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Why “tap”?

Kavita Bala asked, “What is the etymology of ‘tap’ in texture filtering?”

This is a term we use in graphics for taking a sample from a texture map. I didn’t know where it came from, and recall being a bit mystified as to what it even meant when I first encountered it, finally puzzling it out from the context. Searching around now, the earliest reference I could find in 3D graphics literature was in this article, so I asked Dave Luebke, who coauthored that paper.

Dave replied:

I think it’s actually very old and references the idea of putting a probe, as in an oscilloscope, to tap a signal (like tapping a pipe, meaning to take water out of it at a particular location, or tapping a maple tree for sap to make syrup from).

Dave asked two other experts.

Lance Williams replied:

It’s traditional filter terminology. For example:

“Filter Coefficients – the set of constants, also called tap weights, used to multiply against delayed signal sample values within a digital filter structure.”

“A direct form discrete-time FIR filter of order N. The top part is an N-stage delay line with N + 1 taps.”

“For FIR filters, there is no denominator in the transfer function and the filter order is merely the number of taps used in the filter structure.”

John Montrym replied:

Follow this trail:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finite_impulse_response see phrase “tapped delay line” which takes you to:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_delay_line

“tap” in texture filtering uses the terminology of old-time signal processing. It wouldn’t surprise me if the notion of tapping a delay line takes you back to the 1930’s or 1940’s, though I don’t have a specific reference for you.

Radar was one of the early drivers for the development of signal processing theory & practice.

And your “tapping a water pipe” analogy is a pretty good one.

If you know more, pass it on.

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Much of my weekend: The MIT Mystery Hunt is a yearly giant weekend puzzle race that has well over a thousand participants. Get a taste here – this year’s was “easier”, in that a team solved it Sunday evening, almost 53 hours after the hunt began. If you know the answers to this or this one (both quite graphics-oriented!), let me know, I got nowhere with them. Yes, that’s all the information you get, and your goal is to find a word or phrase somehow hidden in what you see. Using a supercomputer is entirely fine. I kept saying “Enhance!” but it didn’t help.

There are many other amusing puzzles to poke at in this year’s collection, such as massive tiled sudokus and flag color pie charts. Give it a look, it’s fun to see the sheer scope and warped brilliance of some of these.

I was able to help our “small” team of 35+ to solve the last part of one cool puzzle by using three.js. The puzzle itself is fun, it was a few-hour-long solve for me, then some time writing a three.js program to help find the solution. If you want to fast forward, find the final hidden word if you can… (I couldn’t – a teammate did; I’m a pretty so-so puzzler, forgetting the maxim, “look again, and again.”)

This one’s important, so read it and grok. You either know it already, great, or it’s news and you may not believe me. Even if you don’t believe, keep it in mind for the day you see dark edges around your cutouts or decals, or mipmap levels that are clearly too dark.

The short version: if you want your renderer to properly handle textures with alphas when using bilinear interpolation or mipmapping, you need to premultiply your PNG color data by their (unassociated) alphas.

If you parsed that long jargon-filled sentence and already know it, then go visit Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal or Dinosaur Comics and enjoy life, there’s probably not much more for you to learn here. If you parsed it and don’t believe you have to preprocess your PNG RGBA texture, skip to The Argument section. Otherwise, here’s what I mean.

Some textures have alpha values. For simplicity, assume every integer you see in this article is in the range 0-255, an 8-bit channel. The alpha value of a texel could be 255, meaning fully opaque, or 0, meaning fully transparent, or somewhere in between. I use 0-255 just because [0,2,0, 2] is easier on the eyes than [0,0.007843,0, 0.007843] or [0/255,2/255,0/255, 2/255]. Ignore sRGB/gamma issues, ignore precision, we’ll mention them later; assume we interpolate the texture data in a linearized (de-gamma’ed) color space.

PNG textures are always “unassociated,” meaning the color RGB data is entirely independent from the alpha value. For example, a half-transparent red texel in a PNG file is stored as RGBA of [255,0,0, 127] – full red, with an alpha representing it being half-transparent. Premultiplication is where you multiply the stored RGB value by the alpha value, treated as a fraction. So the premultiplied version of our red semitransparent texel is [127,0,0, 127], as we multiply the red channel’s 255 by the alpha of 127/255.

What I was somewhat surprised to learn is that, for GPUs, you must premultiply the texture’s RGB value by its alpha before a fragment shader (a.k.a. pixel shader) samples it. I used to think that it didn’t matter – surely you could sample the PNG’s RGBA texture and then perform the premultiplication. Not so.

The Argument

Here’s a simple case, bilinear interpolation between two texels, one semitransparent:

interp1

Raw, untouched, unassociated PNG data is stored in these two texels. The left texel is an opaque red, the right texel is almost entirely transparent (alpha of 2) and green. To get the RGBA value at the dot in between, we sample this texture and perform bilinear interpolation, as usual. The answer we’ll get is the average of the two texels : [127.5,127.5,0, 128.5]. Note that this resulting value is wrong. An almost fully transparent green texel has the same effect on the interpolated color as the fully opaque red texel. The alphas combine sensibly, but the colors do not, because they’re not weighted by the alphas. To interpolate correctly, the colors need to be premultiplied.

