3D computer graphics

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3D computer graphics, sometimes called CGI, 3-D-CGI or three-dimensional computer graphics , are graphics that use a three-dimensional representation of geometric data (often Cartesian) that is stored in the computer for the purposes of performing calculations and rendering digital images, usually 2D images but sometimes 3D images. The resulting images may be stored for viewing later (possibly as an animation) or displayed in real time.


3-D computer graphics, contrary to what the name suggests, are most often displayed on two-dimensional displays. Unlike 3-D film and similar techniques, the result is two-dimensional, without visual depth. More often, 3-D graphics are being displayed on 3-D displays, like in virtual reality systems.

3-D graphics stand in contrast to 2-D computer graphics which typically use completely different methods and formats for creation and rendering.

3-D computer graphics rely on many of the same algorithms as 2-D computer vector graphics in the wire-frame model and 2-D computer raster graphics in the final rendered display. In computer graphics software, 2-D applications may use 3-D techniques to achieve effects such as lighting, and similarly, 3-D may use some 2-D rendering techniques.

The objects in 3-D computer graphics are often referred to as 3-D models. Unlike the rendered image, a model's data is contained within a graphical data file. A 3-D model is a mathematical representation of any three-dimensional object; a model is not technically a graphic until it is displayed. A model can be displayed visually as a two-dimensional image through a process called 3-D rendering, or it can be used in non-graphical computer simulations and calculations. With 3-D printing, models are rendered into an actual 3-D physical representation of themselves, with some limitations as to how accurately the physical model can match the virtual model. [1]


William Fetter was credited with coining the term computer graphics in 1961 [2] [3] to describe his work at Boeing. An early example of interactive 3-D computer graphics was explored in 1963 by the Sketchpad program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory. [4] One of the first displays of computer animation was Futureworld (1976), which included an animation of a human face and a hand that had originally appeared in the 1971 experimental short A Computer Animated Hand , created by University of Utah students Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke. [5]

3-D computer graphics software began appearing for home computers in the late 1970s. The earliest known example is 3D Art Graphics, a set of 3-D computer graphics effects, written by Kazumasa Mitazawa and released in June 1978 for the Apple II. [6] [7]


3-D computer graphics production workflow falls into three basic phases:

  1. 3-D modeling – the process of forming a computer model of an object's shape
  2. Layout and CGI animation – the placement and movement of objects (models, lights etc.) within a scene
  3. 3-D rendering – the computer calculations that, based on light placement, surface types, and other qualities, generate (rasterize the scene into) an image


The model describes the process of forming the shape of an object. The two most common sources of 3-D models are those that an artist or engineer originates on the computer with some kind of 3D modeling tool, and models scanned into a computer from real-world objects (Polygonal Modeling, Patch Modeling and NURBS Modeling are some popular tools used in 3-D modeling). Models can also be produced procedurally or via physical simulation. Basically, a 3-D model is formed from points called vertices that define the shape and form polygons. A polygon is an area formed from at least three vertices (a triangle). A polygon of n points is an n-gon. [8] The overall integrity of the model and its suitability to use in animation depend on the structure of the polygons.

Layout and animation

Before rendering into an image, objects must be laid out in a 3D scene. This defines spatial relationships between objects, including location and size. Animation refers to the temporal description of an object (i.e., how it moves and deforms over time. Popular methods include keyframing, inverse kinematics, and motion-capture). These techniques are often used in combination. As with animation, physical simulation also specifies motion.

Materials and textures

Materials and textures are properties that the render engine uses to render the model. One can give the model materials to tell the render engine how to treat light when it hits the surface. Textures are used to give the material color using a color or albedo map, or give the surface features using a bump map or normal map. It can be also used to deform the model itself using a displacement map.


Rendering converts a model into an image either by simulating light transport to get photo-realistic images, or by applying an art style as in non-photorealistic rendering. The two basic operations in realistic rendering are transport (how much light gets from one place to another) and scattering (how surfaces interact with light). This step is usually performed using 3-D computer graphics software or a 3-D graphics API. Altering the scene into a suitable form for rendering also involves 3-D projection, which displays a three-dimensional image in two dimensions. Although 3-D modeling and CAD software may perform 3-D rendering as well (e.g., Autodesk 3ds Max or Blender), exclusive 3-D rendering software also exists (e.g., OTOY's Octane Rendering Engine, Maxon's Redshift)


3-D computer graphics software produces computer-generated imagery (CGI) through 3-D modeling and 3-D rendering or produces 3-D models for analytic, scientific and industrial purposes.

File formats

There are many varieties of files supporting 3-D graphics, for example, Wavefront .obj files and .x DirectX files. Each file type generally tends to have its own unique data structure.

