Appendix B. Further Study

Table of Contents

Topics of Interest

This book provides a firm foundation for you to get started in your adventures as a graphics programmer. However, it ultimately cannot cover everything. What follows will be a general overview of other topics that you should investigate now that you have a general understanding of how graphics work.


This book provides functioning code to solve various problems and implement a variety of effects. However, it does not talk about how to get code from a non-working state into a working one. That is, debugging.

Debugging OpenGL code is very difficult. Frequently when there is a bug in graphics code, the result is a massively unhelpful blank screen. If the problem is localized to a single shader or state used to render an object, the result is a black object or general garbage. Compounding this problem is the fact that OpenGL has a lot of global state. One of the reasons this book will often bind objects, do something with them, and then unbind them, is to reduce the amount of state dependencies. It ensures that every object is rendered with a specific program, a set of textures, a certain VAO, etc. It may be slightly slower to do this, but for a simple application, getting it working is more important.

Debugging shaders is even more problematic; there are no breakpoints or watches you can put on GLSL shaders. Fragment shaders offer the possibility of printf-style debugging: one can always write some values to the framebuffer and see something. Vertex or other shader stages require passing their data through another stage before the outcome can be seen. And even then, it is an interpolated version.

Because of the difficulty in debugging, the general tactics for doing so revolve around bug prevention rather than bug finding. Therefore, the most important tactic for debugging is this: always start with working code. Begin development with something that actually functions, even if it is not drawing what you ultimately intend for it to. Once you have working code, you can change it to render what you need it to.

The second tip is to minimize the amount of code/data that could be causing any problem you encounter. This means making small changes in a working application and immediately testing to see if they work or not. If they do not, then it must be because of those small changes. If you make big changes, then the size of the code/data you have to look through is much larger. The more code you have to debug, the harder it is to do so effectively.

Along with the last tip is to use a distributed version control system and check in your code often, preferably after each small change. This will allow you to revert any changes that do not work, as well as see the actual differences between the last working version and the now non-functional version. This will save you from inadvertent keystrokes and the like.

The next step is to avail yourself of debugging tools, where they exist for your platform(s) of interest. OpenGL itself can help here. The OpenGL specification defines what functions should do in the case of malformed input. Specifically, they will place errors into the OpenGL error queue. After every OpenGL function call, you may want to check to see if an error has been added to the queue. This is done with code as follows:

for(GLenum currError = glGetError(); currError != GL_NO_ERROR; currError = glGetError())
  //Do something with `currError`.

It would be very tedious to put this after every function. But since the errors are all stored in a queue, they are not associated with the actual function that caused the error. If glGetError is not called frequently, it becomes very difficult to know where any particular error came from. Therefore, there is a special OpenGL extension specifically for aiding in debugging: ARB_debug_output. This extension is only available when creating an OpenGL context with a special debug flag. The framework used here automatically uses this extension in debug builds.

The debug output extension allows the user to register a function that will be called whenever errors happen. It can also be called when less erroneous circumstances occur; this depends on the OpenGL implementation. When set up for synchronous error messages, the callback will be called before the function that created the error returned. So it is possible to breakpoint inside the callback function and see exactly which function caused it.

Setting up the callback is somewhat complex. The Unofficial OpenGL SDK offers, as part of its GL Utilities sub-library, a registration function for setting up the debug output properly. Also, the framework for this book's code offers similar functionality. It is located in framework/framework.cpp.

There are alternatives for catching OpenGL errors. The utility glIntercept (it works in Linux and Windows, but the Linux port is slightly iffy) is capable of hooking into OpenGL without any code modifications and tracking every OpenGL function call. It can dump every OpenGL call to a file, as well as the given parameters. This is very useful for debugging, as it tells you more about what may have caused certain error or visual glitches. It also automatically checks for errors after every function call, alleviating the need to do so manually. Any errors are logged with the function that produced them.

The gDebugger tool, Windows only, offers similar features, though unlike glIntercept, it is not open-source.

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