However, GPUs can’t currently premultiply before they perform bilinear interpolation. They sample by getting the texels surrounding the location of interest, then interpolate between these texels. A software renderer could get this right, by sampling, premultiplying, then interpolating (that said, from surveying a few, some software renderers also don’t do it correctly). In some circumstances this failure can have a serious effect. See this demo. Notice how the fringe of the cutout flower is black. The original PNG texture is like so:

mush1

The checkerboard background shows where the texels are fully transparent with [0,0,0, 0] – there is no black fringe in the texture itself. In the demo you can see a black fringe as these fully transparent texels are interpolated along the edges:

mush_bad

Here’s another example with a flower texture, using an entirely different renderer (that will remain nameless). These are low-resolution textures, but that just exaggerates the effect; it’s present for any cutout texture that is not premultiplied.

g3d_fringing

By the way,  I’m not picking on Sketchfab at all – they’re refreshingly open about their design dilemmas. I use their site for the demo because of its ease of use.

The black fringing occurs because of unassociated RGBA’s being used for interpolation. Say you have two neighboring texels, [255,0,0, 255] and [0,0,0, 0], red and fully transparent “black” (though of course the color of a fully transparent texel should not matter). The interpolated value is [127.5,0,0, 127.5]. The only correct way to interpret this value is that it’s a premultiplied value: it’s half-transparent, and that alpha value has clearly multiplied the red color so that it’s a dark red. As you get closer and closer to the center of the transparent texel the RGB goes to fully black.

This RGB result is fine if indeed you’re expecting a premultiplied color from your texture sampler – it’s premultiplied, so the “dark red” is really just “regular red multiplied by alpha.” As Larry Gritz notes, “radiance is associated.” Such a sample has a darker red since the red surface’s contribution is less, as noted by the alpha’s lower value. By premultiplying, the fully transparent texels are always “black,” not green or some other color. Going to “black” is exactly what we want, as the more-and-more transparent surface sends out less and less radiance. I put quotes around “black” because the color of the surface is still red, there’s just less surface affecting the sample. A fully transparent texel is “black” because that’s its contribution: it contributes nothing to the final color when “over” compositing is performed. The problems start when we use this color as unassociated from its alpha. Our normal terms for describing texel values don’t work well, which is part of the problem.

Notice how the GPU always returns a premultiplied-looking result, such as [127.5,0,0, 127.5]. I was going to start with this red and fully transparent example, since it explains the fringing problem, but instead used a nearly transparent green to directly show the problem with unassociated interpolation. If you look at the two texel values here, [255,0,0, 255] and [0,0,0, 0], these are the same representation whether you’re using unassociated or premultiplied representations. It’s not clear from this example whether the GPU wants unassociated values as inputs and gives back a premultiplied result, or if premultiplied values are needed for both inputs and outputs. It’s the latter, which the nearly transparent green example shows. (I added this example, as one writer in this thread noted that the black fringing problem’s relationship to my original example isn’t clear; I hope this addition helps.)

The Answer

Because GPUs don’t allow premultiplication before interpolation during sampling, the answer is to premultiply the PNG texture in advance. The RGB color is multiplied by the alpha. We treat the alpha as a fraction from 0.0 to 1.0 by taking the 0-255 alpha value and dividing it by 255, then multiply each RGB component individually by that fraction. Now the two texels in our example are:

interp2

The interpolated location’s RGBA is [127.5,1,0, 128.5], which is what we’d expect: almost entirely red, a tiny bit of green, and an alpha that’s about half transparent. That’s the whole point: GPUs actually sample and interpolate in such a way that they expect premultiplied colors being fed in as textures.

Analysis

Who knew? Well, probably half of you, but I didn’t: this isn’t written down in any textbook I know (including our own), and I recently had to work it out myself. Also, note that it’s not just alpha cutouts affected – any texture, such as a decal, or semitransparent stained glass, or anything else with alphas, must be premultiplied if you want to use the GPU’s native sampling and filtering support.

The tricky part is fixing this bug in your renderer, if you haven’t already. First, if you ever expect semitransparent alphas (between 1 and 254), you have to premultiply the PNG texture before you sample it with the GPU. If you save the resulting premultiplied values at 8 bits per channel, this is destructive, you have lost precision and can’t unassociate the alpha later. For physically-based or other systems where color correction is applied, this precision loss could be noticeable. So, you may be forced to go to 16 bits per channel when you premultiply. To be honest, for highest quality you’ll want to use 16 bits for texture storage if you’re performing physically-based rendering on the GPU. 8-bit PNG data is normally in non-linear gamma encoded form, ready for display. You want to linearize this texture data before sampling it anyway, so that all your lighting and filtering computations are done in linear space. Marc Olano pointed me at Jim Blinn’s old article “A Ghost in a Snowstorm” (collected in this book), which talks about this problem in depth. Throughout this blog post I’ve assumed you’re computing everything in a nice linear space. If not, you’re in trouble anyway, and Blinn’s article talks about some options. Nowadays there’s sRGB sampling support on the GPU, but you still need to premultiply, which will lose you precision for each texel with a semitransparent alpha.

You may have other concerns about incoming PNG data and don’t want to premultiply; see the comments on the demo page to see what I mean. I can relate: the ancient Wavefront OBJ format has multiple interpretations and there’s no one to decide which way it should be interpreted. For example, should a PNG texture assigned as an alpha map be a single channel, RGB, or RGBA? If RGBA, should the color’s red channel or luminance, or the alpha value itself, be interpreted as the alpha channel? Sketchfab allows the user to decide, since there’s no definitive answer and different model exporters do different things.

Assume you indeed premultiply your PNG data in some fashion. The next question is whether your fragment shaders currently return premultiplied or unassociated RGBA values. If your shaders already return premultiplied values, good for you, you’re done – you just have to make sure that you’re treating the incoming texture value as a premultiplied entity.

