Sponsored By

Book Excerpt: Killer Game Programming in Java: Introducing Java 3D

Culled from the pages of Killer Game Programming in Java, author Andrew Davison gives an overview of the main elements of Java 3D, and examines its suitability for games programming by considering the criticisms leveled against it.

Andrew Davison, Blogger

December 16, 2005

35 Min Read

The following is a selected excerpt of Chapter 14 from Killer Game Programming in Java (ISBN 0-596-00730-2) published by O'Reilly.


I'll summarize the main elements of Java 3D in this chapter, leaving program examples aside for the moment. Then, I'll examine Java 3D's suitability for games programming by considering the criticisms leveled against it.

Java 3D

The Java 3D API provides a collection of high-level constructs for creating, rendering, and manipulating a 3D scene graph composed of geometry, materials, lights, sounds, and more. Java 3D was developed by Sun Microsystems, and the most recent stable release is Version 1.3.1.

TIP: There is a Version 1.3.2, but it's a bug fix release under review as I write this in December 2004. For example, a rarely occurring bug with the J3DTimer class has been fixed.

By the time you read this, Version 1.3.2 will have been finalized (an FCS release will be available).

There are two Java 3D variants: one implemented on top of OpenGL, and the other above DirectX Graphics. OpenGL is a popular software API for writing 3D (and 2D) graphics applications across a wide range of hardware and operating systems (http://www.opengl.org/). It's a low-level API based around a graphics pipeline for pixel and vertex manipulation.

TIP: Prior to the 1.3.2 bug fix release, a programmer had to choose whether to download the OpenGL version of Java 3D or the DirectX implementation since they were offered as separate installers. With Version 1.3.2 (build 7 and later), both versions are in a single download.

DirectX Graphics supports a traditional graphics pipeline, describing all geometry in terms of vertices and pixels. It's part of DirectX, a collection of related gaming modules aimed at MS Windows ( http://www.microsoft.com/directx). The other DirectX APIs support 3D audio, networking, input device integration, multimedia, and installation management.

DirectX or OpenGL?

Often, the debate about which version of Java 3D is better is a debate about the relative merits of DirectX Graphics and OpenGL.

In most technical areas, DirectX Graphics and OpenGL are almost equivalent since both are based on the same graphics pipeline architecture and ideas flow between the two. The most significant differences between the two APIs are unrelated to their functionality. OpenGL is ported to a wide range of platforms and OSs, and DirectX is limited to PCs running Windows and the Xbox. DirectX is controlled by Microsoft alone, and the OpenGL Architecture Review Board (ARB) allows input from many partners.

The Direct X Graphics version of Java 3D is only available for Windows, where some users report that it's marginally faster than the OpenGL implementation. However, I've never noticed any difference when I've tried both systems.

The future seems brightest for the OpenGL version, which is the main focus of the current "bug fix" release of Java 3D, Version 1.3.2. I'll use the stable OpenGL version (1.3.1) in the rest of this book. It can be downloaded from http://java.sun.com/products/java-media/3D/, together with ample documentation and a long tutorial.

TIP: The FCS release of Version 1.3.2 will be available by the time you read this. You can obtain it from https://java3d.dev.java.net/.

The Scene Graph

Java 3D uses a scene graph to organize and manage a 3D application. The underlying graphics pipeline is hidden, replaced by a tree-like structure built from nodes representing 3D models, lights, sounds, the background, the camera, and many other scene elements.

The nodes are typed, the main division being between Group and Leaf nodes. A Group node is one with child nodes, grouping the children so operations such as translations, rotations, and scaling can be applied en masse. Leaf nodes are the leaves of the graph (did you guess that?), which often represent the visible things in the scene such as the models, but may be nontangible entities, such as lighting and sounds. Additionally, a Leaf node (e.g., for a 3D shape) may have node components , specifying color, reflectivity, and other attributes of the leaf.

The scene graph can contain behaviors , nodes holding code that can affect other nodes in the graph at runtime. Typical behavior nodes move shapes, detect and respond to shape collisions, and cycle lighting from day to night.

Scene graph is used, rather than scene tree, because it's possible for nodes to be shared (i.e., have more than one parent).

Before looking at a real Java 3D scene graph, Figure 14-1 shows how the scene graph idea can be applied to defining the contents of an office.

