Introduction
3D computer graphics viewing is essentially a straightforward mapping of graphical items in a 3D 'view' volume to a 2D image. Yet there is no standard way to specify the view, and there are a wide range of different viewing implementations currently in use. Closely tied in to viewing parameters is 3D interaction, and there are likewise a large number of different 3D interaction implementations often providing the same basic functionality. Users are forced to learn and use different pan, zoom, and spin techniques for each 3D program they use. As every 3D program has to reinvent this functionality, why hasn’t a standard emerged after so many decades? This lack of standardization leads to higher development and support efforts as well as stifling the proliferation of user interface features like stereo.
A standard viewing software toolkit, along with a standard motion toolkit, would benefit end users by delivering consistent and comprehensive 3D interaction across applications, and would benefit developers by reducing development time, software support, and customer support. All of the various interaction techniques can be provided to satisfy the varying requirements of the different types of 3D programs and the different levels of end user expertise.
At the foundation of viewing code, there are calls made to the underlying 3D API. The popular 3D APIs, namely OpenGL® and Direct3D®, have different viewing calls. An independent low level set of viewing parameters is needed to handle all possible types of 3D views. The viewing and motion toolkits can then be built on top of these.
A new and simpler perspective on 3D viewing (pun intended) is presented here, leading to a set of seven viewing parameters that handle all types of views found in 3D computer graphics. Code is provided for configuring OpenGL and Direct3D with these low level viewing parameters. Sample code also shows a higher level set of viewing parameters suitable for many common types of 3D programs.
The attached "NewView" demo has both OpenGL and Direct3D windows side by side showing how the viewing parameters are used to configure the respective views. Some simple mouse interaction is also provided.
Viewing Basics
Viewing maps a 3D view volume to a 2D image. Viewing involves transformation, clipping, occlusion, and rendering operations. Transformations map geometric information such as coordinates or directions to a specified coordinate system or 'space' where other operations are performed. Clipping excludes any graphical items that are external to the view volume, and trims any items crossing the view volume's surface or surfaces. Occlusion hides any items or parts of items that are behind items closer to the front of the view volume. Rendering generates pixel or line plotting values based on the graphical item’s geometry and on color or texture information, along with other scene information such as lighting.
A virtual world is generally defined as a tree structure that associates graphical items into collections and specifies how the items positionally relate to each other. The top level or root of the tree is usually considered the ‘world’ space. The relative spatial position of child items to their parent is specified by rotate and translate transformations. Scale and skewing (a.k.a. shearing) transformations may be used to change the size and shape of graphical items. The view volume can itself be specified anywhere in the tree structure. Due to the treatment of viewing by the computer graphics text books, most 3D programs happen to use a set of viewing parameters independent of the tree structure.
The 3D view volume can be fully specified by defining its shape, then orienting and positioning the shape relative to world space. A 'view' space is defined to specify the shape, then a rotate/translate transformation is used to locate this view space in world space.
When the 2D output image is a rectangular shape, the 3D view volume is either a rectangular prism (parallel views) or a truncated pyramid (perspective views). A truncated pyramid is called a frustum. Consider forming the view volume by either sweeping a rectangle along a straight line segment to form a prism, or scaling a rectangle about a 3D point to form a frustum. Note that the axis of the prism or frustum may or may not be normal to the rectangular cross section. For simplicity, the view volume is aligned in view space with the rectangular cross section parallel to the z = 0 plane; this makes the front and back clipping planes parallel to the z = 0 plane. The rectangular cross section’s sides are aligned to the X and Y axes, so view space +X is right, and +Y is up.
