3D graphics tutorial

An introduction
My sister's handmade cards on Etsy.
Drawing of a pile of animals
A 3D torus
Example of the sort of program you can make. See the program here.

The aim of this tutorial is to explain how to create basic 3D graphics. It uses the Khan Academy Computer Science platform, but the principles are the same no matter what graphics program you use. I used the HTML5 Canvas and very similar code to make the 3D examples on this page. These platforms is not really designed for 3D graphics, but that just means we can write our own 3D graphics engine and, in doing so, learn a bit how 3D graphics work (and why there is a reason to learn trigonometry).

This tutorial has now been ported to Khan Academy.

What are 3D graphics?

Three rhombuses pretending to be a cube.

Since computer screens are essentially two-dimensional, 3D graphics are just 2D optical illusions that trick your brain into thinking it is seeing a 3D object.

A 3D graphics engine works by calculating what 2D shapes a 3D object would project on to the screen. So to write our own 3D engine, we need to know how to do these calculations. Our program won't be as quick as most 3D engines but it should help us understand the principles of how they work.

Representing shapes

Your browser doesn't support canvas.

A point at [30, 80, 55]. Use the mouse to rotate.

A 3D graphics engine takes a 3D object and converts into 2D graphics, but how do we represent a 3D object in code?

A single point in 3D space is easy to represent using an array of three numbers. For example, we can use [30, 80, 55] to represent a point 30 pixels along the horizontal (x) axis, 80 pixels along the vertical (y) axis, and 55 pixels along the axis that goes into and out of the screen.

Representing a line is also easy: you just connect two points. One way to represent an object in 3D, therefore, is by converting it into a group of lines. This is called a wireframe, as it looks like the object is made from wire. It's obviously not ideal for representing solid objects, but it's a good place to start.


Your browser doesn't support canvas.

A wireframe cube.

Below are some terms I will use when refering to 3D shapes. Other terms might be used elsewhere, but I like these ones.