Each file format can be accessed through their respective applications, such as DirectX files, and Quake. Alternatively, files can be accessed through third-party standalone programs, or via manual decompilation.


3-D modeling software is a class of 3-D computer graphics software used to produce 3-D models. Individual programs of this class are called modeling applications or modelers.

3-D modeling starts by describing 3 display models : Drawing Points, Drawing Lines and Drawing triangles and other Polygonal patches. [9]

3-D modelers allow users to create and alter models via their 3-D mesh. Users can add, subtract, stretch and otherwise change the mesh to their desire. Models can be viewed from a variety of angles, usually simultaneously. Models can be rotated and the view can be zoomed in and out.

3-D modelers can export their models to files, which can then be imported into other applications as long as the metadata are compatible. Many modelers allow importers and exporters to be plugged-in, so they can read and write data in the native formats of other applications.

Most 3-D modelers contain a number of related features, such as ray tracers and other rendering alternatives and texture mapping facilities. Some also contain features that support or allow animation of models. Some may be able to generate full-motion video of a series of rendered scenes (i.e. animation).

Computer-aided design (CAD)

Computer aided design software may employ the same fundamental 3-D modeling techniques that 3-D modeling software use but their goal differs. They are used in computer-aided engineering, computer-aided manufacturing, Finite element analysis, product lifecycle management, 3D printing and computer-aided architectural design.

Complementary tools

After producing a video, studios then edit or composite the video using programs such as Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro at the mid-level, or Autodesk Combustion, Digital Fusion, Shake at the high-end. Match moving software is commonly used to match live video with computer-generated video, keeping the two in sync as the camera moves.

Use of real-time computer graphics engines to create a cinematic production is called machinima. [10]

Other types of 3D appearance

Photorealistic 2D graphics

Not all computer graphics that appear 3D are based on a wireframe model. 2D computer graphics with 3D photorealistic effects are often achieved without wireframe modeling and are sometimes indistinguishable in the final form. Some graphic art software includes filters that can be applied to 2D vector graphics or 2D raster graphics on transparent layers. Visual artists may also copy or visualize 3D effects and manually render photorealistic effects without the use of filters.


Some video games use 2.5D graphics, involving restricted projections of three-dimensional environments, such as isometric graphics or virtual cameras with fixed angles, either as a way to improve performance of the game engine or for stylistic and gameplay concerns. By contrast, games using 3D computer graphics without such restrictions are said[ by whom? ] to use true 3D.

See also

Graphics and software

Fields of use

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rendering (computer graphics)</span> Process of generating an image from a model

Rendering or image synthesis is the process of generating a photorealistic or non-photorealistic image from a 2D or 3D model by means of a computer program. The resulting image is referred to as the render. Multiple models can be defined in a scene file containing objects in a strictly defined language or data structure. The scene file contains geometry, viewpoint, textures, lighting, and shading information describing the virtual scene. The data contained in the scene file is then passed to a rendering program to be processed and output to a digital image or raster graphics image file. The term "rendering" is analogous to the concept of an artist's impression of a scene. The term "rendering" is also used to describe the process of calculating effects in a video editing program to produce the final video output.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Computer animation</span> Art of creating moving images using computers

Computer animation is the process used for digitally generating moving images. The more general term computer-generated imagery (CGI) encompasses both still images and moving images, while computer animation only refers to moving images. Modern computer animation usually uses 3D computer graphics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rasterisation</span> Conversion of a vector-graphics image to a raster image

In computer graphics, rasterisation or rasterization is the task of taking an image described in a vector graphics format (shapes) and converting it into a raster image. The rasterized image may then be displayed on a computer display, video display or printer, or stored in a bitmap file format. Rasterization may refer to the technique of drawing 3D models, or to the conversion of 2D rendering primitives, such as polygons and line segments, into a rasterized format.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Voxel</span> Element representing a value on a grid in three dimensional space

In 3D computer graphics, a voxel represents a value on a regular grid in three-dimensional space. As with pixels in a 2D bitmap, voxels themselves do not typically have their position explicitly encoded with their values. Instead, rendering systems infer the position of a voxel based upon its position relative to other voxels.

Autodesk 3ds Max, formerly 3D Studio and 3D Studio Max, is a professional 3D computer graphics program for making 3D animations, models, games and images. It is developed and produced by Autodesk Media and Entertainment. It has modeling capabilities and a flexible plugin architecture and must be used on the Microsoft Windows platform. It is frequently used by video game developers, many TV commercial studios, and architectural visualization studios. It is also used for movie effects and movie pre-visualization. 3ds Max features shaders, dynamic simulation, particle systems, radiosity, normal map creation and rendering, global illumination, a customizable user interface, and its own scripting language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Scientific visualization</span> Interdisciplinary branch of science concerned with presenting scientific data visually

Scientific visualization is an interdisciplinary branch of science concerned with the visualization of scientific phenomena. It is also considered a subset of computer graphics, a branch of computer science. The purpose of scientific visualization is to graphically illustrate scientific data to enable scientists to understand, illustrate, and glean insight from their data. Research into how people read and misread various types of visualizations is helping to determine what types and features of visualizations are most understandable and effective in conveying information.