The office Group node is the parent of Leaf nodes representing a desk and two chairs. Each Leaf utilizes geometry (shape) and color node components, and the chair geometry information is shared. This sharing means that both chairs will have the same shape but will be colored differently.

The choice of symbols in Figure 14-1 comes from a standard symbol set (shown in Figure 14-2), used in all of this book's Java 3D scene graph diagrams. I'll explain the VirtualUniverse and Locale nodes and the Reference relationship in due course.

Some Java 3D scene graph nodes

The Java 3D API can be viewed as a set of classes that subclass the Group and Leaf nodes in various ways. The Leaf class is subclassed to define different kinds of 3D shapes and environmental nodes (i.e., nodes representing lighting, sounds, and behaviors).

The main shape class is called Shape3D, which uses two node components to define its geometry and appearance; these classes are called Geometry and Appearance.

The Group class supports basic node positioning and orientation for its children and is subclassed to extend those operations. For instance, BranchGroup allows children to be added or removed from the graph at runtime; TransformGroup permits the position and orientation of its children to be changed.

The HelloUniverse scene graph

The standard first example for Java 3D programmers is HelloUniverse. (It appears in Chapter 1 of Sun's Java 3D tutorial.) It displays a rotating colored cube, as in Figure 14-3.

The scene graph for this application is given in Figure 14-4.

VirtualUniverse is the top node in every scene graph and represents the virtual world space and its coordinate system. Locale acts as the scene graph's location in the virtual world. Below the Locale node are two subgraphs—the left branch is the content branch graph, holding program-specific content such as geometry, lighting, textures, and the world's background. The content branch graph differs significantly from one application to another.

The ColorCube is composed from a Shape3D node and associated Geometry and Appearance components. Its rotation is carried out by a Behavior node, which affects the TransformGroup parent of the ColorCube's shape.

The righthand branch below Locale is the view branch graph, which specifies the users' position, orientation, and perspective as they look into the virtual world from the physical world (e.g., from in front of a monitor). The ViewPlatform node stores the viewer's position in the virtual world; the View node states how to turn what the viewer sees into a physical world image (e.g., a 2D picture on the monitor). The Canvas3D node is a Java GUI component that allows the 2D image to be placed inside a Java application or applet.

The VirtualUniverse, Locale, and view branch graph often have the same structure across different applications since most programs use a single Locale and view the virtual world as a 2D image on a monitor. For these applications, the relevant nodes can be created with Java 3D's SimpleUniverse utility class, relieving the programmer much graph construction work.

Java 3D Strengths

The core strengths of Java 3D are its scene graph, its performance, collection of unique features, the fact that it's Java and can call upon an enormous number of support packages and APIs, and its extensive documentation and examples.

The Scene Graph

The scene graph has two main advantages: it simplifies 3D programming and accelerates the resulting code. The scene graph hides low-level 3D graphics elements and allows the programmer to manage and organize a 3D scene. A scene graph supports many complex graphical elements.

At the Java 3D implementation level, the scene graph is used to group shapes with common properties, carry out view culling, occlusion culling, level of detail selection, execution culling, and behavior pruning, all optimizations that must be coded directly by the programmer in lower-level APIs. Java 3D utilizes Java's multithreading to carry out parallel graph traversal and rendering, both useful optimizations.


Java 3D is designed with performance in mind, which it achieves at the high level by scene graph optimizations and at the low level by being built on top of OpenGL or DirectX Graphics.

Some programmer-specified scene graph optimizations are available through capability bits, which state what operations can/cannot be carried out at runtime (e.g., prohibiting a shape from moving). Java 3D also permits the programmer to bypass the scene graph, either totally by means of an immediate mode, or partially via the mixed mode. Immediate mode gives the programmer greater control over rendering and scene management, but it isn't often required. Retained mode programs only use the scene graph API. All the examples in this book employ retained mode.

Unique Features

Java 3D's view model separates the virtual and physical worlds through the ViewPlatform and View nodes. This makes it straightforward to reconfigure an application to utilize many output devices, from a monitor, to stereo glasses, to CAVEs.