Clipping calculations are simpler when the 3D view volume, transformed to clipping space, is bounded by an appropriate set of six of the x = 0, y = 0, z = 0, x = 1, y = 1, z = 1, x = 1, y = 1, and z = 1 clipping space planes. This means the viewtoclippingspace transformation typically needs to deform the rectangular prism or frustum in view space into a square prism or cube in clipping space. There are two common clipping volumes: one is a cube with opposing corners at (1, 1, 1) and (1, 1, 1), and the other is a square prism with opposing corners at (1, 1, 0) and (1, 1, 1). The two most popular 3D graphics programming interfaces are OpenGL® and Direct3D®. OpenGL clips to the cube, and Direct3D to the square prism. Appropriate ‘projection’ transformations map the view volume from view space to clipping space. Note: some older wireframe graphic systems do not clip in the depth direction, and the view volume theoretically extends to infinity.

Figure 1. Clipping space view volumes

Angular calculations, such as the angle of a surface to a light source, are required for many types of lighting and coloring operations. The viewtoclippingspace transformation does not preserve angles or distance, and so angular and distance calculations cannot be done in clipping space. View space does have correct angles so, typically, all items are transformed to view space where angular and distance lighting calculations are performed. The view space coordinates are then transformed to clipping space where clipping is done. The clipping space coordinates are finally transformed to pixel and depth buffer space where occlusion and rendering calculations are performed.
General View Volume
The general rectangular prism or frustum view volume can be specified in view space with the following seven values: HalfWidth, HalfHeight, ZNear, ZFar, InverseEyeZ, TanSkewX, TanSkewY. These are abbreviated as: hw
, hh
, zn
, zf
, iez
, tsx
, and tsy
. hw
and hh
define a rectangle in the z = 0 plane. The front and back clipping planes are the z = zn
and z = zf
planes. The tsx
and tsy
values specify the horizontal and vertical trigonometric tan values of an axis passing through the view space origin, and iez
specifies the inverse of the eyepoint’s Z view space coordinate. Right handed spaces have zn > zf
, and left handed ones have zn < zf
. For perspective views, ensure either 1/iez > zn > zf
or 1/iez < zn < zf
.
Figure 2 shows the general view volume with various coordinates including those for the lower left near (LLN) and upper right far (URF) corners.


Figure 2. General view volume.

Nearly all 3D programs use normal or right prisms and frustums where the axis is normal to the rectangular cross section, and so tsx
and tsy
are both zero. Correct stereo viewing requires nonzero tsx
and tsy
values, as will be shown later. The use of ZNear and ZFar, instead of a HalfDepth value, disassociates the width and height values from the placement of the near and far clipping planes.
Homogenous coordinates and transformations are almost universally used to transform and clip geometry. The viewtoclipspace ‘projection’ matrices that transform to either the OpenGL or the Direct3D clipping spaces are:
These matrices provide for both parallel and perspective views.
Transforming the lower left front and upper right back view volume corners to the two clipping spaces helps confirm these matrices. These points, as homogenous coordinates, are:
So:
as required.
When iez
is zero, the eyepoint is at infinity, resulting in a parallel projection. A perspective projection is specified by 1/iez
> zn
> zf
or 1/iez
< zn
< zf
. A new type of projection, termed here as reverse perspective projection, is defined by zn
> zf
> 1/iez
or zn
< zf
< 1/iez
. Notice how viewing a cube faceon in a reverse perspective projection exposes five of the cube’s six faces.

Figure 3. A cube viewed faceon in a perspective, an orthographic, and a reverse perspective view

All the historical types of views where straight 3D lines map to straight 2D lines are implemented by this general projection transformation.
 Parallel (
iez
= 0)
 Orthographic (
tsx
= 0 and tsy
= 0)
 Top, front, side, plan, elevation, etc.
 Dimetric
 Trimetric
 Isometric
 Oblique (
tsx
!= 0 and/or tsy
!= 0)
 Perspective (1/
iez
> zn
> zf
or 1/iez
< zn
< zf
)
 One point
 Two point
 Three point
 Reverse Perspective (
zn
> zf
> 1/iez
or zn
< zf
< 1/iez
)
Note: A physical camera lens does not precisely map a 3D straight line to a 2D straight line.
iez
is efficient for viewing and motion calculations, but it is an awkward value for the user interface. A better user interface value is the ‘view angle’ defined here to be the smaller of the unskewed horizontal and vertical view volume’s taper angles.