However, it’s likely you return unassociated values from your fragment shaders. Three.js does, for example. It’s a pretty natural thing to do. For example, you first implement some surface shader, then add semitransparency by modifying the alpha separately. Why bother multiplying the color by the alpha in the fragment shader when the blending unit can do so for you? Changing your code to return a premultiplied RGBA means you have to change the blending mode used. It also means, at least for your own sanity, that all your fragment shaders should return premultiplied values. You don’t want to have to track which shaders return unassociated values and which return premultiplied results. It’s also inefficient to possibly need to switch the blend mode for every transparent object that comes by. If you have external users writing fragment shaders, you have to get them to change over, too.

The alternative is to unassociate the alpha from the texture sample returned by the GPU. That is, the GPU gives you back a premultiplied RGBA when you sample the texture. If the floating-point alpha value is not 0.0 or 1.0, then divide (un-multiply) the RGB value by alpha and use this RGBA throughout the rest of your shader, remembering it’s unassociated. Now you don’t have to change your shader’s output, the blend mode, or all the other shaders so that they return premultiplied values. It’s a bit goofy – in a perfect world we’d premultiply and return premultiplied RGBA values -but often legacy code and a user base work against the right solution.

Weak Solutions

There are other ways to avoid the problem. One is to simply never use bilinear interpolation or mipmapping on such textures. Minecraft can get away with this, since it’s part of its look:

mc_mush

Another solution is to use the alpha test to reject fragments whose floating-point alpha is less than 1.0. This works in that it gets rid of the black fringes, but only for true cutout textures, since all semitransparent texels are all discarded. The edges of the texture are trimmed back to the texel centers, which can look “skeletal” and different than how the asset was created. Update: Angelo Pesce notes that, with a tight alpha test, standard mipmapping can cause the area coverage to shrink as the object gets farther away.

A third solution is to rationalize and imagine the black fringing you get is somehow a feature. It does give a toon-line outline to objects, but it’s not something you can really control; you’re relying on an artifact for your rendering.

There is one preprocess that can help ameliorate the black fringing problem, which is to “bleed” the colors along the edges of the cutout so that the same or average colors are put in the fully transparent texels. Since the PNG has unassociated data, you can put whatever you want in the colors for fully transparent texels. Well, you can put such colors in premultiplied texels with alphas of 0, as Zap Andersson and Morgan McGuire mentioned to me. Morgan notes, “in premultiplied alpha, you can have emissive surfaces that also produce no coverage. This is handy for fireballs and lightning.” But, that’s for a different purpose.

Here’s an example of bleeding a texture:

mush_nonbled  mush_bled1

The original cutout mushroom texture is extended by one texel along its cutout edges. The basic idea is when a transparent edge texel is found, assign it some weighted average of the surrounding opaque colors. Now when you interpolate unassociated color channels, you get a neighbor color in the transparent region that is mostly like the actual region.

See this demo and compare it to the original situation to see the improvement. Here’s a side by side, untouched vs. bled:

mush_badmush_good

Me, I had to implement this solution in Mineways, my free Minecraft model exporter. Most renderers (who will again remain nameless) have this fringing problem, even in their software implementations. I couldn’t fix the renderers, but could at least massage the data a bit to avoid fringing. I originally added this bleeding process back in 2012 for a particular renderer. After extensive testing on a number of renderers I found the fix to be generally useful so yesterday I released a version which always performs bleeding. One nice feature of bleeding is that if a renderer does later move to a premultiplied solution, the fully transparent texels that have been bled on will not affect the correct algorithm at all.

For the specialized case where your texture has a single solid color and only the alphas vary, filling the whole texture with this color works perfectly. The interpolated color is always the same, and alphas interpolate properly.

In general, bleeding is an imperfect solution at best. For example, if you had a red texel next to a green pixel along a cutout edge, the blend texel might be some yellow color. You’ll get a different result than if you did it the right way, using premultiplied colors. Bleeding is difficult to impossible if the texture has semitransparent texels with different colors, since weighting is so very broken with unassociated values. Also, for mipmapping a simple bleed won’t work, as the “black” fully transparent RGBs that are left will get blended in as you go up the mip pyramid. You then have to somehow extend the bleed to fill all the transparent texels in some way.

Premultiplying the texels avoids all filtering problems by properly weighting the samples and means that artists don’t have to waste time fixing their content to work around a bug in the rendering pipeline. There may be reasons you don’t fix this bug, such as precision issues from premultiplying 8-bit values and storing these in 8 bits, or just the sheer amount of work and testing involved in making the fix, but now at least I hope this bug’s better understood.

But, wait, there’s more!

While researching this blog post I looked at some textbooks and asked Zap Andersson, Morgan McGuire, Marc Olano, and others for input. I followed up on the two Blinn articles Marc pointed out to me. I mentioned “A Ghost in a Sandstorm” earlier; the other was “Fun with Premultiplied Alpha.” This article doesn’t discuss alpha filtering problems directly, but points to an earlier Blinn article, “Compositing–Theory” (online here). This one indeed talks about the problem, wading through a few derivations of the right and wrong ways to filter. That’s yet another reason to avoid unassociated values – they won’t filter correctly, e.g., you won’t properly be able to blur a texture with unassociated alphas, something Morgan mentioned to me. Blinn notes how Gouraud interpolation will also fail on unassociated values at the vertices. Put a “green” at a transparent vertex and you’ll get a different rendering than if you put a “black”; premultiplying makes these both “black”, which is the contribution the vertex has to the total shade. Both of these articles are collected in Blinn’s book Dirty Pixels, worth picking up used for cheap.