Virtual world behavior is coded with Behavior nodes in the scene graph and is triggered by events. Among other things, this offers a different style of animation based on responding to events instead of the usual update redraw/cycle you've seen in all my 2D games programs.

The core Java 3D API package, javax.media.j3d, supports basic polygons and triangles within a scene graph; the com.sun.j3d packages add a range of utility classes including ColorCube and SimpleUniverse, mouse and keyboard navigation behaviors, audio device handling, and loaders for several 3D file formats.

Geometry compression is possible, often reducing size by an order of magnitude. When this is combined with Java's NIO and networking, it facilitates the ready transfer of large quantities of data between applications such as multiplayer games.

Java 3D allows 2D and 3D audio output, ambient and spatialized sound. Unfortunately, the sound system has bugs. Consequently, spatialized sound isn't available by default in Java 3D 1.3.2. Version 1.4 may offer a JOALMixer class instead, i.e., a JOAL-based audio device. JOAL is a Java binding for a 3D audio API called OpenAL, which is supported by many sound cards.

Java Integration

Java 3D is Java and offers object orientation (classes, inheritance, polymorphism), threads, exception handling, and more. Java 3D can easily make use of other Java APIs, such as JMF and JAI. The Java Media Framework (JMF) includes mechanisms for playing audio and video segments and can be extended to support new forms or audio and video (http://java.sun.com/products/java-media/jmf). Java Advanced Imaging (JAI) provides many advanced image processing features, including over 100 imaging operators, tiling of large images, network-based capabilities, and the means to add new image processing features (http://java.sun.com/products/java-media/jai).

Documentation and Examples

The Java 3D distribution comes with about 40 small to medium examples. They're a great help but somewhat lacking in documentation. Fortunately, more resources are online. Sun's Java 3D tutorial is available at http://java.sun.com/products/java-media/3D/collateral/. The tutorial is a good introduction to Java 3D but can confuse beginners. Ben Moxon has a good introductory Java 3D tutorial based around getting a MilkShape 3D figure to move over a hilly terrain (http://www.newview.co.uk/e/tutorials/java3d/index.jsp) and is called The Little Purple Dude Walks.

Criticisms of Java 3D for Games Programming

The misconceptions and complaints about Java 3D closely match those used against Java, which we discussed in Chapter 1:

  • Java 3D is too slow for games programming.

  • Java 3D is too high-level.

  • Java 3D isn't supported on games consoles, so why bother using it?

  • No one uses Java 3D to write real games.

  • Sun Microsystems isn't interested in supporting Java 3D.

Java 3D Is Too Slow for Games

This claim comes with almost no evidence. Jacob Marner did the only serious test (2002). Marner carried out comparative performance tests on OpenGL and Java 3D versions of the same 3D noninteractive space of randomly positioned, scaled and rotated boxes. He used the C++ and GL4Java bindings for OpenGL, and used Version 1.3.0 beta 1 of Java 3D. His master's thesis, Evaluating Java for Game Development, can be obtained from http://www.rolemaker.dk/articles/evaljava/.

The C++ version was fastest, the GL4Java implementation a little slower, and Java 3D about 2.5 times slower. However, the slowdown was due to a performance bug in that version of Java 3D and a poorly optimized scene graph. The timings haven't been repeated with the latest version of Java 3D or with more recent Java bindings to OpenGL such as JOGL or LWJGL.

Marner's code highlights some striking differences between Java 3D and OpenGL. The C++ and GL4Java programs are of comparable sizes (about 10 classes and 30 pages of code with documentation), but the Java 3D application is smaller (5 classes and 11 pages). Marner comments on the complexity of the OpenGL code, which requires a kd-tree data structure, a culling algorithm around the view frustum, and preprocessing vertex operations. All of these capabilities are built into Java 3D, so they didn't need to be implemented in the Java 3D application. In the GL4Java source, the optimized view frustum algorithm is hard to understand but is responsible for an order of magnitude speedup over the simpler version.

The OpenGL applications could have been considerable faster if extensions available on the graphics card were employed.

Another outcome of Marner's work is that it shows a negligible overhead for JNI: GL4Java uses JNI to interface Java to OpenGL, and its performance is slightly less than the C++ binding.

