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Rendering the Great Outdoors: Fast Occlusion Culling for Outdoor Environments

Rendering engines used in today’s game titles utilize various techniques for hidden surface removal (HSR), different techniques being suitable for different game genres. For example, action games played in closed-in locations need an engine allowing fast rendering of a few hundred polygons, a high frame rate, and a high level of details to impress players. Conversely, a game that is taking place outdoors requires quite a different approach. This features present one one technique for hidden surface removal usable in 3D engines using tilizing object occlusion.

Michal Bacik, Blogger

July 17, 2002

25 Min Read

Rendering engines used in today’s game titles utilize various techniques for hidden surface removal (HSR), different techniques being suitable for different game genres. For example, action games played in closed-in locations such as rooms, caves, and tunnels need an engine allowing fast rendering of a few hundred polygons, a high frame rate, and a high level of details to impress players. Conversely, a game that is taking place outdoors requires quite a different approach. Let’s discuss appropriate approaches for the latter. Not too long ago, games ran in software mode only, without the help of 3D accelerators. With the CPU doing all the work, engines rendered as few pixels as possible, typically with BSP-based scenes and BSP rendering.

Moving Games Outdoors

With the advent of 3D accelerators and the invention of the depth-buffer (or Z-buffer), the strict sorting of polygons slowly faded out of engines, and software engineers started trying out different techniques. Game designers wanted to move their worlds outdoors, and new graphics hardware made such designs possible. As graphics hardware power increases, however, so do requirements for game content and high-quality graphics, creating room to waste processing power with inefficient usage of computing resources. Let’s discuss one technique for hidden surface removal usable in 3D engines, developed while creating some of the games I’ve worked on. The technique, utilizing object occlusion, is for outdoor rendering. The fundamental entities working for us will be so-called occluders, and we’ll come to them soon.

The Scene Hierarchy Tree

One of the first steps toward optimized rendering is keeping objects in a scene organized. Most commercial modeling packages and 3D engines use a scene hierarchy, and for good reason: used smartly, it allows for fast rejection of entire hierar-chy branches based on bounding volume tests, and may also accelerate collision testing. A scene hierarchy tree is a collection of objects (visuals as well as nonvisuals) in an organized fashion. In a tree structure, a scene has its root object, which may have children objects linked to it, and these child objects may have other objects linked to them. The objects may be visuals (characters, terrain, items in the game), as well as nonvisual objects (such as 3D-positioned lights, sounds, dummies, and other helper objects).

Balancing the Tree

When creating the hierarchy tree in a commercial 3D graphics package or in-game editor, keep the tree bal-anced. For example, by linking all your objects to the root level, you lose the benefits of having a hierarchy, because all your objects are in a single list and any processing will just treat them as an array. Grouping objects logically is a big step forward. Hierarchical object linking is usually based on some logical assumptions. For preprocessing purposes, keep multiple adja-cent objects together, linked to one parent object. Object link-ing is also done for other purposes, such as inheriting the par-ent’s position, rotation, and scale. This is achieved by using matrices and matrix concatenation.

Bounding Volumes

A bounding volume is a simple geometrical object roughly representing the volume of a real object’s geometry. It’s as small as possible while still enclosing all vertices of the object. The most suitable geometric objects for bounding volumes are spheres and boxes. For the techniques presented in this article, I recommend using both types and defining a structure representing the bounding volume:


struct S_bounding_volume{
float x,y,z;
float x,y,z;
float radius;


You’re probably already using an HSR technique utilizing bounding boxes or spheres, so why use a combination of both? The answer is simple: speed. While bounding spheres allow for very fast collision detection using a simple distance test, the volume it encloses is often much greater than the actual object it represents (Figure 2). Too often, then, we consider an object to be on-screen when none of its vertices actually would be.