2.5D perspective refers to gameplay or movement in a video game or virtual reality environment that is restricted to a two-dimensional (2D) plane with little or no access to a third dimension in a space that otherwise appears to be three-dimensional and is often simulated and rendered in a 3D digital environment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Non-photorealistic rendering</span> Style of rendering

Non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) is an area of computer graphics that focuses on enabling a wide variety of expressive styles for digital art, in contrast to traditional computer graphics, which focuses on photorealism. NPR is inspired by other artistic modes such as painting, drawing, technical illustration, and animated cartoons. NPR has appeared in movies and video games in the form of cel-shaded animation as well as in scientific visualization, architectural illustration and experimental animation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Real-time computer graphics</span> Sub-field of computer graphics

Real-time computer graphics or real-time rendering is the sub-field of computer graphics focused on producing and analyzing images in real time. The term can refer to anything from rendering an application's graphical user interface (GUI) to real-time image analysis, but is most often used in reference to interactive 3D computer graphics, typically using a graphics processing unit (GPU). One example of this concept is a video game that rapidly renders changing 3D environments to produce an illusion of motion.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Low poly</span> 3D computer graphics mesh with low number of polygons

Low poly is a polygon mesh in 3D computer graphics that has a relatively small number of polygons. Low poly meshes occur in real-time applications as contrast with high-poly meshes in animated movies and special effects of the same era. The term low poly is used in both a technical and a descriptive sense; the number of polygons in a mesh is an important factor to optimize for performance but can give an undesirable appearance to the resulting graphics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Software rendering</span> Generating images by computer software

Software rendering is the process of generating an image from a model by means of computer software. In the context of computer graphics rendering, software rendering refers to a rendering process that is not dependent upon graphics hardware ASICs, such as a graphics card. The rendering takes place entirely in the CPU. Rendering everything with the (general-purpose) CPU has the main advantage that it is not restricted to the (limited) capabilities of graphics hardware, but the disadvantage is that more transistors are needed to obtain the same speed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">3D rendering</span> Process of converting 3D scenes into 2D images

3D rendering is the 3D computer graphics process of converting 3D models into 2D images on a computer. 3D renders may include photorealistic effects or non-photorealistic styles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Computer graphics</span> Graphics created using computers

Computer graphics deals with generating images and art with the aid of computers. Computer graphics is a core technology in digital photography, film, video games, digital art, cell phone and computer displays, and many specialized applications. A great deal of specialized hardware and software has been developed, with the displays of most devices being driven by computer graphics hardware. It is a vast and recently developed area of computer science. The phrase was coined in 1960 by computer graphics researchers Verne Hudson and William Fetter of Boeing. It is often abbreviated as CG, or typically in the context of film as computer generated imagery (CGI). The non-artistic aspects of computer graphics are the subject of computer science research.

Cyber Studio CAD-3D is a 3D modeling and animation package developed by Tom Hudson for the Atari ST computer and published by Antic Software. The package is a precursor to 3D Studio Max.

A variety of computer graphic techniques have been used to display video game content throughout the history of video games. The predominance of individual techniques have evolved over time, primarily due to hardware advances and restrictions such as the processing power of central or graphics processing units.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cobalt (CAD program)</span> 3D computer graphics software

Cobalt is a parametric-based computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D modeling program that runs on both Macintosh and Microsoft Windows operating systems. The program combines the direct-modeling way to create and edit objects and the highly structured, history-driven parametric way exemplified by programs like Pro/ENGINEER. A product of Ashlar-Vellum, Cobalt is Wireframe-based and history-driven with associativity and 2D equation-driven parametrics and constraints. It offers surfacing tools, mold design tools, detailing, and engineering features. Cobalt includes a library of 149,000 mechanical parts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">3D modeling</span> Form of computer-aided engineering

In 3D computer graphics, 3D modeling is the process of developing a mathematical coordinate-based representation of a surface of an object in three dimensions via specialized software by manipulating edges, vertices, and polygons in a simulated 3D space.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Computer-generated imagery</span> Application of computer graphics to create or contribute to images

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is a specific-technology or application of computer graphics for creating or improving images in art, printed media, simulators, videos and video games. These images are either static or dynamic. CGI both refers to 2D computer graphics and 3D computer graphics with the purpose of designing characters, virtual worlds, or scenes and special effects. The application of CGI for creating/improving animations is called computer animation, or CGI animation.

This is a glossary of terms relating to computer graphics.


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