Java 3D is slow because Java is slow

Java 3D performance is often equated with Java performance: the myth of Java's slowness somehow demonstrates the slowness of Java 3D. Since Java 3D relies on OpenGL or DirectX for rendering, much of the graphics processing speed of Java 3D is independent of Java.

History suggests that performance will become a less important consideration as the base speed of hardware keeps increasing. Many successful games rely less on special effects, more on gaming characterization and story. Of course, games will always need performance, but the real bottleneck will not be the platform but the network as multiplayer games begin to dominate.

Performance should be considered alongside issues such as code complexity, productivity, maintainability, and portability. These criteria strongly influence a move toward higher-level APIs, as typified by Java 3D.

Java 3D Is Too High-Level

Java 3D's scene graph is often considered an unreasonable overhead, especially by programmers with experience in OpenGL or DirectX. Though Java 3D's scene graph does introduce some overhead, this overhead should be compared to the optimizations that comes along. These can be implemented in a low-level API by an experienced programmer but at what cost in time and maintainability?

Most large OpenGL and DirectX applications need a data structure like a scene graph to manage code complexity, so the scene graph versus no scene graph argument is often invalid.

A powerful, high-level, and flexible 3D graphics API needs a scene graph and a way to access the graphics pipeline efficiently. These mechanisms are aimed at different levels in 3D graphics programming, sometimes called the entity level and the rendering level . An application's entity level requires a data structure for organizing the scene objects, and the rendering level handles light mapping, shadows, radiosity, vertex shading, and so on. Great games are designed at the entity level, in terms of game play, characters, scenarios, and story elements. The look and feel of a great game, the light and dark, the atmosphere, is created at the rendering level.

Though Java 3D has highly developed tools for entity level programming, its deficit is at the rendering level. For example, the current version of Java 3D cannot perform vertex and pixel shading. Part of this is due to the desire to support Java 3D portability across OpenGL and DirectX, preventing it from making assumptions about which low-level features are present. Nevertheless, it is possible to achieve some striking rendering effects in Java 3D by employing multi-textures. The next major Java 3D release, Version 1.4, is scheduled to support two shader languages (Cg and GLSL); a beta version is due out in the middle of 2005.

The high-level nature of the scene graph makes Java 3D code harder to tune for speed unlike programs using OpenGL or DirectX directly. However, a programmer does have the option of moving to Java 3D's mixed or immediate modes.

Hiding low-level graphics API makes programming code around bugs harder in the APIs or the drivers.

Lack of Console Support

The lack of a console implementation for Java 3D is a serious problem, but if Java and OpenGL are available on a game machine, then Java 3D should be readily portable. The Game Cube already uses OpenGL.

Linux for the PlayStation 2 includes OpenGL support (http://playstation2-linux.com/projects/openglstuff/). There's an old alpha version of an OpenGL for the PlayStation 2, implemented by DataPlus (http://www.dataplus.co.jp/OpenGL4ps2.html). However, the future for OpenGL on consoles and other small devices is probably OpenGL ES, a subset of OpenGL (http://www.khronos.org/opengles/).

A Java binding is being developed for OpenGL ES, managed by JSR 239 (http://www.jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=239). A JSR is a Sun-sanctioned process for defining a new Java API. Much of the work is derived from JSR 231, which will be based on JOGL and/or LWJGL (both are explained in the section "Java Bindings to OpenGL"). JSR 239 is scheduled to be finished early in 2005.

No Real Java 3D Games

Java 3D has been employed in relatively few games, but they include bestsellers and award winners. I mentioned the commercial games in Chapter 1.

The "Other Sites" page at j3d.org (http://www.j3d.org/sites.html) is a good source for Java 3D examples and includes games and demos sections with many links.

The Java Games Factory (JGF), http://grexengine.com/sections/externalgames/, places its games into 2D and 3D categories, with the 3D examples further subdivided by the 3D API being used, such as Java 3D, JOGL, and LWJGL.

The third year Computer Graphics course in the Computer Science Department of the University of Applied Sciences in Biel, Switzerland, maintains a site of student projects using Java 3D (http://www.hta-bi.bfh.ch/~swc/DemoJ3D/). Several of them have been games, including Battleship3D-Net (networked Battleships), Billard-3D (pool), Glymp3D (role playing action), JBomba (based on Bomberman), and TriChess (3D networked chess).

