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27.

Shaders

Difficulty Very hard

Downloads

Introduction 00:00

This lesson is probably the most anticipated one. We already talked about shaders, and that is the most demanding topic.

The funny thing is that we have been using them since the beginning. When we are creating Three.js built-in materials, those materials are composed of shaders. Everything showing up on the WebGL render is made possible because of shaders, but it's time to create them on our own.

We will start by explaining what shaders are and when to use them. Then we will create our own very simple shaders. We will, of course, cover the syntax of the shader language. And finally, we will do some exercises to practice classic situations.

What is a shader 01:19

A shader is, in fact, one of the main components of WebGL. If we had started WebGL without Three.js, it would have been one of the first things we would have to learn, and this is why native WebGL is so hard.

A shader is a program written in GLSL that is sent to the GPU. They are used to position each vertex of a geometry and to colorize each visible pixel of that geometry. The term "pixel" isn't accurate because each point in the render doesn't necessarily match each pixel of the screen and this is why we prefer to use the term "fragment" so don't be surprised if you see both terms.

Then we send a lot of data to the shader such as the vertices coordinates, the mesh transformation, information about the camera and its field of view, parameters like the color, the textures, the lights, the fog, etc. The GPU then processes all of this data following the shader instructions, and our geometry appears in the render.

There are two types of shaders, and we need both of them.

Vertex shader

The vertex shader's purpose is to position the vertices of the geometry. The idea is to send the vertices positions, the mesh transformations (like its position, rotation, and scale), the camera information (like its position, rotation, and field of view). Then, the GPU will follow the instructions in the vertex shader to process all of this information in order to project the vertices on a 2D space that will become our render —in other words, our canvas.

When using a vertex shader, its code will be applied on every vertex of the geometry. But some data like the vertex position will change between each vertex. This type of data —the one that changes between vertices— is called an attribute. But some data doesn't need to switch between each vertex like the position of the mesh. Yes, the location of the mesh will impact all the vertices, but in the same way. This type of data —the one that doesn't change between vertices— is called a uniform. We will get back to attributes and uniforms later.

The vertex shader happens first. Once the vertices are placed, the GPU knows what pixels of the geometry are visible and can proceed to the fragment shader.

Fragment shader

The fragment shader purpose is to color each visible fragment of the geometry.

The same fragment shader will be used for every visible fragment of the geometry. We can send data to it like a color by using uniforms —just like the vertex shader, or we can send data from the vertex shader to the fragment shader. We call this type of data —the one that comes from the vertex shader to the fragment shader— varying. We will get back to this later.

The most straightforward instruction in a fragment shader can be to color all the fragments with the same color. We get the equivalent of the MeshBasicMaterial —if we had set only the color property.

Or we can send more data to the shader, for instance, a light position. We can then color the fragments according to how much the face is in front of the light source. We would get the MeshPhongMaterial equivalent—if we had one light in the scene.

Summary

The vertex shader position the vertices on the render.

The fragment shader color each visible fragment (or pixel) of that geometry.

The fragment shader is executed after the vertex shader.

Data that changes between each vertices (like their position) is called attribute and can only be used in the vertex shader.

Data that doesn't change between vertices (like the mesh position or a color) is called uniform and can be use in both the vertex shader and the fragment shader.

We can send data from the vertex shader to the fragment shader using varying.

Why writing our own shaders 20:27

Three.js materials try to cover as many situations as possible, but they have limitations. If we want to break those limits, we have to write our own shaders.

It can also be for performance reasons. Materials like MeshStandardMaterial are very elaborate and involve a lot of code and calculations. If we write our own shader, we can keep the features and calculations to the minimum. We have more control over the performance.

Writing our own shader is also an excellent way to add post-process to our render, but we will see this in a dedicated lesson.

Once you master the shaders, they'll become a must in all your projects.

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How to use it

  • Download the Starter pack or Final project
    (if your browser detects a menace, do not worry, it is not)
  • Unzip it
  • Open your terminal and go to the unzip folder
  • Run npm install command to install dependencies
  • Run npm run dev to launch the local server
    (your browser should start automatically)

You can now start coding.

  • The JS is located in src/script.js
  • The HTML is located in src/index.html
  • The CSS is located in src/style.css

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