Things I Learned at Siggraph II (2012)

In the interests of becoming a more well-rounded individual in the extremely narrow field of computer graphics, I spent last week in sunny LA, attending Siggraph. What follow are my notes and a little bit of synthesis from various sessions that I thought might be of some interest to our audience. I jotted these notes down during the presentations, and it’s very likely I either misunderstood or mis-transcribed things. All errors are my own.

Computer Aesthetics

Turns out, there’s no reliable way for a computer to understand human aesthetics. We like what we like as a result of a huge mess of ad hoc built up junk in our evolutionary history; this is difficult to model. Attempts have been made in the past: the most famous of these, the Golden Ratio, is actually not as historically important as we’ve been told. It doesn’t really appear in all the great works of art and culture people like to cite, although modern artists, aware of its reputation, have consciously used it in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interestingly, computers can, through the use of evolutionary algorithms, develop their own sense of aesthetics. They’re just not going to like what we like. We can’t use an evolutionary algorithm to bridge this gap because the fitness test can’t be automated – deciding which of two choices is more aesthetically pleasing is of course the problem we’re trying to solve. Thus evolutionary algorithms are bottlenecked by humans making that choice (and are subject to the taste of those particular humans).

Mobile GPU

Big news: at Siggraph, OpenGL ES 3 was announced. It’ll be a while before we have mobile devices running it, but now we can start planning ahead.

The important thing on mobile, as ever, is energy efficiency. This year I learned something new: mobile GPUs are never going to have more power. Power means heat, and if they get much more than the ~1watt they currently consume, the chips will melt. Well ok, not the chips, but the solder dots holding the chips in place. So, increases in mobile performance have to come from more energy-efficient hardware and software; we can’t just throw power at the problem like we do on the desktop.

Of course, we as software engineers don’t have much say over the chips. But we can write our code in a way that consumes less power. As I said last time, this mostly means writing more efficient code, so the hardware has a chance to power down. It also means common-sense things like throttling down the frame rate on static or slow content like menus.

There are some things I didn’t talk about last time, because I didn’t know them. Reducing bandwidth is of course important; communication between CPU and GPU takes time and power. One simple way to do this is to mirror symmetrical textures with GL_MIRRORED_REPEAT. Hey, half the bandwidth!

You can also reduce the amount of drawing the GPU has to do. Drawing models front to back, rather than vice versa, means the GPU can reject covered pixels and potentially save you a lot of drawing time. Yes, that means the skybox is drawn last, not first.

Changing GPU state takes a ton of time. That means bouncing between buffers for multi-pass effects is expensive. Rather than drawing to the framebuffer, then to an FBO, then compositing that back into the framebuffer, do the FBO first, and change states just once. Furthermore, you should try to draw all your other FBOs and assorted render targets before rendering to the default framebuffer.

Lastly on stuff I should already have known: FBO contents are saved to main memory. Clearing them before drawing into them on a new frame saves you from having to restore that memory back to the GPU. That’s a huge win for one line of code.

New Stuff

The new ES spec gives us a couple additional options. To reduce bandwidth, it provides two standard texture compression formats that look quite nice compared to the current non-standards (PVRTC on iOS) and tend to compress smaller.

Also, glFramebufferInvalidate does the same job as glClear for informing the GPU that you don’t need the contents of a framebuffer, without having to keep track of which bits need to be cleared. There’s the added bonus of having a name that indicates what it does.

That’s all, folks!

About Joel Kin

Developing on Apple platforms for, holy shit, like twenty years now. Find me on linkedin and twitter. My personal website is
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