A good strategy for finding Java 3D games and source code is to visit SourceForge ( http://sourceforge.net/search/) and FreshMeat.com (http://freshmeat.net/) and search for keywords such as "Java," "3d," and "game."

Two very exciting Java 3D projects, which aren't really games:

Project Looking Glass (https://lg3d.dev.java.net/)
A prototype 3D desktop offering rotating, transparent windows, multiple desktop workspaces, and an API for developing applications. It received much attention at JavaOne in 2004.

The Mars Rover Mission (http://www.sun.com/aboutsun/media/features/mars.html)
Java 3D and JAI are being used to render and interpret the real-time images captured by the rover. A rover simulator is implemented in Java 3D, which is sort of a game.

Java 3D Loaders for Games

A loader is an essential tool for quickly populating a game with people, artifacts, and scenery. All the model loaders listed below are for popular games formats, and all support animation.

Quake Loaders (http://www.newdawnsoftware.com/)
Supports Id Software's Quake 2 MD2 and BSP and Quake 3 MD3 formats. A morphing animation example using the MD3 loader can be found at http://www.la-cfd.com/cassos/test/md3/index.html.

JAVA is DOOMED (http://javaisdoomed.sourceforge.net/)
A complete 3D engine, including loaders for Quake 2 MD2 and 3D Studio Max 3DS files.

The Java XTools (http://www.3dchat.org/dev.php) package
Offers a range of Java 3D extras, including loaders for Renderware, Caligari TrueSpace, Alias/Wavefront Maya OBJ, and MTL files. Other elements include a lens flare mechanism, a text-to-texture converter, and a skybox class.

Salamander3D (https://skinandbones.dev.java.net/)
Supports a file format for specifying 3D worlds and levels, character animations, collision objects, sensor objects, and other useful aspects of game scenes.

NWN Java 3D utilities (http://nwn-j3d.sourceforge.net/)
Handles Neverwinter Night models, including animation and emitters.

Java 3D 3DS Loader (http://sourceforge.net/projects/java3dsloader/)
Supports 3D Studio Max models, including cameras, point and directional lights, animation, and hierarchy textures.

Anim8or Loader (http://anim8orloader.sourceforge.net/)
Can load 3D models and scenes saved in the Anim8or file format. Anim8or is a 3D-modeling and character animation program (http://www.anim8or.com/main/index.html).

Xj3D (http://www.xj3d.org/)
Implements the X3D standard, a successor to VRML 97, and provides for keyframe animation. Xj3D also contains it own OpenGL renderer, which is reportedly much faster than the one inside Java 3D.

Add-ons for gaming

  • Yaarq (http://www.sbox.tugraz.at/home/w/wkien/), by Wolfgang Kienreich, offers APIs for several gaming-related features, including texturing, bump maps, reflection maps, overlays, and particle systems. It also demonstrates how to achieve stable frame rates.

  • Lighting Effects (http://planeta.terra.com.br/educacao/alessandroborges/java3d.html). Java 3D is often criticized for lacking sophisticated lighting effects. Alessandro Borges has developed several examples that show how to use bump maps to generate irregular surface lighting and cube map textures for reflection effects. Florin Herinean has also developed a series of texture examples, available at http://www.seelenbinder-schule.de/~fherinean/.

  • Toon shaders (http://www.antiflash.net/java3d/comicshader.html) demonstrates how simple cartoon-style shading can be added to shapes.

  • A library for building 3D geometries using meshes, NURBS, and subdivision surfaces (https://jgeom.dev.java.net/).

  • A CSG API, by Danilo Balby Silva Castanheira, for geometry Boolean operators is available at http://www.geocities.com/danbalby/.

  • A skeletal animation and skinning system, by Mark McKay, can be found at https://skinandbones.dev.java.net/.

  • Java 3D Game SDK (https://java3dgamesdk.dev.java.net/). The extra functionality includes a menu to let the user choose between full-screen and window mode, a game mouse, and a collision box for the precise steering of objects.

  • JXInput (http://www.hardcode.de/jxinput). This game supports joysticks and other input devices on Windows via Java 3D's Sensor class. It's also possible to interface Java 3D with JInput for game controller discovery and polled input (https://jinput.dev.java.net/).