The use of this view angle parameter will extend wide views sideways and extend tall views vertically to ensure a square prism or frustum corresponding to this angle is always visible. Drag the corner of the NewView demo window to see this in action. Changing the view angle is akin to changing the zoom on a physical camera’s zoom lens. For most 3D programs, a perspective flag is sufficient to toggle the view angle between zero, for a parallel view, and 45°, for a perspective view.
3D computer graphics programming interfaces, such as OpenGL and Direct3D, follow the computer graphics viewing literature to define perspective and parallel projections as different transformations. This difference is due to the eyepoint being set as the origin. The eyepoint is a projection singularity. As a result, the lower right perspective projection matrix value must be zero, whereas parallel projections require this value to be nonzero. Parallel and perspective projections are actually alike, and can be handled with the same viewing code as is clear from the projection matrices shown above. The use of a common set of viewing parameters for both parallel and perspective projections helps simplify motion algorithms used to control the view or to move other items.
OpenGL and Direct3D usually require parallel matrices, with the last column being [0, 0, 0, 1], and perspective matrices with the last column being [0, 0, 1, 0]**. When iez
is zero, the standard form given above has the required parallel last column. For perspective views, the origin needs to be translated to the eyepoint to make the last column [0, 0, 1, 0]. Note: Scaling a homogenous projection matrix by any nonzero value has no effect on the transformation.
** As of October 2009, Microsoft’s online OpenGL documentation is negated and does not match the actual binary.
Let ez
= 1/iez
.
The sample code in Appendix A uses these formulae to set up the OpenGL and Direct3D transformation matrices given the general viewing parameters. Appendix B is an example showing how to use a useful set of viewing and interaction variables to calculate the general viewing parameters.
Stereo Views
Stereo viewing hardware and software try to mimic real world viewing by mapping a virtual left and a right view volume to the viewer’s eyes such that the left and right 2D images coincide in the same physical space in front of the viewer. The stereo view can be compared with viewing a real world scene through a rectangular hole in the same physical space. Unlike the real world, though, the focal distance is the optical distance of the 2D images, not the distance of the real objects. Also, there are regions in front of the rectangle where graphics is visible to only one eye. In the real world, the object would obstruct the frame of the rectangle, but in the virtual stereo view, the object disappears from one eye’s view.
A precise stereo view requires the virtual viewing geometry to match the physical viewing geometry. Only when a physical eye is directly in front of the center of the viewed image should the virtual view frustum be a normal or right frustum. In all other cases, the view frustum should be skewed. Also, there is only one true physical position to view a stereo pair. The human brain compensates for considerable variations between the virtual and physical viewing geometry, which is why hundreds of people can watch a 3D movie.
The virtual distance between the virtual eyepoints in relation to the distance between the viewer’s physical eyes scales a scene. For instance, a stereo pair of cameras mounted on an airport terminal 63 m (207') apart would show the airport scaled to 1/1000th its size for a viewer with a 63mm (2.48”) eye separation.
Many stereo viewing texts, articles, and implementations incorrectly use right or normal view volumes and rotate them slightly. The result is close to correct so the viewer does see a decent 3D image. Also, the vast majority of stereo viewing implementations have the same screentoeye distance for both eyes. If the physical viewer’s eye distances can vary, then the virtual geometry should not have this restriction.
There is some confusion regarding the term 'eye direction' in the graphics literature as the eye direction is mathematically the normal to the rectangular cross section. To illustrate the misnomer, consider viewing a computer screen from well off to one side of the screen. The corresponding 'view direction', being normal to the screen, actually points to mid air next to the screen, and doesn't even pass through the view volume.
A suitable definition for a stereo view uses the same definition of view space as above. The overlapped rectangle is centered on the view space origin. A 3D position for each eye in view space completes the definition. HalfWidth, HalfHeight, ZNear, ZFar, LeftEye(x,y,z), RightEye(x,y,z).
