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Submission + - Book Review: OpenGL Shading Language (3rd Edition)

Martin Ecker writes: Statistics
Title: OpenGL Shading Language (Third Edition)
Author: Randi J. Rost, Bill Licea-Kane
Pages: 743
Rating: 9/10
Publisher: Addison-Wesley Professional
ISBN-10: 0-321-63763-1
ISBN-13: 978-0-321-63763-5
Price: $59.99 US
Book Website:
Summary: A solid introduction to developing shaders in the OpenGL Shading Language GLSL.

The “OpenGL Shading Language” (also called the Orange Book because of its orange cover) is back in its meanwhile third edition with updated discussions of the OpenGL shading language up to version 1.40 introduced with OpenGL 3.1. Like the previous edition, the third edition of the book is one of the best introductions to GLSL — the OpenGL Shading Language — that not only teaches the ins and outs of GLSL itself but also explains in-depth how to develop shaders in GLSL for lighting, shadows, animation, and other topics relevant to real-time computer graphics.

Not unexpectedly the book starts out with a brief review of OpenGL basics. However, I would not recommend diving into this book without having prior experience with OpenGL, or at least with some other kind of 3D API, such as Direct3D. The book targets an audience that is already familiar with computer graphics and with OpenGL. Furthermore, knowledge of the C programming language is expected.

The next few chapters introduce the syntax and semantics of GLSL. At its core, GLSL is very similar to C. All the usual control flow statements, such as if statements and for loops, are available. However, the language adds some graphics-specific types, such as vectors and matrices. Even though this material is fairly dry, the writing is easy to follow and all concepts are presented with plenty of examples. Also uniform blocks — a new feature of GLSL version 1.40 — are discussed. Uniform blocks are used to efficiently send a block of variables via a uniform buffer to the GPU.

After familiarizing the reader with the language itself, chapter four delves into the integration of the shader-programmable units into the OpenGL pipeline, in particular the vertex and fragment shader units. Note that geometry shaders are not discussed in this book since they are a fairly recent addition to the OpenGL 3.2 specification.
The next chapter goes over all the built-in, common functions that GLSL provides, such as sin, cos, abs, fract, and so on. Being more of a visual learner, what I really like about this chapter that the authors provide function graphs for each of the functions introduced.
After all the basics of the shading language have been laid out in previous chapters, chapter six is dedicated to a full-fledged example that uses GLSL to procedurally render a brick pattern. If you're already familiar with other shading languages, such as Direct3D's HLSL or Cg, and you want to switch over to OpenGL/GLSL, I recommend jumping straight to this chapter to see how much you can grasp and then going back to the preceding pages to fill in the blanks if necessary.

The somewhat lengthy chapter seven contains detailed descriptions of the entry points provided by OpenGL to create and set up shader programs. Among other things, it describes how shader objects are created, compiled, and then linked to form shader programs that can then be used to render objects. Chapter seven concludes the dry, technical part of the book that introduced both the shading language and the necessary infrastructure to use it from a host program running on the CPU. The remainder of the book concentrates on numerous graphics techniques that can be achieved with shaders, such as bump mapping, lighting, shadows, animation, procedural effects, and many more. In short, it's the real fun part of the book where all the theory gets put into practice.

One of the highlights for me is the chapter on writing lighting shaders that discusses hemi-sphere lighting, image-based lighting using environment maps as light probes, and spherical harmonics lighting. The chapter on lighting is concluded by a discussion of the ÜberLight shader, a shader for a very versatile lighting model initially presented as RenderMan shader by Pixar Animation Studios.
Where there's no light there's shadow and so the book has an interesting chapter on various shadowing techniques, in particular ambient occlusion, shadow maps, and an interesting technique for rendering shadow volumes using deferred shading. The latter technique can be used to render soft shadows convincingly.

The most interesting chapter for me in the book is the one on surface characteristics. It discusses and develops shaders to render surface materials that exhibit complex light interaction. The authors start out with a discussion of refraction and present shaders to achieve the classic Fresnel reflection/refraction and chromatic aberration effects. Then diffraction, i.e. light bending around sharp edges, is discussed and a shader that renders a vinyl record realistically is developed. Finally, the chapter focuses on BRDF-based lighting and develops various material shaders using the BRDF model, a quite important topic nowadays since more and more video games now actually use BRDF-based lighting models.

Another important chapter in the book in my opinion is chapter seventeen about antialiased procedural textures. I consider it important because it is often ignored that shaders that procedurally create textures usually suffer from aliasing artifacts. This chapter shows a number of anti-aliasing techniques to diminish these issues. Chapter eighteen is a fun chapter on non-photorealistic rendering, discussing hatching, Gooch shading, and how to render the Mandelbrot set in a shader. Finally, the book closes with a comparison of GLSL with other shading languages, in particular RenderMan, HLSL, and Cg. This is mostly of interest to real geeks and language lawyers ;)

As in the previous edition, all images and diagrams in the book are in black and white, except for a few pages that contain 34 color plates in the middle of the book. Most of the images are not overly "flashy" but do give a practical idea of the types of rendered images a particular shader can produce.

The book’s accompanying website at offers the source code to all the shaders presented in the book for download. Also available are other shaders not mentioned in the book and a demo application including source code, which nicely demonstrates the shaders in action. Most of the shaders are available under a very liberal BSD-style open source license.

The third edition of "OpenGL Shading Language" is an excellent introduction to shader programming with GLSL. It provides an in-depth and comprehensive discussion of the shading language itself as well as the C shader API used to create and manage shaders in the host program. The best and largest part of the book focuses on developing shaders for various applications, such as lighting, shadows, animation, and other areas of real-time computer graphics. If you’re interested in learning GLSL and shader programming in OpenGL, this is the book to get.

About the review author:
The author has been involved in real-time graphics programming for more than 10 years and works as a professional game developer for High Moon Studios in sunny California.
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Book Review: OpenGL Shading Language (3rd Edition)

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