So, Blinn described this problem back in 1994, but it certainly didn’t sink in for much of the 3D graphics world, and certainly not for interactive rendering. His treatment was pretty equation-intensive and he didn’t talk about what would happen if we did things the wrong way. We all had enough other problems around then, such as gamma-space computations warping the results of shading equations. The PNG format wouldn’t even exist until two years later, so alphas had to come from TIFFs or cutouts from GIFs. For interactive rendering, DOOM came out in 1993, 3dfx’s Voodoo graphics accelerator wouldn’t appear until 1996, and a 24-bit interactive frame buffer was a far-off dream.

Halfway through writing this post today I searched on “premultiplied alpha opengl” to find this blending page that I linked to earlier (and talk about below – it has a bug). Looking at the list of pages returned, the very first hit is John McDonald’s article from almost three years ago. Amazingly, he presents almost exactly the same example, a red opaque texel next to a almost transparent green texel. It kinda makes sense that we’d hit on the same idea, it’s an excellent “see how wrong things can be” case. Anyway, definitely check out his article for a more visual explanation. He himself points to an article by Shawn Hargreaves from 2009, who notes premultiplying gives the correct result and that cutouts then work properly. Shawn also notes in an earlier post some other drawbacks of the bleeding solution I mention, that some codecs and DXT1 compression won’t work with this solution. It took a solid 15 years after Blinn’s article for this alpha problem to be solved again for interactive rendering; Jim Blinn was right, but we weren’t ready before then to need his article.

So, I guess the takeaway is that someone will rediscover this premultiplication fact every three or four years and write a blog post about it. Jim’s article was equation-heavy and didn’t seem relevant to GPUs, Shawn’s involved GPUs but was pretty technical and had no illustrations, John’s was well-illustrated but focused on mipmapping problems. Honestly, I hope my post drives it home and we’re done here, but I suspect not.

Addenda: A few people pointed out that Tom Forsyth explained this problem, the bleeding hack, and the proper solution in a blog post from 2006. Nice, and it fits in with my theory of “we need to rediscover this every 3 years or so.” I probably even read his article back then (I went through a lot of Tom’s writings for Real-Time Rendering) but black fringes around cutouts were way out of my experience at the time – CAD tends to be about solid objects, not cutouts. I wasn’t at a point where it made sense to me. That is why I beat the issue to death in this post and added lots of images, so that even if you the reader don’t care about cutouts now, you might someday remember seeing the black fringing in some post somewhere and know there’s a solution.

One modern text that discusses this problem is Essential Mathematics for Games and Interactive Applications, 3rd edition, which Jim Van Verth (the first author) kindly let me know about. If you “Look Inside” the book, search on “alpha”, and go to page 417, you’ll see the relevant passage. They also have a website with lots of additional articles and resources. In particular, this presentation discusses the same problem from page 43 on, with almost the same example I used! I swear I didn’t plagiarize – I wish I had known about this phenomenon, it would have saved me some confusion. I think the opaque red, almost transparent green case is “just what you do” for an example – make the first texel opaque and set the first color channel, make the second one mostly transparent and set the second color channel. In my initial example I had four texels, red and transparent “black,” but then realized I could boil it down to two and that a slight green would really show off the effect.

The book Real-Time Volume Graphics also covers this problem, drawing a correlation with Gouraud interpolation of transparent vertices; here’s the passage (thanks to a co-worker that recalled it). Note that this means this same core problem with interpolating unassociated alphas means you need to use premultiplied vertex color values so that the rasterizer properly interpolates the triangle’s color and feeds the correct RGB to the fragment shader. This is another argument for just fixing your shaders so they expect premultiplied values throughout.

There’s an article on cutouts fading away due to alpha blending problems (backup here, in case that link fails), but I can’t say I understand the rendering settings giving this error. Someday when I run into it I probably will… Feel free to enlighten me more about this if you know exactly what’s happening. I do get that at the top of the pyramid branches could fade out almost entirely, as the empty areas dominate, but unless there’s an alpha test with a high setting (as Angelo Pesce noted, mentioned earlier), it seems like that’s the right answer.

I noticed that the OpenGL wiki’s blending page I link to has an error. It says to use these settings if your source (and destination) is premultiplied:

glBlendEquationSeparate(GL_FUNC_ADD,GL_FUNC_ADD);
glBlendFuncSeparate(GL_ONE,GL_ONE_MINUS_SRC_ALPHA,GL_ONE,GL_ZERO); // not correct for the general case

This is not general – it assumes the destination’s alpha is zero (which means the destination’s fully transparent), as it simply sets the final alpha to be the same as the source alpha.

The proper settings are:

glBlendEquationSeparate(GL_FUNC_ADD,GL_FUNC_ADD);
glBlendFuncSeparate(GL_ONE,GL_ONE_MINUS_SRC_ALPHA,GL_ONE,GL_ONE_MINUS_SRC_ALPHA);

This computes the final alpha as the source alpha’s area plus the remaining area times the destination alpha’s coverage, classic Porter & Duff. Might as well get it right since it costs nothing extra to compute. I tried to change the entry on the wiki, but it was reverted – discussion has commenced.