  • The j3d.org Code Repository (http://code.j3d.org/) includes code (or partial code) for ROAM terrain rendering, particle systems, and 2D overlays.

  • The j3d-incubator project (https://j3d-incubator.dev.java.net/) on java.net is for sharing examples and utility code.

    Sun Doesn't Support Java 3D

    Perhaps this statement was true in 2003, but Java 3D is now a community project managed by the Advanced Software Development Group at Sun. If support means a pool of knowledgeable people ready to offer advice and large archives of technical information, then Java 3D has an abundance of support.

    In the middle of 2003, Doug Twilleager issued the now infamous message "Java 3D 1.4 is currently in a holding pattern" (read it in full at http://www.javagaming.org/cgi-bin/JGNetForums/YaBB.cgi?board=3D;action=display;num=1054567731). Doug Twilleager is the chief architect of the Game Technologies Group at Sun and one of the designers of Java 3D.

    His message appeared just before JavaOne 2003, a conference that emphasized the JOGL, JOAL, and JInput APIs. Many people interpreted this as meaning that Java 3D was heading for the dustbin of history.

    A possible reason for the holding pattern was Java 3D's development origins in the 3D Graphics Hardware Group at Sun. As graphics cards from companies such as ATI and nVidia caught up and surpassed Sun's hardware, the group started to become less profitable. Layoffs occurred and unprofitable group projects, such as Java 3D, were given low priority.

    In March 2004, Doug Twilleager was back, this time announcing that Sun was making Java 3D available through a public source license at https://java3d.dev.java.net/.

    The reemergence of Java 3D is due to the work of a few key people, including Doug Twilleager, and high-profile uses in Sun projects such as Mars Rover and Looking Glass . Java 3D has moved to the Advanced Software Development Group, a unit within Sun that is actively supported by upper management.

    The new Java 3D project site (https://java3d.dev.java.net/) hosts the source code for Java 3D 1.3.2, a bug fix release. The version that was stable while I was writing was 1.3.1, which is used in this book.

    Java 3D's license allows developers to download the source code and to contribute bug fixes and utilities. Modifications are allowed for research purposes, and a no-fee commercial license is available.

    An expert group is being formed to define and implement future versions of the Java 3D API. An important point is that much of the implementation work is expected to come from the community, a strategy successfully employed to develop the JOGL, JOAL, and JInput APIs.

    Four new Java 3D mailing lists exist:

A new Java Desktop 3D Forum is at: http://www.javadesktop.org/forums/forum.jspa?forumID=55.

Older Java 3D information sources are still around:

Roadmaps for the future

A feature-complete beta version of Java 3D 1.4 may be released by mid-2005 and will include programmable shaders and other features that can be quickly added.

The shader support will be able to process descriptions written in the Cg or the GLSL shader languages. There is an active forum thread on this topic at http://www.javadesktop.org/forums/thread.jspa?threadID=5056.

There have been discussions about using JOAL to replace Java 3D's buggy sound and to add in character animation, terrain utilities, improved collision detection and avoidance, NURBs, CSG (geometry Boolean operators), and more loaders. As mentioned in the sections "Java 3D loaders for games" and "Add-ons for gaming," many of these extensions exist.

The Java 3D team at Sun has a web page containing proposed Version 1.4 (and later) API changes: https://j3d-core.dev.java.net/j3d1_4/proposed-changes.html.

Whether these plans for Version 1.4 bear fruit depends on the Java 3D developer community; Sun is involved mainly as a manager and adjudicator. The signs for the future look bright since the community is involved in the bug fix release, Version 1.3.2.

It's interesting to look at the future plans list for Project Looking Glass (https://lg3d.dev.java.net/), which is built on top of Java 3D. It includes some of the Java 3D wish list, a physics engine (perhaps using odejava, https://odejava.dev.java.net/), and a particle system.

Java 3D 1.5 (or perhaps 2.0) will take longer to arrive since major changes are planned, such as pluggable renderers and extensibility. Athomas Goldberg, the head of the Game Technologies Group, has remarked that JOGL and JOAL may come into the picture at this stage.

