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Environment Mapping Techniques

  • March 24, 2003
  • By Addison Wesley
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This is Chapter 7: Environment Mapping Techniques from the book The Cg Tutorial: The Definitive Guide to Programmable Real-Time Graphics (ISBN:0-321-19496-9) written by Randima Fernando and Mark J. Kilgard, published by Addison Wesley Professional.


This chapter explains environment mapping and presents several applications of the technique. The chapter has the following four sections:

  • "Environment Mapping" introduces the technique and explains its key assumptions and limitations.
  • "Reflective Environment Mapping" explains the physics of reflection and how to simulate reflective materials with environment mapping.
  • "Refractive Environment Mapping" describes Snell's Law and shows how to use environment maps to implement an effect that approximates refraction.
  • "The Fresnel Effect and Chromatic Dispersion" combines reflection, refraction, the Fresnel effect, and the chromatic properties of light to produce a more complex effect called chromatic dispersion.

7.1: Environment Mapping

The preceding chapters showed some basic shading techniques. By now, you know how to light, transform, texture, and animate objects with Cg. However, your renderings are probably not quite what you envisioned. The next few chapters describe a few simple techniques that can dramatically improve your images. This chapter presents several techniques based on environment mapping. Environment mapping simulates an object reflecting its surroundings. In its simplest form, environment mapping gives rendered objects a chrome-like appearance.

Environment mapping assumes that an object's environment (that is, everything surrounding it) is infinitely distant from the object and, therefore, can be encoded in an omnidirectional image known as an environment map.

7.1.1: Cube Map Textures

All recent GPUs support a type of texture known as a cube map. A cube map consists of not one, but six square texture images that fit together like the faces of a cube. Together, these six images form an omnidirectional image that we use to encode environment maps. Figure 7-1 shows an example of a cube map that captures an environment consisting of a cloudy sky and foggy mountainous terrain.



Click here for a larger image.

Figure 7-1. Texture Images for a Cube Map

A 2D texture maps a 2D texture coordinate set to a color in a single texture image. In contrast, you access a cube map texture with a three-component texture coordinate set that represents a 3D direction vector.

Think of this vector as a ray originating from the center of the cube. As the ray shoots outward, it will intersect one of the six cube map faces. The result of a cube map texture access is the filtered color at that point of intersection with one of the six texture images.

Cube map textures are ideal for environment mapping. Each face of the cube map encodes one-sixth of the panoramic environment around an object. A cube map texture provides a quick way to determine what the object centered within that environment would "see" in any particular direction.

7.1.2: Generating Cube Maps

To generate a cube map, replace the object you want to put reflections on with a camera at the object's position and take snapshots in six directions (positive x, negative x, positive y, negative y, positive z, and negative z). Each snapshot should have a 90-degree field of view and a square aspect ratio, so that the six cube faces seam up tightly—with no gaps or overlap—to create an omnidirectional panorama. Use these images as the six faces of your cube map.

You can either render the six views with a computer, or capture an actual environment with a set of photographs and then warp them together to create an environment map. The electronic material that supplements this book contains pregenerated cube maps that you can use as well.

7.1.3: The Environment Mapping Concept

When you look at a highly reflective object such as a chrome sphere, what you see is not the object itself but how the object reflects its environment. When you gaze at some point on a highly reflective surface, the surface at that point reflects the view ray—that is, the ray that travels from your eye to the point on the surface—into the environment. The characteristics of the reflected ray depend on the original view ray and on the surface normal at the point where the view ray reaches the surface. What you see is not the surface itself but what the environment looks like in the direction ofthe reflected ray.

When you use a cube map to encode what the environment looks like in all directions, rendering a point on a reflective surface is a matter of computing the reflected view direction for that point on the surface. Then you can access the cube map, based on the reflected view direction, to determine the color of the environment for the point on the surface.

7.1.4: Computing Reflection Vectors

Figure 7-2 illustrates an object, an eye position, and a cube map texture that captures the environment surrounding the object. Because Figure 7-2 is, of course, depicting a 3D scene in 2D, the object is shown as a trapezoid and the environment is shown as the surrounding square, rather than an actual cube.

The vector I—called the incident ray—goes from the eye to the object's surface. When I reaches the surface, it is reflected in the direction R based on the surface normal N. This second ray is the reflected ray. Figure 7-3 shows the geometry of the situation.

Figure 7-2. Environment Mapping

Figure 7-3. Calculating the Reflected Ray

The angle of incidence (ØI ) is the same as the angle of reflection (ØR ) for a perfect reflector such as a mirror. You can compute the reflected vector R in terms of the vectors I and N with Equation 7-1.

Equation 7-1. Vector Reflection

Calculating a reflected vector is a common operation in computer graphics, so Cg provides the reflect Standard Library function. This function takes in the incident vector and the surface normal and returns the reflected vector.


reflect(I, N)Returns the reflected vector for the incident ray I and the surface normal N. The vector N should be normalized. The reflected vector's length is equal to the length of I. This function is valid only for three-component vectors.

Though you are better off using the Cg Standard Library routine because of its efficiency, the straightforward implementation of reflect is as follows:

float3 reflect(float3 I, float3 N){  return I - 2.0 * N * dot(N, I);}

7.1 Environment Mapping

We will be putting the reflect function to work later.

7.1.5: Assumptions for Environment Mapping

The preceding discussion mentioned that environment mapping assumes that the environment is infinitely distant from the object. Now we explore the implications of this assumption.

The reason for the assumption is that environment maps are accessed solely based on a 3D direction. Environment mapping has no allowance for variations in position to affect the reflected appearance of surfaces. If everything in the environment is sufficiently far away from the surface, then this assumption is approximately true.

In practice, the visual artifacts that result when the environment is not sufficiently distant typically go completely unnoticed. Reflections, particularly on curved surfaces, are subtle enough that most people fail to notice when a reflection is not physically accurate. As long as reflections match the coarse coloration of the environment and change appropriately with the curvature of the surface, surfaces rendered with environment mapping appear believable.

You'll be surprised at what you can get away with.

Ideally, every environment-mapped object in a scene should have its own environment map. In practice, objects can often share environment maps with no one noticing.

In theory, you should regenerate an environment map when objects in the environment move or when the reflective object using the environment map moves significantly relative to the environment. In practice, convincing reflections are possible with static environment maps.

With an environment map, an object can reflect only the environment; it cannot reflect itself. Similarly, do not expect multiple reflections, such as when two shiny objects reflect each other. Because an environment-mapped object can reflect only its environment and not itself, environment mapping works best on convex or mostly convex objects—rather than more concave objects.

Because environment mapping depends solely on direction and not on position, it works poorly on flat reflective surfaces such as mirrors, where the reflections depend heavily on position. In contrast, environment mapping works best on curved surfaces.





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