Epilogue

It turns out there’s a method in WebGL that is exactly what we want. Oddly, it’s only available in WegGL, not OpenGL. A coworker discovered it and tried it out after I distributed my blog post inside Autodesk. He found it mentioned in WebGL Insights; you can read the passage on page 21 here. The mode is described more here, in section #5, and section #6 described the blending mode if you change your shader to output premultiplied results instead of unassociated values.

By using this mode it’s a two-line quick fix, if you take the low-impact (and admittedly a bit icky, in that you’re avoiding fixing your shader to use premultiplied RGBA values throughout) route of unassociating (aka “unpremultiplying”, which normal people call “dividing by”) the alpha of the texture unit’s result in your existing shader. Specifically:

gl.pixelStorei(gl.UNPACK_PREMULTIPLY_ALPHA_WEBGL, true); // now your PNG texture will be read as a premultiplied value

and then, immediately after you sample the texture, in your shader do something like:

if ( sample.a > 0.0 ) { sample.rgb /= sample.a; } // unassociate the alpha, to avoid rewriting all transparency shaders in the system

which gives you an unassociated RGBA, if that’s indeed what you return from your shader (and it’s likely you do).

Here’s the correctly composited result, from another angle, without using texture bleeding. Happy ending!

fixed

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Some staff at Taylor & Francis kindly dug up some of the supplemental materials (mostly code) for the journal of graphics tools, namely, volumes 10-13. I’ve waded through it all and added these resources to the code repository:

Github JGT repository

If you have code from a JGT article that’s not listed here, please do send it on to me and I’ll add it.

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And, it’s over – Springer appears to have shut the gates a day later. Mistake? Buzz-generating marketing ploy? Who knows? I’ll leave the rest of the post intact, but books are no longer free. Some articles are, such as Knuth’s.

All books from Springer that are ten years old or older are free, go look.

Quoting Vít Tuček here, from Facebook (reposted by Pete Shirley):

Springer has made a lot of math & physics books available online, for free! Everything that is more than 10 years old.

If you don’t know which book you may want you can start here http://mathoverflow.net/questions/tagged/books

This links to the Graduate Texts in Mathematics series: https://t.co/R1EYrTrz5w

This is for all materials (books, journals, chapters, articles) from all fields: http://goo.gl/cB5rRc

This excellent computational geometry book is available (2nd Edition; the latest, 3rd edition costs money), as is this older-but-worthwhile one. For de Berg’s work, the free version is the second edition; other than these errata fixes, the 3rd edition’s major changes are that Chapter 7 includes information on Voronoi diagrams of line-segments and for farthest point, and Chapter 12 includes BSP trees for low-density scenes.

There are also older computer graphics related books, e.g. this one and this. Ancient, but the price is right, and some of this stuff doesn’t change.

Handy list of direct links for the math & physics PDFs here.

Me, I’m digging around for various recreational math books. One of my favorite books, period, is here: One Jump Ahead. There’s a recreational math book, Tracking the Automatic Ant, a collection from the Mathematical Intelligencer. Some bits of newer stuff from the Mathematical Intelligencer is also available, e.g., an article on mathematical vanity plates by Knuth, of all people. Some books I can’t find, as Springer’s searcher is pretty wonky, e.g. The Science of Cooking appears to somehow not exist, though there’s a short article available by the author.

Happy hunting, and email me or let us know in the comments if you find any other gems related to computer graphics.

Ed Angel
Professor Emeritus of Computer Science
University of New Mexico
http://www.cs.unm.edu/~angel
[email protected]

[This is a guest post from Ed on a subject near and dear to my heart, online learning. – Eric]

Recently I finished teaching a Coursera MOOC entitled Interactive Computer Graphics with WebGL. Having taken Eric’s excellent three.js course with Udacity, I was interested in doing a very different course. The experience was interesting, at times exasperating, ultimately rewarding and a lot of work. Here are some of my observations, many of which echo some of Eric’s on previous blog posts, and many that relate to the present state of MOOCs.

First, something about me and my course. I’m the coauthor, with Dave Shreiner, of the textbook Interactive Computer Graphics, which is now in its seventh edition. It has been the standard textbook for in computer graphics for students in computer science and engineering. For the seventh edition we switched from OpenGL to WebGL, which has turned out to be an excellent decision. We’ve also done both OpenGL and WebGL SIGGRAPH courses, which are now on Youtube at SIGRRAPH U. Given the explosion of interest in WebGL over the past year, I decided to do a MOOC using WebGL. For those of you unfamiliar with WebGL or interested in what I do in my academic course, there’s lots of sample code here that was also available to the students in the MOOC.

What we teach under the title of Computer Graphics can be very different depending on the audience. For those in the application world, such as the CAD community, who want to use computer graphics at a high level and not worry about writing shaders (or even knowing about shaders), three.js is a powerful tool built on top of WebGL. Users of three.js can reap many of the advantages of WebGL without writing a single line of WebGL code. On the other hand, students in Computer Science and Computer Engineering focus on “what’s beneath the hood”: shaders, algorithms, architectures. The two MOOCs, Eric’s and mine, are completely complementary and pretty much at the same level.

Course Outline

A fundamental premise of my 30+ years of teaching computer graphics is that students should be able to write complete applications as early as possible. While this philosophy is fairly common in university courses, it very uncommon in programming MOOCs. There are many reasons for this. The two key ones are the time needed to do a complete program and the problem of grading thousands of assignments. Nevertheless, I did not want to teach the course unless I could require complete programs, each one satisfying a set of requirements.