On the other hand, a bounding box is a closer match to the shape of an object, but tests with boxes are slower. Usually we do a two-pass collision/intersection test, using a bounding sphere in a first pass and oriented bounding box (OBB) in the second pass. Because the first test rejects most invisible or non-clipped objects, the chances that a second test will never be executed are high. At the same time, performing the bounding box test yields more accurate results, leading to fewer objects being rendered.

This mixed bounding volume is also suitable for other pur-poses, such as collision detection or physics.

Node Volumes

Every visual object in a scene hierarchy should have an asso-ciated bounding volume, so that with just a few math oper-ations, we’re able to say if each object is visible or not. As I mentioned previously, it wouldn’t be very efficient to test all the scene objects in each rendered frame. For example, in a racing game with 20 cars, you’d end up testing all the vehicle’s objects (wheels, doors, driver, driver’s fingers, and on and on) 20 times, which could easily make for upwards of 25 objects on each car multiplied by 20 cars. Why perform 25 tests when a single test for each car can accomplish the same result?

With complex models or models used in a scene multiple times, finding a way to skip the processing of an entire model or models if they’re out of view would be highly desirable. For this reason, we’ll introduce a node bounding volume. This is the same bounding structure defined above, but it doesn’t enclose vertices; rather it encloses all bounding volumes of a group of objects, the child objects of the node (objects, models, and so on).

Building and Maintaining Volumes

Assuming you have static geometry, calculating a visual object’s extent is done once before starting rendering. The bounding box is axis-aligned (AABB) in the local coordinates of an object, defined by two extreme points of the box. Anytime a bounding box is used in computations, it must be transformed into world coordinates using the object’s transformation matrix, and thus changed to an oriented bounding box. Because OBBs cannot be specified by just two corner points, we’ll need to extract the two corner points of the AABB into the eight cor-ner points of the OBB, and transform all these points to world coordinates with the object’s transformation matrix (the same one that will be used to transform the object’s vertices to world coordinates). The bounding sphere is also in local coordinates, and must be transformed (position) and scaled (radius) to world coordinates before being used in computations.

The situation with node bounding volumes is a bit more dif-ficult. Because the position of objects may change in real time, this bounding volume must be computed at run time whenever any object in the group moves. The best method is a lazy evalu-ation programming technique — in other words, computing the value when it’s needed. You may implement a system of invali-dation of a node’s bounding volume when the child’s matrix changes due to position, rotation, or scale. This system is hard-er to implement and debug, but it’s critical for fast 3D culling, both rendering and collision testing.

By measurements I’ve made in our 3D system, the dynamic bounding volume update takes no more than 1 to 2 percent of total CPU time when the game is running.

Convex Hull Computation

Because it’s very easy to detect collision against it, a convex hull is another basic geometry object used in occlu-sion testing. During occlusion testing, we’ll detect a collision of a 3D point with a hull and a sphere with a hull. Since we must detect how the bounding volume of an object collides with viewing volumes (screen frustum and occlusion frustum), hidden-surface removal has much in common with collision detection.

A hull is defined as a set of planes that forms the hull, with their normals pointing away from the hull. Any point in space is a part of the hull if it lies behind all the planes forming the hull. For our purposes, we’ll also use an open hull, which is a hull that represents an open 3D volume.

All the information we need to compute the convex hull is a set of 3D points. During the computation, we’ll remove redun-dant points, which are inside the hull and do not lie on the skeleton of the hull. We’ll also need to compute the edge faces of the convex hull; these faces are not necessarily triangles, as they are in 3D meshes.

We’ll utilize planes of these edge faces for our occlusion com-putations: for example, a fast check of whether a 3D point is inside of a convex hull. If a point in space is behind all the edge faces of the hull (assuming the planes’ normals point out from the hull), then it is inside of the hull (Listing 1).


bool IsPointInHull(const S_vector &v,const vector

for(int i =planes.size();i —;){
float d =v.DistanceToPlane(planes [i]);
if(d >=0.0f)
return false;
} return true;



Listing 1: Checks if a 3D point is inside a convex hull. A convex hull is defined as a set of planes with normals pointing away from the hull. This function uses the S_vector class for a 3D point, the S_plane class for a plane in 3D space, and a member function S_vec- tor::DistanceToPlane(const S_plane&) const that determines the distance from a 3D point to a plane.