Immersive Virtual Reality
Systems, such as CAVE[1] and iCinema[2], use multiple stereo views surrounding the viewer(s) to provide an immersive effect. The CAVE has walls, a floor, and a roof. The iCinema has a tall cylindrical screen with twelve cameras projecting as many as 24 stereo pairs. Neighboring stereo pairs are aligned so the edge of one pair closely matches the edge of its neighboring pair. The effect is quite dramatic.
Augmented Reality
Augmented reality is the combining of real world images with corresponding virtual world images. The virtual view volume geometry must match the physical viewing geometry. Augmented reality can provide the effect of Xray vision to 'see', for instance, wires in the wall of an aircraft. Finished buildings could be shown overlaid on a direct view of a live construction site.
The use of a head mounted display with a camera and a head tracker can produce stunning dynamic Xray vision results, delivering significant benefits to, for instance, a repair technician. Robotic surgery has progressed to the point where surgeons are able to use cameras and robots to perform surgery while being physically remote from the patient. 3D computer graphic imagery adds details not visible to the camera. Augmented reality with live scanning technology could deliver the equivalent of Xray vision, where a surgeon can graphically see the internals of the patient overlaid on their real world view of the patient.
It is amazing to realize the first headmounted 3D display with a head tracker was built in the mid 1960's by the computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland. This is one technology that is taking literally decades to go from invention to commercialization.
Using the Code
The code to configure OpenGL and Direct3D is in the Configure_OpenGL()
and Configure_Direct3D()
functions in the GeneralView.cpp file. These functions are declared in GeneralView.h as:
void ConfigureView_OpenGL( float ViewVolume[7], float ViewToWorld[4][3] );
#ifdef _D3D9_H_
void ConfigureView_Direct3D( FLOAT ViewVolume[7], FLOAT ViewToWorld[4][3],
D3DMATRIX& Projection, D3DMATRIX& World );
#endif
Either copy the code or the GeneralView.* files over to your project. These files were written to be independent of other code, like the SpatialMath module. To display an object centered on the world space origin within a sphere of radius Radius
, use:
ViewVolume[0] = 0.6f * Radius; ViewVolume[1] = 0.6f * Radius; if (PixelsAcross >= PixelsUpDown) ViewVolume[0] *= (float) PixelsAcross / PixelsUpDown;
else
ViewVolume[1] *= (float) PixelsUpDown / PixelsAcross;
ViewVolume[2] = 4.0f * Radius; ViewVolume[3] = 4.0f * Radius; ViewVolume[4] = 0; ViewVolume[5] = ViewVolume[6] = 0; float ViewToWorld[4][3] = {{1,0,0},{0,1,0},{0,0,1},{0,0,0}};
Then, call Configure_OpenGL()
or Configure_Direct3D()
.
Following Configure_Direct3D()
is the sample code with a set of high level viewing parameters suitable for common 3D programs. This can be used as a basis for the 3D interaction section of the user interface.
The demo source code shows how to use mouse interaction, but considerably more detail is needed to explain it. Watch for a future installment...
Conclusion
Approaching 3D computer graphics viewing as a mapping of a 3D view volume to a 2D image leads to a very straightforward and comprehensive set of viewing parameters compared with the traditional approaches found in most computer graphics textbooks.
The viewing code provided here, although small, can save a significant amount of time when implementing a 3D program. It also provides portability, and can form the basis for a 3D interaction toolkit that would save considerable development time and effort. A small fraction of 3D programs support things like skewed views (e.g., the cabinet projection) and stereo views. Once provided in a toolkit, these types of features become automatically available. Users would benefit from consistent and rich 3D viewing and interaction features across the programs they use. The set of seven viewing parameters, along with a rotation and translation as described here, is comprehensive, simple, and flexible enough to satisfy all the needs of 3D viewing, motion, and interaction.
Points of Interest
To show the viewing code in operation required a small OpenGL and Direct3D program. It was fun running both OpenGL and Direct3D simultaneously side by side. I have never seen this done before, although a number of programs can switch from one to the other. The code to initialize OpenGL and Direct3D may be of interest to a number of readers.