Because WebGL runs in all recent browsers, students needed only have access to a public website where they could put their assignments. Then they only had to submit the URL to let the graders run the code and see the source. I referred the students who did not have public websites to codepen.io. This mechanism worked wonderfully. The fact that the applications were on public sites never became an issue.

Here are the five assignments,  with some student postings folded in:

1. Tessellation and Twist: Twist is rotation, where the amount of rotation depends on the distance from the origin. It is can best be done in a vertex shader. The assignment starts with a single triangle centered at the origin. Twist applied to its three vertices does not result in a very interesting display. However, if we tessellate the triangle by recursive subdivision, the vertices of the smaller triangles are different distances from the origin, which creates a display in which the filled triangles have a curved outline. I give them some examples so that they need not write a lot of code to do this problem. It not only serves as test as to whether they have sufficient background for the course, they get to see what even a simple shader can do.

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2. Line Drawing: The minimum requirement was to create an application that rendered line segments following mouse clicks. There were many options, such as letting the user change the line thickness via a menu. The main goal was to bring in interactivity through event listeners and involved both JS and a little HTML5.

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3. A Mini CAD system: Create a scene by adding objects to a scene. Minimally, the application had to have two object types and the instance transform was to be determined interactively. There was code available for spheres and cubes but they were encouraged to add cylinders and/or cones. Because we had yet to cover lighting most students built applications that rendered each 3D object twice, once filled and once with lines.

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4. Adding Lighting: Students had to write shaders to add lighting to their CAD systems. They were encouraged to compare implementing per-vertex lighting with per-fragment lighting.

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5. Adding Texture Mapping: Applications had to add textures to a sphere. They were asked to use both an image and a generated checkerboard pattern as textures and to use two different methods of assigning texture coordinates.

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Assignment 3 proved to be more difficult than I anticipated and if I did it again I’d probably eliminate or simplify Assignment 2 and simplify Assignment 3. Students who went through the whole course loved the last couple of assignments and the freedom they had to experiment. They even created web pages to share their results. See screen shots here.

The Numbers

Initially about 14,500 signed up for the course. However, only 5,500 ever watched even the first video. I still can’t figure out why 9,000 would sign up and then never even take a look. After the first week, I had about 2,500 remaining. Fair enough, since the first week’s videos enabled them to see if the content was what the wanted and if they had the time and background to continue.

Of the remaining 2500, about 1000 went through all the videos. Many of them did at least some of the projects, or even all of them, but didn’t care about getting a certificate. In the end, 282 participants earned certificates, including, I believe, all the ones who paid for a verified certificate.

I don’t know what is the best way to evaluate these numbers, Certainly using 282 out of 14,500 makes little sense. Personally I prefer 1000 out of 2500. The 2500 represents people who really were interested and the 1000 went all the way through in one way or another.

Working with Coursera

My institution, the University of New Mexico, was one of the first public institutions to partner with Coursera. Having followed Eric’s course and his blog about doing a course with Udacity, I was curious about the differences. And there are many. Perhaps the most significant is that Coursera leaves virtually all the course development and support to the partner institution. Since UNM, like most public institutions, is under considerable financial stress, the course was pretty much a do-it-yourself (unpaid) venture. With the exception of 2-3 minute videos we recorded on campus to introduce each week’s lessons, I recorded all the videos on my iMac with Camtasia. These were later minimally edited by UNM’s Extended Learning staff. As weird as it may seem, one can actually get pretty good at giving an animated presentation talking to your computer. I had a similar experience to Eric in finding that making changes to a video is extremely difficult. Since the each video is fairly short, I learned to just rerecord a video instead of trying to cut and paste within an existing one.

The major problem I had was dealing with Coursera’s software. Some crucial parts, such as keeping the courses available 24/7 and managing the discussion forums, worked really well. However, there were many other problems that ate large amounts of time, both mine and the students’. These included lack of and bad documentation, unannounced changes to the website, rigidity of the software, and unresponsiveness to problems. It was interesting that many of the students were aware of these issues from previous courses but still were taking many MOOC courses.

MOOCs and Professional Development

If I compare my course to my (or any) regular academic CS course, it’s not even close in academic content. How can it be otherwise when there’s no book allowed, there’s a lower level entry requirement, and not enough time to assign the amount of work we would expect in an academic course?

As a professional development course, it’s more interesting. I’ve taught well over 100 professional development courses, both in person and online, to audiences ranging from the twenties to the hundreds. The majority were in a concentrated four-day format. I realized after I had finished the MOOC that the hours of video in the MOOC were very close to the amount of lecturing I would do in an intensive four-day course. But I also realized that the MOOC is a superior method for professional development. Besides the fact that it is essentially free, the material is spread over a longer period, allowing participants flexibility in when they learn and giving them time to do serious programming exercises. Looking at the analytics available from my course, it’s clear that the vast majority of the learners have figured this out and are there for professional development.

Why are State Universities and Colleges doing MOOCs?

My experience, reinforced by talking to participants and other MOOC instructors, led me to question why UNM or any state institution is involved with MOOCs. While I can understand the desire to try new educational methods and the idealism that many of us believed would enable us to provide first class technical education to the developing world, two things should have pretty obvious from the beginning. First, the business model under which we have done our MOOC courses makes no sense; there had to a lot of self-delusion to believe that verified certificates would bring in enough money to cover our expenses. Out of 14,500 “learners” who initially signed up for my course, all of 200 signed up for verified certificates, generating $10,000 in revenue, revenue that is shared between Coursera and UNM. That’s not going to pay even minimal costs.