Several algorithms exist for computing a convex hull from a set of points. Some commonly used ones include incremental, gift-wrapping, divide-and-conquer, and quick-hull. There is a nice Java applet demonstrating techniques of building convex hulls that is a good starting point for choosing and imple-menting the algorithm. It is available (with kind permission of its author) at www.cse.unsw.edu.au/~lambert/java/3d/hull.html.

Speaking from my own experience, writing code for building convex hulls is quite a difficult task. Even when you implement the code properly, you’ll encounter problems with float-round-ing errors (using doubles won’t solve anything). Regardless of which algorithm you choose, with some point sets you’ll end up with hulls that are invalid after final validity checks are per-formed. Having multiple points placed close together on a plane is a common source of problems.

After I struggled for months with code that computed it wrong, then spending another month writing my own convex-hull computation code, I finally switched to Qhull, a freeware package that utilizes the quick-hull algorithm. It’s available at www.geom.umn.edu/software/qhull.

Although the QHull library is a robust, platform-independent package that can do many additional tasks, we will only be need-ing it to compute the convex hull using our structures. It handles rounding problems by joggling points; if computation fails, it shifts points randomly by a small value and recomputes until it gets a proper hull.

If you decide to use this or any other available package, be prepared to spend a day or two reading its documentation and writing code to call it; you’ll save a month otherwise spent writing and debugging your own system.

The final result we need after computation is a set of filtered points that form a skeleton of the hull, and a set of faces. Following is an example of what we get (faces are kept as indices in the point set):


struct S_vector{
float x,y,z;
}; struct S_face{
int num_points;
unsigned short *indices;


Now we use the help of C++ STL vector class for storing our vertices and faces:




Note that when inserting into vector , a copy constructor of the class being inserted is called. Make sure you have imple-mented a copy constructor of S_face so that memory for indices is properly allocated and freed.

The View Frustum

A viewing frustum is a 3D volume. For practical reasons, we can treat it as a convex hull, simplifying further computa-tions. The viewing frustum is typically a cut pyramid (if a pro-jection transformation is used) or a cube (if an orthogonal transformation is used). This article assumes that projection transformation is used, and many times the camera’s position will form one of the points of the frustum’s hull.

Making Sense of Occluders

Occluders in the real world may be thought of as objects which occlude (or obstruct) your view of other objects behind them (Figure 3). Take an example of an occluder — a building, a hill, or a car — all these things occlude your view to objects physically located behind them. Transparent or translu-cent objects are not good view occluders, because as light rays pass through the material, so we’ll ignore transparent objects as occluders in 3D rendering.

Objects in the real world consist of atoms and molecules, and pretty much every atom can either be occluded by another atom or not (in which case a viewer can see it). In computer graphics, however, objects are built from vertices and polygons, and these vertices and polygons are usually grouped into primi-tives, which are rendered together in order to achieve good graphics throughput. Our task consists of rejecting as many of these primitives as possible in the early (preprocessing) phase of our pipeline, without affecting the viewer’s experience by reject-ing objects that should be rendered.

In practice, this means finding which objects are fully occlud-ed by other objects and rejecting these occluded objects from any further processing. A solid object, sufficiently big to be worth the additional computations associated with occlusion testing, is an ideal occluder.

In an ideal 3D engine, we could detect occlusion of even the smallest primitive behind any object in a scene. In reality, however, we must find some algorithm that allows fast detec-tion of occlusion for a sufficient number of potentially visible primitives. For that reason, we’ll simplify the occlusion vol-umes to convex hulls.

