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WPF 3D Primer

, 31 Jan 2008 CPOL 210.2K 8.5K 153
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Exploring Windows Presentation Foundation 3D capabilities and building a sample application with a couple of cool features such as zooming and 3D rotation


In the last couple of days, I had to evaluate the possibility to build a GUI displaying a solid shape to the user, allowing her or him to perform some basic operations, above all rotating and zooming the view.

I'm no expert in 3D graphics, this was my first contact with this matter, and I've never used Direct3D or OpenGL, so things had to be extremely simple.

WPF 3D seemed to be the quickest way to build a 3D interface, so I decided to create a small application that just gives the user the ability to rotate and zoom the view on a single solid object.

Although I'm really happy with the result, I'm probably doing some newbie mistakes here, so feel free to point them out.


In order to build this application, we need:

  • Visual Studio 2008 Professional (Visual C# 2008 Express should be sufficient)
  • .NET Framework 3.5 (installed along with Visual Studio)
  • Basic WPF knowledge
  • Basic trigonometry knowledge

If you are new to WPF, I strongly suggest you read the excellent articles by Josh Smith. You can also take a look at the introductory MSDN article and the part focused on 3D graphics.

Step 0 - The Basics

There is not much to know on WPF 3D, except for a couple of facts:

  • It’s based on Direct3D, and therefore it takes advantage of graphic cards (as WPF 2D does)
  • Full-scene anti-aliasing is disabled by default on Windows XP and enabled by default on Windows Vista (if the graphic card’s driver is WDDM-Compliant)

The most important thing to note, however, is the different coordinate system that WPF 3D uses, as shown in the figure below:


This difference requires that most interactions with the user (namely mouse events) perform coordinate conversions. As we'll see later on, this operation is actually quite simple.

Step 1 - Creating the Visual Studio Project

This step is easy, you just need to create a new WPF Application project in Visual Studio, targeting the .NET Framework 3.5. Take a look at the figure below:


Step 2 - Preparing the Main Window

Modify the Window1.xaml file that the Project Wizard created for you, setting the window title and dimensions to something that fits your preferences. Since this is a test application, we won't care much about object names and such, but I renamed the main window file to MainWindow.xaml, checking that all references are correct (especially in the App.xaml file created automatically).

Note: While writing XAML, we will add the x:Name attribute only to elements we want to access programmatically from the code-behind, leaving all the others unnamed.

<Window x:Class="Wpf3DTest.MainWindow"
    Title="WPF 3D Test"
    Height="400" Width="400">

WPF 3D is based on the Viewport3D UI element, which is in charge of rendering the 3D scene on the screen, so we'll surely need an instance of that object.

We also want the ability to reset the view to its original “status” after the user rotated or zoomed the scene, so we'll also need a button.

For building the window layout, we'll use a grid with 2 rows. The second row will be sized automatically by WPF to occupy as much vertical space as possible, while the first will just wrap its content. We can now add the Viewport3D and the Button we need.

<Grid Background="Black">
        <RowDefinition Height="Auto" />
        <RowDefinition Height="*" />

    <Button x:Name="button" Grid.Row="0" Content="Reset" />

    <Viewport3D x:Name="viewport" Grid.Row="1">

The XAML above will result in something like this (notice the black-background grid, the button at the top and the empty viewport filling the window):


Step 3 - The Camera

Every 3D scene in WPF should have a camera, otherwise it won't be rendered on the screen. Given that we won't need to add or remove it at runtime, we can just use a bit of XAML.

    <PerspectiveCamera x:Name="camera" FarPlaneDistance="50"
        NearPlaneDistance="0" LookDirection="0,0,-10" UpDirection="0,1,0"
            Position="0,0,5" FieldOfView="45" />

The XAML above adds a PerspectiveCamera (although there are other types of cameras)
inside the Viewport3D element. FarPlaneDistance and NearPlaneDistance represent the range within which the camera will display elements. When an element is too far from or too close to the camera, it won't be displayed. FieldOfView can be safely set to 45 in most cases, giving us a natural perspective view. LookDirection is the point the camera “looks at”: we set it to a point with a negative Z coordinate. UpDirection is the vertical axis of the camera: we set it to be coincident with the Y axis.