Creating a small simple and clean general 3D API to be supported by both OpenGL and Direct3D was a bit of a challenge as they are quite different architectures. The result is simple and works well.
The basic SpatialMath module may also be of interest as it provides a way to clean code vector and matrix algorithms. Of course, I prefer it over other math modules that I have come across over the years.
References
Appendix A
The following code uses the general viewing parameters and the ViewToWorld rotate/translate transformation to configure OpenGL and Direct3D:
#include "stdafx.h"
#include <d3d9.h>
#include <d3dx9.h>
#include <dxerr9.h>
#include "gl/gl.h"
#include "gl/glu.h"
#include "GeneralView.h"
void Vec3MultInverseRotTrn( float vout[3], float v3[3], float RotTrn[4][3] )
{
float tmp[3] = {
v3[0]RotTrn[3][0],
v3[0]RotTrn[3][1],
v3[0]RotTrn[3][2]
};
for (int i=0; i<3; i++)
vout[i] = tmp[0] * RotTrn[i][0]
+ tmp[1] * RotTrn[i][1]
+ tmp[2] * RotTrn[i][2];
}
void ConfigureView_OpenGL( float ViewVolume[7], float ViewToWorld[4][3] )
{
struct TViewVolume { FLOAT hw, hh, zn, zf, iez, tsx, tsy; };
TViewVolume& vv = *(TViewVolume*) ViewVolume;
float &hw = vv.hw , &hh = vv.hh , &zn = vv.zn , &zf = vv.zf;
float &iez = vv.iez, &tsx = vv.tsx, &tsy = vv.tsy;
glMatrixMode( GL_PROJECTION );
static const float kVerySmall = 1e6f;
if (abs(iez) < kVerySmall)
{
GLfloat Ortho[4][4] = {
{ 1/hw, 0, 0, 0 },
{ 0, 1/hh, 0, 0 },
{ tsx/hw, tsy/hh, 2/(znzf), 0 },
{ 0, 0, (zn+zf)/(znzf), 1 }
};
glLoadMatrixf( Ortho[0] );
glMatrixMode( GL_MODELVIEW );
glLoadIdentity();
}
else
{
float ez = 1/iez; GLfloat Persp[4][4] = {
{ ez/hw, 0, 0, 0 },
{ 0, ez/hh, 0, 0 },
{ ez*tsx/hw, ez*tsy/hh, (2*ez(zn+zf))/(znzf), 1 },
{ 0, 0, 2*(ez*(ez(zn+zf))+zn*zf)/(znzf), 0 }
};
glLoadMatrixf( Persp[0] );
glMatrixMode( GL_MODELVIEW );
glLoadIdentity();
glTranslatef( ez*tsx, ez*tsy, ez );
}
GLfloat WorldToViewRotate[4][4] = {
{ ViewToWorld[0][0], ViewToWorld[1][0], ViewToWorld[2][0], 0 },
{ ViewToWorld[0][1], ViewToWorld[1][1], ViewToWorld[2][1], 0 },
{ ViewToWorld[0][2], ViewToWorld[1][2], ViewToWorld[2][2], 0 },
{ 0, 0, 0, 1 }
};
glMultMatrixf( WorldToViewRotate[0] );
glTranslatef( ViewToWorld[3][0], ViewToWorld[3][1], ViewToWorld[3][2] );
}
void ConfigureView_Direct3D( FLOAT ViewVolume[7], FLOAT ViewToWorld[4][3],
D3DMATRIX& Projection, D3DMATRIX& World )
{
struct TViewVolume { FLOAT hw, hh, zn, zf, iez, tsx, tsy; };
TViewVolume& vv = *(TViewVolume*) ViewVolume;
float &hw = vv.hw , &hh = vv.hh , &zn = vv.zn , &zf = vv.zf;
float &iez = vv.iez, &tsx = vv.tsx, &tsy = vv.tsy;
for (int i=0; i<3; i++)
{