Convex hulls allow for sufficient approximation of a 3D object in most cases. When it is not possible to represent the shape of an object with a convex hull, you can use more hulls to accomplish the task. The occlusion hull doesn’t need to copy the exact shape of visual object it works with. In many cases, an occluder may consist of many fewer faces than the visual primitive itself, roughly copying the shape of the visual (Figures 4 and 5). The rule to keep in mind here is that an occluder’s shape shouldn’t be bigger than the shape of visuals it represents; otherwise your engine will end up rejecting primitives that should be rendered, resulting in an ugly graph-ical artifact.

The Occluder ’s Place in the Pipeline

In determining HSR, occluders should be processed first. Because the position of a camera (viewer) changes constantly in 3D games, so does the occlusion frustum, the 3D volume cast by the occluder. Our task is to compute the occlusion volume at the beginning of rendering from a particular camera view. (If you render multiple views in a single frame, a mirror for example, this step must be done for each rendered view.) After this prepro-cessing step, you should collect all occluders on the screen, against which you’ll test other potentially visible primitives. Some optimization tips: Minimize the number of occluders you include in the test list, done by determining if a particular occluder is occluded by another occluder. Figure 6 shows this possibility. Also, don’t consider occluders that may potentially hide only a small amount of primitives. You should reject occluders that occupy a small area of screen space.

Once we have a list of on-screen occluders, we can move on to the next preprocessing step: traversing the scene hierarchy tree and using the list of occluders to check if a particular object is visible.

Building Occlusion Volumes

Let’s have a closer look at the information needed in order to detect whether an object is occluded. Looking closer at the occlusion volume, we see that occlusion volume is actually another kind of convex hull, expanded from the viewpoint into infinity. The occlusion volume is built from all of the occluder’s polygons facing the camera, and from contour edges (as seen from the camera) expanded away from the camera (Figure 7).

Actually, this volume is open — there’s no back plane that would cap the volume — because the occluder hides everything behind it into infinity. And any plane we save will speed up fur-ther computations.

To build contours from a convex hull, we use a simple algo-rithm utilizing the fact that each edge in a convex hull connects exactly two faces. The algorithm is this:

  1. Iterate through all polygons, and detect whether a polygon faces the viewer. (To detect whether a polygon faces the viewer, use the dot product of the polygon’s normal and direction to any of the polygon’s vertices. When this is less than 0, the polygon faces the viewer.)

  2. If the polygon faces viewer, do the following for all its edges: If the edge is already in the edge list, remove the edge from the list. Otherwise, add the edge into the list.

After this, we should have collected all the edges forming the occluder’s contour, as seen from the viewer’s position. Once you’ve got it, it’s time to build the occlusion frustum itself, as shown in Figure 7 (note that this figure shows a 2D view of the situation). The frustum is a set of planes defining a volume being occluded. The property of this occlusion volume is that any point lying behind all planes of this volume is inside of the volume, and thus is occluded. So in order to define an occlusion volume, we just need a set of planes forming the occlusion volume.

Looking closer, we can see that the frustum is made of all of the occluder’s polygons facing the viewer, and from new planes made of edges and the viewer’s position. So we will do the following:

  1. Add planes of all facing polygons of the occluder.

  2. Construct planes from two points of each edge and the view-er’s position.

If you’ve gotten this far and it’s all working for you, there’s one useful optimization to implement at this point. It lies in minimizing the number of facing planes (which will speed up intersection detection). You may achieve this by collapsing all the facing planes into a single plane, with a normal made of the weighted sum of all the facing planes. Each participating normal is weighted by the area of its polygon. Finally, the length of the computed normal is made unit-length. The d part of this plane is computed using the farthest contour point. Occlusion testing will work well without this optimization, but implementing it will speed up further computations without loss of accuracy.

Detecting Occlusion

To detect if an object is occluded, we will utilize the object’s bounding volume. To find out if the object is inside of the occlusion frustum, we’ll make a simple test to check if its bounding sphere is inside of the frustum. Figure 8 shows possi-ble situations that may arise. Here we see that only sphere C passed the test and is fully occluded. Listing 3 shows the func-tion that may be used for such a computation. This process detects whether a bounding sphere is occluded. It’s fast, but not as accurate as detection using bounding boxes. With this technique, some objects may be detected as visible after the bounding sphere test succeeds, but their bounding box is still fully occluded, so we would end up rendering them even though they’re fully occluded. Figure 9 illustrates this possibility.