The eventual release dates for Java 3D will probably be closely linked to those for Java. J2SE 5.1 (code-named "Dragon Fly") in the middle of 2005, Version 6 ("Mustang") in early 2006, Version 7 (Dolphin) in late 2007. Snapshot releases of the Mustang project can be accessed at https://j2se.dev.java.net.

Alternatives to Java 3D

There are a large number of ways of programming in 3D with Java without employing Java 3D. I've divided them into three categories: Java bindings to OpenGL, scene graph APIs, and game engine bindings.

Java Bindings to OpenGL

Several Java OpenGL bindings have been released over the years, but they tend to be incomplete, contain bugs, lack support and documentation, and often disappear suddenly. A (slightly out of date) list of Java bindings is maintained at the OpenGL site, http://www.opengl.org/resources/java/. It includes links to JOGL, LWJGL, Java 3D, GL4Java, and a few older projects. I'll describe only the active ones here.


GL4Java (http://gl4java.sourceforge.net/), known as "OpenGL for Java Technology," was one of the most popular OpenGL bindings until the arrival of JOGL. It can be used with AWT and Swing and has links to OpenGL 1.3 and vendor extensions.

Lightweight Java Game Library (LWJGL)

LWJGL (http://www.lwjgl.org/) utilizes OpenGL 1.5 with vendor extensions. It works with the latest versions of Java, so it can use the NIO and full-screen capabilities of J2SE 1.4. However, it doesn't support AWT or Swing. LWJGL is quite small, as the name suggests, so it is suitable for devices with limited resources.

The documentation for LWJGL is a little scanty though ports of the Nehe OpenGL tutorials have started to appear; they're at the end of the original Nehe tutorials (http://nehe.gamedev.net).


JOGL (https://jogl.dev.java.net/) is the most recent of the Java bindings for OpenGL, and promoted by the Game Technologies Group at Sun. Like LWJGL, it supports the latest versions of Java, OpenGL, and extensions. It differs in being integrated with AWT and Swing, and it is considerably larger.

JOGL will be the starting point for the Java OpenGL reference binding being developed as part of Sun's JSR 231 specification process (http://www.jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=231). JSR 231 will become the official Java binding for OpenGL. A few details about its status as of December 2004 is at http://www.javagaming.org/cgi-bin/JGNetForums/YaBB.cgi?board=jogl;action=display;num=1102990415.

The amount of tutorial material on JOGL is growing. The JOGL Forum at java-gaming.org is a rich information source ( http://www.javagaming.org/cgi-bin/JGNetForums/YaBB.cgi?board=jogl). One good JOGL introduction, by Gregory Pierce, can be found at http://www.javagaming.org/cgi-bin/JGNetForums/YaBB.cgi?board=jogl;action=display;num=1058027992. Another introductory article, "Jumping into JOGL," by Chris Adamson is at http://today.java.net/pub/a/today/2003/09/11/jogl2d.html.

The eBook Learning Java Bindings for OpenGL (JOGL) (Kagi) by Gene Davis is available from http://www.genedavissoftware.com/books/jogl/. It starts with basic JOGL examples, suitable for beginners. Several chapters and appendixes are free online.

All the Nehe OpenGL tutorials have been ported to JOGL and can be downloaded from http://nehe.gamedev.net or http://pepijn.fab4.be/nehe/.

JOGL's access to OpenGL and its extensions means it can utilize shading languages for special effects like fish eyes and spherization, and it can generate various types of shadow using textures. Java 3D 1.3.1. can mimic a few of these (see the section "Add-ons for gaming"), and Java 1.4 will include a shader language. A crucial difference is that JOGL employs program code to affect the graphics pipeline dynamically, whereas Java 3D mostly uses capability bits and get/set methods.

A posting to the Java Desktop 3D forum (http://www.javadesktop.org/forums/thread.jspa?threadID=3222) describes the use of JOGL's GLCanvas class to create a HUD (heads-up display) within a Java 3D application. The canvas can be manipulated in the pre- or post-rendering phases of Java 3D's immediate mode.

Scene Graph APIs

The creation of scene graph APIs for Java is something of a growth area, aided by the existence of lower-level OpenGL bindings. Most of the systems are open source.


Xith3D (http://xith.org) uses the same basic scene graph structure as Java 3D but can directly call OpenGL operations. This means it supports functionality like shadow volumes and vertex and fragment programs. This is the ideal situation for a 3D graphics API, making Xith3D a strong contender as an alternative to Java 3D.