What’s more troublesome is that MOOC courses are not academic courses. They’re not even close. So why, when public institutions are facing all kinds of financial problems to support their own students, are they putting resources into professional development courses for people outside of their own regions? Some institutions have recognized this problem. I note that many of the offerings by Coursera are now coming from self-supporting Continuing Education/Professional Development units of Universities and not from the academic units.

MOOC Computer Programming Courses

There’s a level of delusion that I’ve seen with almost all MOOC programming courses (Coursera, Udacity, Code.org, Khan, Codecademy). These courses claim to teach a programming skill in a few weeks with the learner spending only a few hours a week. What happens in these courses is that the learner never writes a complete program but rather changes a line or two of code or adds a few lines to an existing program. Easy to check and grade by computer but in the end the student cannot write a complete program using her new skill but is deluded into believing she can. After all, she has a certificate of completion; often for many such courses. This becoming a serious and more widely recognized problem in the real world, which is getting filled with “programmers” who can’t program but have been told they can based on their experience with online courses.

When I decided to do my MOOC, I was adamant that it would require participants to design complete programs from a set of specifications. In spite of the clear prerequisites for the course, a majority of the participants could not even get started on the simplest of my assignments, one that could have been done by changing four or five lines of code in an example I gave them. Most of them couldn’t even take the problem statement and figure out that this was all they had to do. On the other hand, the participants who came in with real programming experience absolutely loved the course and did some remarkable work. Through the discussion forums I was able to establish relationships with a number of these students and these interactions were as rewarding as any in my 40+ years of teaching computer courses.

How I Would Do It Again If I Were To Do It Again

There’s a lot of if’s here but it’s conceivable that I might, with adequate support this time, do it again. It would involve almost as much work the first time since I’d rerecord the videos but what I have in mind might be a step towards a more stable MOOC that could break down some of the barriers between academia and professional development. I see the MOOC as remaining at 10 weeks with much the same outline. I’d start it at the same time as an academic semester. Students who want academic credit would also register for my regular online computer graphics class. All students would use the MOOC videos for the first 10 weeks but those registered for the University course would have additional reading and variants on the MOOC programming assignments. I would also meet with these students either live or via video conferencing, thus making the course more of a flipped classroom. After the 10 week MOOC was over, I would continue working with the university students on projects and advanced topics for the rest of the 15 week semester.

In addition, if the University could figure out how to do this and what to charge, I’d open the academic course to students outside the university who could take the course as non-degree students at a reduced tuition. Such credit would be transferable to other academic programs. Exploring such a format might move us in a direction that helps state institutions with their financial issues, leads to a working business models for MOOC providers, and at the same time, fulfills many of the idealist goals that many of us have for MOOCs.

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Once upon a time the Journal of Graphics Tools had code associated with many of its articles. This was in fact one of the selling points for the journal, which grew out of the Graphics Gems series of books. When Taylor & Francis acquired A.K. Peters back in 2010, they moved the journal to their vast collection of other journals (2671 and counting). The code repository didn’t fit their web template, so they no longer hosted the code. At the time I wasn’t so concerned, as the Wayback Machine mirrored the abstracts and code collection of the old A.K. Peters site. Something happened this year and those backup pages are now gone, e.g., this link used to work.

So, time to rebuild. I’ve maintained the Graphics Gems repository for a few decades; how hard could it be to rebuild a recently-lost code archive? Well, we’ll see. I’ve written Taylor & Francis in hopes that someone knows where they put that DVD or whatever with the code archive. Fingers crossed. In the meantime I’ve been looking around and asking around. Here’s what I’ve collected so far:

“Journal of Graphics Tools” Code Repository

Enjoy what bits are there, and please send me any code you’ve saved that is related to a JGT article. You don’t have to be an author, just a pack-rat. I know that at least one author I asked could not find a backup of his article’s code. I personally can relate: back in 1985 I finished my master’s thesis. A few months later I realized I should get copies of images from my thesis work (in the Utah RLE format – ahhh, memories; astoundingly, that site is still around, things put on cs.utah.edu appear to stay there forever). One backup tape was glitched, so I lost about half my images.

Time for an analogy with the Library of Alexandria (pointed out to me by Jason Mitchell). Go read that article, it’s short, and makes an excellent point. Shorter still is a tweet by the same person which shows the practical effect of our general lack of redundancy. Gamasutra/Game Developer code repository? Gone (AFAIK). The lovely ompf.org forum about real-time ray tracing? Gone. Various game and film company article collections, various useful blogs, various cool resources? Gone baby gone. I encounter this loss every time I update our portal page or the ACM TOG resources page. Of course the “portal” term itself is at least a decade out of style (remember Yahoo?), but knowing where to find the good stuff is still valuable. When some bit of the good stuff goes away, how sad. Sure, there’s Sturgeon’s Law, but the 10% also sometimes disappears.

I’ve had this vague feeling for decades, ever since I started to collect bits and pieces for the Ray Tracing News in 1987, that I’m playing the role of a medieval monk attempting to keep some small bits and pieces of knowledge from disappearing. In fact, the Ray Tracing News archive briefly disappeared when ACM TOG reorganized their site; I moved it to realtimerendering.com. My takeaway for internet resources is “trust no one”, not even myself, since I probably don’t have an infinite life span. The Bret Victor article I mentioned last paragraph (is the article still available? I guess it depends when you read this posting…) points out the problem, but I know of no good solution right now. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is related to Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which is something like naming your new ship the Titanica. The irony, she drips, that this archive somehow lost the Journal of Graphic Tools’ code (update: my guess is someone recently popped in a robots.txt on the dead site). I’m of course now kicking myself for not making a copy of JGT’s code base myself back when I had the chance.