Step 4 - Preparing the 3D Model

The content of the viewport is described using an instance of the ModelVisual3D UI element (MSDN) inheriting from the abstract class Model3D. Inside this object, we can basically add geometries (including their materials) and lights. Given that our application might want to load 3D models from an external source, we now only add the lights using XAML, leaving the rest of the work for the code-behind.

There are 3 types of light sources in WPF: we'll now add two types of them, as shown in the markup below:

<ModelVisual3D x:Name="model">
        <Model3DGroup x:Name="group">
            <AmbientLight Color="DarkGray" />
            <DirectionalLight Color="White" Direction="-5,-5,-7" />

The actual content of the model is specified inside the ModelVisual3D.Content element. Since we have more than one item, we wrap all of them with a Model3DGroup element (MSDN).The XAML above adds a dark grey (i.e. a very dim light) AmbientLight and a white DirectionalLight, pointing in the point (-5, -5, -7) (directional lights don't have a position, they just “look” towards the specified direction).

The two light sources we used give the scene a good illumination, but feel free to experiment new configurations yourself.

Mesh Basics

A mesh is a 3D object built using only triangles. Each triangle has obviously three 3D vertices, combined together to form a small surface called a facet.

In WPF 3D (and possibly Direct3D and/or OpenGL, as I said I'm not an expert) a facet has a direction, that defines the side the facet will be visible from, as you can see in the figure below:


Although you can explicitly specify the normals of each vertex (not triangle) composing a facet (using the Normals property of the MeshGeometry3D class), WPF can automatically calculate them using the sequence used to add the vertices. If we add the vertices in counterclockwise order, the faced direction will “point towards us”, as shown in the figure above: vertices are labelled 0, 1 and 2, and the direction of the faced is represented by the arrow labelled “+”. We add them in the order 0, 1, 2.

Adding the 3D Geometry

In our test application, we're going to add the 3D object programmatically from the code-behind C# file.

We'll create the solid shown in the figure below (a truncated pyramid) by adding its 8 vertices and then defining the 12 triangles needed to define all its faces.


We define the BuildSolid method in the code-behind file MainWindow.xaml.cs (or Window1.xaml.cs if you didn't rename it). This method is then invoked in the constructor of the class, and it just adds the vertices one-by-one, in the order specified in the figure (this is not actually a requirement, but it makes things more clear).

// Define 3D mesh object
MeshGeometry3D mesh = new MeshGeometry3D();
// Front face
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(-0.5, -0.5, 1));
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(0.5, -0.5, 1));
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(0.5, 0.5, 1));
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(-0.5, 0.5, 1));
// Back face
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(-1, -1, -1));
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(1, -1, -1));
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(1, 1, -1));
mesh.Positions.Add(new Point3D(-1, 1, -1)); 

Although we used the term “face”, it’s worth noting that we still don't have any real face defined. In order to do that, we have to build the triangles that compose each face of the solid from the points we just created: we add each triangle declaring its vertices in the proper order, so that the direction of each facet points outwards the solid.

// Front face
// Back face
// Right face
// Other faces (see complete source code)...

As you can see, we defined 12 triangles using only 8 vertices. The only thing we have to do now is to actually add the mesh to the scene, wrapping it in an instance of GeometryModel3D.

For the purposes of the application, we'll need a reference to the geometry for later use, so we add a new private member to the class.

// Reference to the geometry for later use
private GeometryModel3D mGeometry; 

Then, we can complete the BuildSolid method with the following code, which creates the geometry object and adds it to the Model3DGroup (named group) seen a while ago in the XAML of the main window.

// Geometry creation
mGeometry = new GeometryModel3D(mesh, new DiffuseMaterial(Brushes.YellowGreen));
mGeometry.Transform = new Transform3DGroup();

As you can see, we used a simple DiffuseMaterial to color the solid, but you can take a look at the different options that WPF 3D offers in this field (see MSDN). We also set the Transform property to a new instance of the Transform3DGroup class, which is a container for transform objects, as we'll see later.

Now, if we hit the F5 button, we should see something like this:


The main window now displays our test solid, front facing. Try to resize the window and see how WPF seamlessly scales the viewport and the solid.

