The WebGL
Graphics Pipeline

Tarek Sherif


  • Motivation
  • Basic Architecture
  • Pipeline Components
  • Advantages and Limitations


  • Having a better understanding of the graphics pipeline will help us:
    • Understand what effects are possible
    • Understand the performance costs of those effects
    • Come up with new effects?

Basic Architecture

  • The pipeline must handle massive amounts of data in minimal time
    • Potentially hundreds of thousands of vertices
    • Transformation, lighting, texturing, shading
    • Repeat every 16ms!

Basic Architecture

  • Massive parallelism
    • SIMD
    • Transformations applied independently to each vertex
    • Shading applied independently to each pixel

Basic Architecture

Pipeline Components

Set Up

  • Describe the geometry, normals, UVs
  • Set parameters that will go into shading calculations

Vertex Shader

  • Programmable
  • Applied independently to each vertex
  • Move object to its position relative to the camera and other objects

Three Steps

  • Model transformation
    • Translate, rotate, scale model to its position in "the world"
  • View transformation
    • Move object into its position relative to camera
  • Projection transformation
    • Usually a perspective projection to give depth
  • Usually all combined into a single "MVP" matrix

Vertex Shader


  attribute vec4 aPosition;
  uniform mat4 uMVP;

  void main() {
    gl_Position = uMVP * aPosition;


  • Map points on model surface to pixels of the screen to create "fragments"


  • Vertex attributes will be interpolated across the pixels they enclose
  • Each fragment contains interpolated values for an object that covers a given pixel
  • Might produce more than one fragment per pixel
    • One for each object that covers the pixel


  • Interpolated attributes for a fragment can be anything, but typically include
    • Position
    • Normals
    • Colors
    • UVs
    • Depth

Fragment Shader

  • Programmable
  • Use fragment data to calculate pixel color
  • Multiple fragments might be considered to calculate the color of a pixel
    • Choose closest fragment for opaque objects
    • Blend several fragments for transparent objects

Fragment Shader


    varying vec4 vPosition;
    varying vec4 vNormal;
    varying vec4 vColor;
    uniform vec3 uLightPos;
    uniform vec3 uLightColor;

    void main() {  
        vec3 lightDir = normalize(uLightPos -;
        float l = max(dot(normalize(vNormal), lightDir), 0.0);

        gl_FragColor = vec4(l * vColor.rgb * uLightColor, vColor.a);


  • Final application of colors to pixels of the screen
  • Includes some logic such as blending and depth testing

Advantages and Limitations

  • Key factors to consider:
    • Parallel processing is intrinsic to the system
    • Programmable vertex and fragment shaders


  • FAST
    • Complexity of the scenes we can render is a direct result of parallelism
  • Programmable shaders are extremely flexible


  • Global effects are difficult
    • Shadows
    • Reflection
    • Refraction
  • Usually require the scene be rendered multiple times
    • Comes at a performance cost