Maybe a better takeaway is “trust everyone.” My one positive suggestion is “make it a zip.” If you have a resource, make the whole site downloadable as one big zip so that it’s easy for you and others to back up. Github offers this automatically. If zipping had been done with JGT’s site, I’d probably have a copy. I have a sort of future sadness for the day Paul Bourke’s or Steve Hollasch’s sites disappear. There are utilities such as HTTrack where one could grab a whole web site, but who wants to mess with that? Well, I now do, but for Hollasch it won’t matter all that much, since he links to lots of external pages (by the way, Xenu is a wonderful free dead link checker). Steve Hollasch’s site, 76 files, sum up to 798 kb – so much more valuable than just about any iPhone photo, which is more than twice as large. Bourke’s site, which includes many PDFs and zips and whatnot, is quite large – it’s still downloading – it might be the size of a season of Rick and Morty (which BTW is a great show). But, once done downloading, I’ll have it, so “don’t you die on me, man” is then a non-issue, at least for me. At a price of less than a nickel per gigabyte, who cares about the cost of storage for code and text?

Sure, a lot of information dies off that absolutely no one will ever care about. But some of the seemingly-useless bits kept around are wonderful to have. Me, I just found the shower that came with our condo-ized piece of the old Victorian we live in – very helpful! It’s said that 90% of the files in any file cabinet are never accessed again. But which 10% are the useful ones? So we naturally keep all the files around. Digital storage is much more compact and painless, yet still easily gets wiped out due to a disk head failure, power surge, or the owner passes away. By the way, if you use Google Docs or Gmail or etc., go set up your Inactive Account Manager right now. On that morbid but practical note, please do remember to send me any code bits you might have from the Journal of Graphics Tools. And do us all a favor and download a zip of the JGT code repository every now and then, just in case Github goes away (I’m thinking of Google Code here, but even BitBucket gets DDOS’ed).

Not so fun fact:  27.5% of the external links on our references page are dead, after 7 years. They’re mostly papers, so perhaps the links have just changed or, at worst, the article can be dug up somewhere (though that’s only true half the time – a lot of game-related articles are not in journals).

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Here it is – you should recognize the third author’s name for sure. I’ve only skimmed a bit, but wow, very interesting. Many of the figures are indeed interactive, which is magical. I also like the idea that you can move the mouse over a term and a pop-up shows more information about it. Seriously, go check out a section right now.

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Last collection of links for awhile – I’m pretty much caught up. Here’s a rundown of things that are more physical:

  • Where’s Waldo in the real world; specifically, Seattle. Info. Some of the Easter Eggs are truly great.
  • Pixelated hair. I collect anything where “X is used as pixels”; link collection here (and send me more).
  • I’m impressed by Google Cardboard. A local architecture firm has been using it to give clients a much better sense of their designs. The fact that you can pre-render at very high quality I consider a large advantage over GPU-based VR. Also, it seems like many firms overbuilt, so these viewers are now dirt cheap, e.g. less than $3 with free shipping.
  • Surroundings:
    • The Ricoh Theta gives surprisingly nice instant IBLs in a relatively cheap ($300) compact camera – gallery, review.
    • Matterport looks like a pretty nice room capture device.
    • Photosynth 3 is strangely compelling at times. On one level it’s a low-frame-count video you can scrub through, but scenes often have a surreal feel as interpolations are shown.
  • Intel Thunderbolt 3 demos, showing a laptop driving an external GPU. Annoying ad will play, but then the chewy bit of the video plays. Too much info about USB & Thunderbolt here.
  • If you have lots of old business cards, two words: Menger Sponge.
  • This Is Colossal covers lots of interesting artistic and well-crafted works. Mostly real-world stuff (I liked this mirror work), and also great things such as Bees & Bombs (example below).

I’ve burnt through most of my SIGGRAPH tidbits. Now to start running through a few worthwhile articles, resources, and sites I’ve found the past months:

  • Colors and words article – a must-read. Teaser: “So he raised his daughter while being careful to never describe the color of the sky to her, and then one day asked her what color she saw when she looked up.”
  • IKEA has been using V-Ray for much of its catalog for years. Favorite quote: “But the real turning point for us was when, in 2009, they called us and said, ‘You have to stop using CG. I’ve got 200 product images and they’re just terrible. You guys need to practise [sic] more.’ So we looked at all the images they said weren’t good enough and the two or three they said were great, and the ones they didn’t like were photography and the good ones were all CG!”
  • Cambridge, Mass. (which I live next to) as a 3D map in your browser. Background info here. WebGL is great.
  • Slightly spooky 3D program, done in CSS (that’s right – no WebGL here). Other fun experiments by the author here.
  • Languages: I hadn’t heard of a few of these C++ tools. The Swift language, which I’ve heard nice things about, is going to be open-sourced by Apple (surprising, for Apple). Michael Gleicher mentioned liking the free book Javascript in 10 Minutes.
  • Tools: For home use only, Glary Utilities is a bunch of free utilities – two minutes to clean off various types of sludge from your PC. Everything is a simple super-fast file and folder name searcher for Windows. I’ve added these to the bottom section of the portal page.
  • Ray tracing using armor stands in Minecraft. Things just keep getting weirder.

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