World.m[3][i] = ViewToWorld[3][0] * ViewToWorld[i][0]
 ViewToWorld[3][1] * ViewToWorld[i][1]
 ViewToWorld[3][2] * ViewToWorld[i][2];
World.m[0][i] = ViewToWorld[i][0];
World.m[1][i] = ViewToWorld[i][1];
World.m[2][i] = ViewToWorld[i][2];
World.m[i][3] = 0;
}
World.m[3][3] = 1;
static const float kVerySmall = 1e6f;
if (abs(iez) < kVerySmall)
{
D3DXMATRIX Ortho( 1/hw, 0, 0, 0,
0, 1/hh, 0, 0,
tsx/hw, tsy/hh, 1/(znzf), 0,
0, 0, zn/(znzf), 1 );
Projection = Ortho;
}
else
{
FLOAT ez = 1/iez; D3DXMATRIX Persp( ez/hw, 0, 0, 0,
0, ez/hh, 0, 0,
ez*tsx/hw, ez*tsy/hh, (ezzf)/(znzf), 1,
0, 0, (ezzn)*(ezzf)/(znzf), 0 );
Projection = Persp;
World.m[3][0] += ez * tsx;
World.m[3][1] += ez * tsy;
World.m[3][2] += ez;
}
}
Appendix B
The following code is based on a set of high level viewing parameters useful for many 3D programs:
template< typename T >
union TVec3 { T v3[3]; struct { T x, y, z; }; };
float g_ViewOrientation[3][3]; float g_ViewCenter[3]; float g_ViewSize; float g_ViewAngle; float g_BoundingSphere[4]; int g_ViewportWidth, g_ViewportHeight;
template< typename T >
void ConfigureView( T ViewToWorld[4][3], T ViewVolume[7] )
{
for (int i=0; i<3; i++)
*(TVec3%lt;T%gt;*) ViewToWorld[i] = *(TVec3%lt;T%gt;*) g_ViewOrientation[i];
*(TVec3%lt;T%gt;*) ViewToWorld[3] = *(TVec3%lt;T%gt;*) g_ViewCenter;
ViewToWorld[3][0] = ViewToWorld[3][1] = ViewToWorld[3][2] = 0;
union TViewVolume {
T v7[7];
struct { T hw, hh, zn, zf, iez, tsx, tsy; };
};
TViewVolume& vv = *(TViewVolume*) ViewVolume;
vv.tsx = vv.tsy = 0; vv.hw = vv.hh = 0.5f * g_ViewSize;
if (g_ViewportWidth >= g_ViewportHeight)
vv.hw *= (float) g_ViewportWidth / g_ViewportHeight;
else
vv.hh *= (float) g_ViewportHeight / g_ViewportWidth;
TVec3<T> SphereCenterView;
Vec3MultInverseRotTrn( SphereCenterView.v3, g_BoundingSphere, ViewToWorld );
float& radius = g_BoundingSphere[3];
vv.zn = SphereCenterView.x + radius;
vv.zf = SphereCenterView.x  radius;
static const float kVerySmall = 1e6f;
if (g_ViewAngle < kVerySmall)
vv.iez = 0; else
{
float EyeZ = min(vv.hw,vv.hh) / tan(0.5f*g_ViewAngle);
static const float kMinNearDistance = 1e4f;
if (vv.zn > EyeZkMinNearDistance)
vv.zn = EyeZkMinNearDistance;
static const float kMinNearFarFactor = 5e4f;
if (vv.zn > (EyeZvv.zf)*kMinNearFarFactor)
vv.zn = (EyeZvv.zf)*kMinNearFarFactor;
vv.iez = 1 / EyeZ;
}
}
template void ConfigureView<float>( float ViewToWorld[4][3], float ViewVolume[7] );
History
 October 5, 2009: Initial post.
 October 6, 2009: Fixed the "!="s typo.
 October 10, 2009: Formatting tweaks, dixed "<"s and ">"s in the code above.
 October 23, 2009: Added "(VS2005)" to the download link.