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Framebuffer Operations

The framebuffer is the last stage of the OpenGL graphics pipeline. It can represent the visible content of the screen and a number of additional regions of memory that are used to store per-pixel values other than color. On most platforms, this means the window you see on your desktop (or possibly the whole screen if your application covers it), which is owned by the operating system (or windowing system to be more precise). The framebuffer provided by the windowing system is known as the default framebuffer, but it is possible to provide your own if you wish to do things like render into off-screen areas. The state held by the framebuffer includes information such as where the data produced by your fragment shader should be written, what the format of that data should be, and so on. This state is stored in a framebuffer object. Also considered part of the framebuffer, but not stored per framebuffer object, is the pixel operation state.

Pixel Operations

After the fragment shader has produced an output, several things may happen to the fragment before it is written to the window, such as a determination of whether it even belongs in the window. Each of these things may be turned on or off by your application. The first thing that could happen is the scissor test, which tests your fragment against a rectangle that you can define. If it’s inside the rectangle, then it will be processed further; if it’s outside, it will be thrown away.

Next comes the stencil test. This compares a reference value provided by your application with the contents of the stencil buffer, which stores a single4 value per pixel. The content of the stencil buffer has no particular semantic meaning and can be used for any purpose.

After the stencil test has been performed, the depth test is performed. The depth test is an operation that compares the fragment’s z coordinate against the contents of the depth buffer. The depth buffer is a region of memory that, like the stencil buffer, is part of the framebuffer with enough space for a single value for each pixel; it contains the depth (which is related to distance from the viewer) of each pixel.

Normally, the values in the depth buffer range from 0 to 1, with 0 being the closest possible point in the depth buffer and 1 being the furthest possible point in the depth buffer. To determine whether a fragment is closer than other fragments that have already been rendered in the same place, OpenGL can compare the z component of the fragment’s window-space coordinate against the value already in the depth buffer. If this value is less than what’s already there, then the fragment is visible. The sense of this test can also be changed. For example, you can ask OpenGL to let fragments through that have a z coordinate that is greater than, equal to, or not equal to the content of the depth buffer. The result of the depth test also affects what OpenGL does to the stencil buffer.

Next, the fragment’s color is sent to either the blending or logical operation stage, depending on whether the framebuffer is considered to store floating-point, normalized, or integer values. If the content of the framebuffer is either floating-point or normalized integer values, then blending is applied. Blending is a highly configurable stage in OpenGL and will be covered in detail in its own section.

In short, OpenGL is capable of using a wide range of functions that take components of the output of your fragment shader and of the current content of the framebuffer and calculate new values that are written back to the framebuffer. If the framebuffer contains unnormalized integer values, then logical operations such as logical AND, OR, and XOR can be applied to the output of your shader and the value currently in the framebuffer to produce a new value that will be written back into the framebuffer.

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