Detecting if the bounding box is inside the occlusion frus-tum is another very simple task: detect if all eight corner points of the bounding box are inside of the frustum (Listing 2). Note that we use oriented bounding boxes in world coor-dinates, so we must transform local AABBs to world OBBs (as explained previously). If any vertex is outside of the volume, the box is not occluded. This test can take eight times more dot products than the sphere test, so it is less efficient. Ideally you would use it only when you detect that the center of the bounding sphere is inside the occlusion frustum but the sphere is still not occluded. This minimizes the chances of wasting time checking box-versus-frustum collision, at the same time getting more accurate occlusion tests, resulting in fewer objects being rendered.


bool AreAllVerticesInVF(const vector &planes, constS_vector *verts,int num_verts){for(int i =0;i for(int j =planes.size();j —;){float d =planes [j ].d +planes [j ].normal.Dot(verts [i ]);if(d >=0.0f)return false;}}return true;}

bool IsSphereInFrustum(const vector&planes,const S_vector &sphere_pos,float sphere_radius,bool &clip){clip =false;for(int i =planes.size();i —;){float d =planes [i ].normal.Dot(sphere_pos)+planes [i ].d;if(d >=sphere_radius)return false;if(d >=-sphere_radius)clip =true;}return true;}

Listing 2: Detects if a set of all points is inside of the viewing frustum. This is just a variation of Listing 1, checking multiple points instead of one.

Listing 3: Detects if a sphere is inside the frustum (convex hull). Notice that this function also computes clipping flag, which is set whenever a sphere collides with one hull’s plane (that is, it is neither fully inside nor fully outside of the volume).

Editing Support

Computing the occlusion volume and detecting whether an object is occluded is half of the work that needs to be done. Another task is finding a way to edit occluders comfort-ably in an evolving 3D scene during development. It may be done in several ways; I’ll discuss some of them here.

Editing occlusion volumes in a modeling package.This is a con-venient way of starting with occluders quickly and testing func-tionality. You may use 3DS Max, Maya, or whatever modeling program you prefer, to build an occluder skeleton from vertices and faces and import that into your engine.

Integrating an occluder editor into your game editor.This is a harder way to do it, but it’s preferable over editing in a model-ing package. The geometry inside occluders may change, and occluders must match geometry in order to be effective, so an “edit and see” approach is the best bet here.

Because an occluder is simply a convex hull, once you’ve implemented and tuned your convex hull code, you can call it with a set of points and you’ve got it.

Figures 10 shows occlusion techniques in a real game project, including numbers about rendered triangles. Note that the terrain is specially modeled so that occlusion is efficient; it con-tains high hills that are suitable for occluding objects behind them. But the areas of possibility for occluder utilization are much wider: cities with plenty of buildings, fences (solid, not transparent), and so on.


Finally, fine-tune editing support by visually displaying occluders in edit mode while designing your missions or modi-fying the occluder’s shape in the editor.

Take It Outside

This article provides some insight into rendering possibilities for outdoor scenes, and shows some new directions for optimizations. The model described here has worked — and continues to work — for games I have been working on (used with other HSR techniques, such as sectors and portals) and has undergone many changes to get to this point. As we contin-ue to improve our methods for rendering all kinds of environ-ments in games, soon there will be no boundaries as to what kinds of worlds we can provide players.

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About the Author(s)

Michal Bacik


Michal is the lead programmer at Lonely Cat Games, a small company based in the Czech Republic.Previously he was lead programmer for Hidden and Dangerous, a World War II title released two years ago. Recently he finished work on H&D Deluxe, an improved version of the original game. Michal can be reached at [email protected].

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