The lost art of 3D rendering without shaders

This is super fascinating to me.

You might use a 3D framework such as OpenGL or Metal. That involves writing one or more vertex shaders to transform your 3D objects, and one or more fragment shaders to draw these transformed objects on the screen.

The framework then takes these shaders and your 3D data, performs some magic, and paints everything in glorious 32-bit color.

But what exactly is that magic that OpenGL and Metal do behind the scenes?

Back in the day — way before we had hardware accelerated 3D graphics cards, let alone programmable GPUs — if you wanted to draw a 3D scene you had to do all that work yourself. In assembly. On a computer with a 7 MHz processor.

I’ve got a shelf full of books on 3D graphics that are obsolete because nowadays you can simply use OpenGL or Metal. And I’m glad we can! However, even if you take advantage of these modern GPUs and 3D APIs, it’s still useful to understand the steps that are involved in drawing 3D objects on the screen.

In this post I’ll explain how to draw a 3D bouncing cube, with simple animation and lighting, but without using shaders. It illustrates what happens under the hood when you use OpenGL or Metal, and I’ll point out where the modern vertex and fragment shaders fit into this story.