Step 5 - Implementing the Zoom Functionality

For the sake of simplicity, we're going to implement the zoom functionality so that it will be accessible only using the mouse wheel. We just need to implement a handler for the MouseWheel event of the main grid element in the window. In this case, IntelliSense is our friend:

Let the IntelliSense popup appear, and hit enter. Visual Studio should have created a handler named Grid_MouseWheel.

The handler has to do one thing only: move our camera on the Z axis. Binding this movement with the wheel scroll value is quite tricky and after some trial-and-error, I found that the following code works well:

private void Grid_MouseWheel(object sender, MouseWheelEventArgs e) {
    camera.Position = new Point3D(
        camera.Position.Z - e.Delta / 250D);

We don't touch the X and Y position of the camera, we just modify its position on the Z axis.

We also want to let the Reset button we defined in XAML reset the camera position, so we add a handler for its Click event (in the same way we added the handler for the grid’s MouseWheel event), and add the following code to it, which resets the Z value of the camera position to 5:

private void Button_Click(object sender, RoutedEventArgs e) {
    camera.Position = new Point3D(
            camera.Position.Y, 5);

Just in case you're curious, the XAML code for the button element is updated as follows.

<Button x:Name="button" Grid.Row="0" Content=" Reset"Click="Button_Click" />

You can now hit F5 again, verifying that zooming works and that the Reset button does its work properly.

Step 6 - Implementing the 3D Rotation Functionality

We want now to enable the user to rotate the solid with her mouse, very much like CAD applications. This is the toughest part of the demo, but with a bit of trigonometry we should get away quite quickly.

The difficult part of this task is to map a 2D vector (the mouse movement) to a 3D rotation of the solid. It took me a while to figure it out, but the mouse movement vector can be easily converted to a rotation angle, applied to the solid around a rotation axis that is coplanar with the screen and perpendicular to the mouse movement vector, as shown in the figure below.


The rotation axis is pinned in the origin (0,0,0) because the solid is centered in the origin itself, and both the mouse movement vector and the rotation axis have the Z coordinate set to zero, so they are coplanar with the XY plane.

The rotation axis has a direction, indicated by the arrow in the previous figure. Angles are always calculated in clockwise direction, so if you rotate the solid with a positive angle, it will rotate leftwards:


In order to properly calculate the rotation axis, we first need to calculate the angle of the mouse movement vector. Basic trigonometry tells us that the angle, alpha, is computed as follows:


We also need to take care of the sign of dx and dy (mouse position delta in X and Y), as we'll see directly in the code.

In order to implement the rotation function, we need three more handlers for the MouseDown, MouseUp and MouseMove events of the main grid:

<Grid Background="Black" MouseWheel="Grid_MouseWheel"
    MouseDown="Grid_MouseDown" MouseUp="Grid_MouseUp"

We also need a couple of variables in the MainWindow class (besides the previously defined mGeometry):

private GeometryModel3D mGeometry;
private bool mDown;
private Point mLastPos; 

mDown is true when the mouse left button is pressed, false otherwise. mLastPos contains the last position of the mouse pointer relative to the viewport (this is very important, as we're going to see).

The MouseDown and MouseUp event handlers are quite simple, they just toggle mDown.

private void Grid_MouseUp(object sender, MouseButtonEventArgs e) {
    mDown = false;

private void Grid_MouseDown(object sender, MouseButtonEventArgs e) {
    if(e.LeftButton != MouseButtonState.Pressed) return;
    mDown = true;
    Point pos = Mouse.GetPosition(viewport);
    mLastPos = new Point(
            pos.X - viewport.ActualWidth / 2,
            viewport.ActualHeight / 2 - pos.Y);

MouseDown actually does a little more: it stores the first position of the mouse just after its left button is pressed. The position is relative to the viewport (Mouse.GetPosition does that), and it is then converted from the 2D coordinate system to the 3D coordinate system, as mentioned at the beginning of the article: the X and Z coordinates must be adjusted using the ActualWidth and ActualHeight properties of the viewport element.

