2 - Vector Graphics

A vector graphics image uses geometrical primitives such as points, lines, curves and polygons. Vector graphics allow objects to be drawn from a minimum amount of information. Storing objects as a set of parameters allows them to be moved, resized and rotated without any loss of quality [29].

3.4 Two Dimensional Graphics

In two-dimensional computer graphics, a pen-plotter model is often used, where the screen is considered as a canvas and a pen is moved around to create an image [30].

3.5 Three Dimensional Graphics

In three-dimensional computer graphics, a synthetic camera model is often used, where the "specification of objects is independent of the specification of the viewer" [23].

Synthetic Camera

Figure 3.3 - The Synthetic Camera Model
(Adapted from [23] and [24])

Three-dimensional objects are projected onto a two-dimensional projection plane [25]. The image is determined by the location of the centre of projection (where the image is to be viewed from), the location and orientation of the projection plane, and the size of the clipping window (a rectangle used to restrict the projection plane so that only objects whose projections are within this window appear in the image [23].

3.6 Graphics Hardware

In simple systems, the CPU handles all of the graphics processing. Most modern systems have a special purpose graphics processor or graphics card which has an instruction set designed to accelerate the display of three-dimensional graphics.

Computer graphics displays mostly use raster techniques (Section 3.2), dividing the screen into a rectangular grid of pixels. Pixels for display are stored in a section of memory called the frame buffer. The resolution - the number of pixels in the frame buffer - determines the quality of the raster image. The colour depth of the frame buffer - the number of bits used for each pixel - determines how many colours can be represented. Typically, eight bits are used for each of the red, green and blue components. This gives over 16 million (224) available colours and is often referred to as true-colour [23].

3.7 The Application Programmer's Interface

The application programmer's interface (API) abstracts away from the graphics hardware and contains functions as part of a graphics library. Early APIs such as the Graphics Kernel System (GKS) were two-dimensional (Section 3.4). Three-dimensional graphics APIs (Section 3.5) include the Programmer's Hierarchical Interactive Graphics System (PHIGS), OpenGL and DirectX.

Graphics API

Figure 3.4 - The Application Programmer's Interface
(Reproduced from [23])

3.8 Graphics Programming

3.8.1 Modelling

The modelling phase is the specification of a scene by the generation of geometric objects. Primitives are low-level objects such as lines or polygons and are defined by a set of vertices. The appearance of primitives is determined by attributes, such as colour, which specify how the object is to be rendered. The modelling phase also includes specifying the camera location, clipping planes and lighting effects [23].

3.8.2 Rendering

The rendering phase involves performing the following sequence of operations on the primitives from the modelling stage [23]:

3.8.3 The Graphics Processing Pipeline

The rendering process is computationally expensive. In a complex scene, there may be a large number of vertices that define the objects, each of which must be processed in a similar manner. To increase the throughput of the processor, the rendering process is pipelined [23]:

Graphics Pipeline

Figure 3.5 - The Graphics Pipeline
(Adapted from [23] and [26])

3.9 Summary

Graphics systems use a mixture of raster and vector graphics to produce two- and three-dimensional images. Three-dimensional graphics use a synthetic camera model. Graphics APIs model objects as geometric primitives. The rendering pipeline performs a sequence of operations on these primitives resulting in a rasterised image in the frame buffer which can then be displayed.

Stephen Ratcliffe. 2005
Department of Computer Science
University of York
YO10 5DD