Since the high-level APIs of Xith3D and Java 3D are similar, porting Java 3D code over to Xith3D is fairly straightforward. Versions of Xith3D run on top of JOGL or LWJGL.

A good tutorial for Xith3D beginners is at http://xith.org/tiki-index.php?page=Docs. There is a Xith3D forum at javagaming.org: http://www.javagaming.org/cgi-bin/JGNetForums/YaBB.cgi.

Two problems with Xith3D are its restriction to OpenGL (with no DirectX version), and the lack of scene graph thread safety.


The OpenMind API (http://sourceforge.net/projects/open-mind/) contains the expected elements, including hierarchical scene management and object transforms, dynamic cameras, lights, and fog. OpenMind is implemented on top of JOGL (it formerly used GL4Java).

jME graphics engine

jME (http://www.mojomonkeycoding.com/) was inspired by the scene graph engine described in 3D Game Engine Design (Morgan Kaufmann) by David H. Eberly (http://www.magic-software.com/Books.html). Currently, jME is built on top of LWJGL, with plans for JOGL support in the near future.


The alpha version of this engine will be released in 2005 (http://www.imilabs.com/). Many of its features are described in Practical Java Game Programming (Charles River Media) by Clingman, et al.

A key element of Jist3D is its utilization of JOGL, JOAL, and JInput. The rendering engine uses JOGL to support the scene graph and includes utilities for working with Java 3D graphs, a collision system, and 2D overlays.


JiD (http://javaisdoomed.sourceforge.net) includes loaders for Quake 2 MD2 and 3D Studio Max 3DS files. The implementation uses JOGL. The distribution includes Escape, a Doom-like game.


Aviatrix3D (http://aviatrix3d.j3d.org/) is a retained-mode Java scene graph API above JOGL. Its tool set is aimed at data visualization rather than gaming and supports CAVEs, domes, and HMDs.


Kahlua (http://www.igd.fhg.de/CP/kahlua/) is a Java wrapper for Open Inventor (http://www.sgi.com/software/inventor/), a scene graph API available on the Unix/Linux and Windows platforms.


jFree-D2 (http://sourceforge.net/projects/jfreed2/) is a reincarnation of the open source Java 3D implementation JFree-D, developed by Jean-Christophe Taveau in 1999. It provides a workable (but incomplete) implementation of Java 3D on top of GL4Java. Support for JOGL is planned in the future.

Game Engine Bindings

The following APIs emulate well-known game engines (e.g., Quake) or are Java wrappers around existing engines.


Auriga3D (http://www.auriga3d.org/) works with Quake3 maps. There are versions on top of JOGL and LWJGL.


Jake2 (http://www.bytonic.de/html/jake2.html) is a port of the GPL'd Quake2 game engine. It uses JOGL for the graphics and JOAL for the 3D sound. In tests, it achieves better than 85% of the speed of the original C:210 FPS compared to 245 FPS.


Ogre4J (http://www.bytelords.de/cowiki/427.html) is a binding for the OGRE 3D Engine (http://www.ogre3d.org/) using JNI. OGRE 3D supports Direct3D and OpenGL and runs on all the main desktop platforms.


Jirr (http://sourceforge.net/projects/jirr/) is a binding of the open source Irrlicht game engine (http://irrlicht.sourceforge.net/), which is written in C++. Jirr is in the early stages of development.


Odejava (https://odejava.dev.java.net/) is a binding around the Open Dynamics Engine (ODE), an industrial quality library for simulating articulated rigid body dynamics. Typical applications include ground vehicles, legged creatures, and moving objects in VR environments. ODE is coded in C. The project contains tools for linking Odejava into Xith3D, OpenMind, and jME. A Java 3D binding is currently being developed as an offshoot of Project Looking Glass.




Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Andrew Davison


Andrew Davison has had a varied and interesting career as an educator, a researcher, and an author. He enjoys some celebrity as the editor of Humour the Computer (a well-known anthology of funny stories, parodies, and real-life incidents about life in the computer age) and as an amateur juggler. Formerly with the Computer Science Department at Melbourne University, he now lives in Thailand and teaches at the Prince of Songkla University.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like