The MouseMove handler has a lot of work to do. See the complete code:

private void Grid_MouseMove(object sender, MouseEventArgs e) {
    if(!mDown) return;
    Point pos = Mouse.GetPosition(viewport);
    Point actualPos = new Point(
            pos.X - viewport.ActualWidth / 2,
            viewport.ActualHeight / 2 - pos.Y);
    double dx = actualPos.X - mLastPos.X;
    double dy = actualPos.Y - mLastPos.Y;
    double mouseAngle = 0;

    if(dx != 0 && dy != 0) {
        mouseAngle = Math.Asin(Math.Abs(dy) /
            Math.Sqrt(Math.Pow(dx, 2) + Math.Pow(dy, 2)));
        if(dx < 0 && dy > 0) mouseAngle += Math.PI / 2;
        else if(dx < 0 && dy < 0) mouseAngle += Math.PI;
        else if(dx > 0 && dy < 0) mouseAngle += Math.PI * 1.5;
    else if(dx == 0 && dy != 0) {
            mouseAngle = Math.Sign(dy) > 0 ? Math.PI / 2 : Math.PI * 1.5;
    else if(dx != 0 && dy == 0) {
            mouseAngle = Math.Sign(dx) > 0 ? 0 : Math.PI;

    double axisAngle = mouseAngle + Math.PI / 2;

    Vector3D axis = new Vector3D(
            Math.Cos(axisAngle) * 4,
            Math.Sin(axisAngle) * 4, 0);

    double rotation = 0.02 *
            Math.Sqrt(Math.Pow(dx, 2) + Math.Pow(dy, 2));

    Transform3DGroup group = mGeometry.Transform as Transform3DGroup;
       QuaternionRotation3D r =
            new QuaternionRotation3D(
            new Quaternion(axis, rotation * 180 / Math.PI));
    group.Children.Add(new RotateTransform3D(r));

    mLastPos = actualPos;

The method first checks if the mouse left button is pressed; if not, it exists. The mouse dx and dy values are then calculated using the previous position stored in mLastPos, converting the current position to the 3D coordinate system as shown for the Grid_MouseDown event handler.

The angle of the mouse movement vector is then calculated with the formula we saw before, with three different cases:

  • If dx and dy are both different from zero, mouseAngle is computed using the absolute value of dy, and then it’s corrected according to the sign of both dx and dy.
  • If dx is zero, mouseAngle must be either 90 or 270 degrees (we use the sign of dy).
  • If dy is zero, mouseAngle must be either 0 or 180 degrees (we use the sign of dx).

The angle of the rotation axis (axisAngle) is calculated adding 90 degrees to the mouse movement vector angle. Keep in mind that these angles are always referred to the X axis.


The rotation axis (instance of Vector3D) is then calculated from the axisAngle, leaving the Z coordinate to zero.

The rotation angle is calculated as the module of the mouse movement angle multiplied for a factor of 0.01, producing a smooth rotation:

double rotation = 0.01 * Math.Sqrt(Math.Pow(dx, 2) + Math.Pow(dy, 2));

The only thing we have to do now is to apply a transformation to the geometry. Since we want to rotate the solid (but it’s possible to do many other things), we have to add an instance of RotateTransform3D to the Transform3DGroup collection we stored in the Transform property of the geometry (have a look at the BuildSolid method). We cast the collection and store it in the group variable.

The constructor of RotateTransform3D needs an instance of a class inheriting from Rotation3D describing the rotation to apply (see MSDN). Since we want to apply a rotation around an axis and by a given angle, we use QuaternionRotation3D and we instantiate it with axis and the rotation angle (in degrees, not in radians).

So far I omitted a detail. The rotation axis is not sufficient to define the actual axis of the rotation, because it also needs a center which is, in our case, the origin. The constructor of RotateTransform3D accepts an optional parameter that allows to specify the center of the rotation. If omitted, the origin is used.

Finally, we can add our transform to the transform collection:

group.Children.Add(new RotateTransform3D(r));

Again, there is a fundamental detail to note. Every transform we apply to the solid is absolute. This means that if we apply two transforms in sequence, the latter overrides the first. For this reason, we use a Transform3DGroup (inheriting from Transform3D) to store subsequent transforms, one for every mouse movement (as you can imagine, this constitutes a memory leak, but for our testing purposes, it is not a problem).

The last thing to do is to store the current mouse position in the mLastPos variable, so that the next mouse move will compute correct delta X/Y values.

We can now update the behavior of the Reset button so that, besides resetting the position of the camera, it also removes all the transforms applied to the solid (mitigating the memory leak we mentioned above).

private void Button_Click(object sender, RoutedEventArgs e) {
    camera.Position = new Point3D(
        camera.Position.Y, 5);
    mGeometry.Transform = new Transform3DGroup();

Now you're ready to hit F5 again and see the final result. If you are running Windows Vista, you can also admire the full-scene anti-aliasing filter applied to the edges of the solid.



Although there is still much work to do before obtaining a full-featured 3D user interface, we explored some interesting features of WPF 3D and we are a little more aware of its advantages and problems.


  • 31st January, 2008: Initial post


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Dario Solera

Italy Italy
Software Development Manager working on IaaS cloud computing. Cloud believer, (former) entrepreneur, F1 addict.

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Comments and Discussions

GeneralThanks for your work. It is very helpful Pin
Member 1133994528-Dec-14 21:45
memberMember 1133994528-Dec-14 21:45 
QuestionThanks for your work Pin
Andrea Feduzzi19-Oct-14 22:56
professionalAndrea Feduzzi19-Oct-14 22:56 
QuestionHow to Get Knowledge of WPF libraries and Usage? Pin
sreeyush15-Mar-14 1:16
membersreeyush15-Mar-14 1:16 
AnswerRe: How to Get Knowledge of WPF libraries and Usage? Pin
Frank Reidar Haugen2-Jun-14 10:38
memberFrank Reidar Haugen2-Jun-14 10:38 
GeneralMy vote of 1 Pin
sreeyush15-Mar-14 1:15
membersreeyush15-Mar-14 1:15 
GeneralRe: My vote of 1 Pin
Frank Reidar Haugen2-Jun-14 10:35
memberFrank Reidar Haugen2-Jun-14 10:35 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
arena_luigi4-Sep-13 12:39
memberarena_luigi4-Sep-13 12:39 
Questionhi Pin
Member 1007103623-Jul-13 4:13
memberMember 1007103623-Jul-13 4:13 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
John Bracey10-Jul-13 2:37
groupJohn Bracey10-Jul-13 2:37 
GeneralVEry Nice Demo to start with Pin
PrajaktaMarkale18-Jun-13 2:08
memberPrajaktaMarkale18-Jun-13 2:08 
SuggestionI wish contributors would put some information in the code that identifies them or the webpage Pin
Kevin Whitefoot7-May-13 1:57
memberKevin Whitefoot7-May-13 1:57 
GeneralRe: I wish contributors would put some information in the code that identifies them or the webpage Pin
Frank Reidar Haugen2-Jun-14 10:40
memberFrank Reidar Haugen2-Jun-14 10:40 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Kevin Whitefoot7-May-13 1:52
memberKevin Whitefoot7-May-13 1:52 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
AleksandarToplek22-Jul-12 5:33
memberAleksandarToplek22-Jul-12 5:33 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
Dezfoul19-May-12 14:50
memberDezfoul19-May-12 14:50 
QuestionWhy the line is not smooth after rotation? Pin
Naresh Goradara22-Apr-12 22:15
memberNaresh Goradara22-Apr-12 22:15 
QuestionSwipe effect Pin
chualuoi20-Oct-11 22:06
memberchualuoi20-Oct-11 22:06 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
gaesquivel30-May-11 11:19
membergaesquivel30-May-11 11:19 
Excellent work!!! awesome!
GeneralErrors [modified] Pin
a2modmanager5-Jan-11 3:15
membera2modmanager5-Jan-11 3:15 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pin
show_stopper17-Dec-10 6:54
membershow_stopper17-Dec-10 6:54 
GeneralMaths Error - In Calculating MouseAngle. PLEASE checking this one........ Pin
Pritesh Aryan9-Dec-10 0:09
memberPritesh Aryan9-Dec-10 0:09 
GeneralExcellent article. Thanks. Pin
Harish Palaniappan2-Dec-10 5:11
memberHarish Palaniappan2-Dec-10 5:11 
Generalsome viewport problame Pin
lapis balazs18-Nov-10 2:39
memberlapis balazs18-Nov-10 2:39 
GeneralPlotting functions Pin
yavor_todorov1819-Oct-10 3:47
memberyavor_todorov1819-Oct-10 3:47 
QuestionHow to calc these numbers? Pin
WuJunyin9-Oct-09 4:36
memberWuJunyin9-Oct-09 4:36 

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