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Advanced Tessellation in Vulkan



Previously I talked about the technical details of hardware tessellation and what it took to make it truly useful. In this article I will talk about some of the implications of this feature and the more advanced ramifications of baking tessellation into Turbo Game Engine as a first-class feature in theย 

Although hardware tessellation has been around for a few years, we don't see it used in games that often. There are two big problems that need to be overcome.

  • We need a way to prevent cracks from appearing along edges.
  • We need to display a consistent density of triangles on the screen. Too many polygons is a big problem.

I think these issues are the reason you don't really see much use of tessellation in games, even today. However, I think my research this week has created new technology that will allow us to make use of tessellation as an every-day feature in our new Vulkan renderer.

Per-Vertex Displacement Scale

Because tessellation displaces vertices, any discrepancy in the distance or direction of the displacement, or any difference in the way neighboring polygons are subdivided, will result in cracks appearing in the mesh.


To prevent unwanted cracks in mesh geometry I added a per-vertex displacement scale value. I packed this value into the w component of the vertex position, which was not being used. When the displacement strength is set to zero along the edges the cracks disappear:


Segmented Primitives

With the ability to control displacement on a per-vertex level, I set about implementing more advanced model primitives. The basic idea is to split up faces so that the edge vertices can have their displacement scale set to zero to eliminate cracks. I started with a segmented plane. This is a patch of triangles with a user-defined size and resolution. The outer-most vertices have a displacement value of 0 and the inner vertices have a displacement of 1. When tessellation is applied to the plane the effect fades out as it reaches the edges of the primitive:


I then used this formula to create a more advanced box primitive. Along the seam where the edges of each face meet, the displacement smoothly fades out to prevent cracks from appearing.


The same idea was applied to make segmented cylinders and cones, with displacement disabled along the seams.



Finally, a new QuadSphere primitive was created using the box formula, and then normalizing each vertex position. This warps the vertices into a round shape, creating a sphere without the texture warping that spherical mapping creates.


It's amazing how tessellation and displacement can make these simple shapes look amazing. Here is the full list of available commands:

shared_ptr<Model> CreateBox(shared_ptr<World> world, const float width = 1.0);
shared_ptr<Model> CreateBox(shared_ptr<World> world, const float width, const float height, const float depth, const int xsegs = 1, const int ysegs = 1);
shared_ptr<Model> CreateSphere(shared_ptr<World> world, const float radius = 0.5, const int segments = 16);
shared_ptr<Model> CreateCone(shared_ptr<World> world, const float radius = 0.5, const float height = 1.0, const int segments = 16, const int heightsegs = 1, const int capsegs = 1);
shared_ptr<Model> CreateCylinder(shared_ptr<World> world, const float radius = 0.5, const float height=1.0, const int sides = 16, const int heightsegs = 1, const int capsegs = 1);
shared_ptr<Model> CreatePlane(shared_ptr<World> world, cnst float width=1, const float height=1, const int xsegs = 1, const int ysegs = 1);
shared_ptr<Model> CreateQuadSphere(shared_ptr<World> world, const float radius = 0.5, const int segments = 8);

Edge Normals

I experimented a bit with edges and got some interesting results. If you round the corner by setting the vertex normal to point diagonally, a rounded edge appears.


If you extend the displacement scale beyond 1.0 you can get a harder extended edge.


This is something I will experiment with more. I think CSG brush smooth groups could be used to make some really nice level geometry.

Screen-space Tessellation LOD

I created an LOD calculation formula that attempts to segment polygons into a target size in screen space. This provides a more uniform distribution of tessellated polygons, regardless of the original geometry. Below are two cylinders created with different segmentation settings, with tessellation disabled:


And now here are the same meshes with tessellation applied. Although the less-segmented cylinder has more stretched triangles, they both are made up of triangles about the same size.


Because the calculation works with screen-space coordinates, objects will automatically adjust resolution with distance. Here are two identical cylinders at different distances.


You can see they have roughly the same distribution of polygons, which is what we want. The same amount of detail will be used to show off displaced edges at any distance.


We can even set a threshold for the minimum vertex displacement in screen space and use that to eliminate tessellation inside an object and only display extra triangles along the edges.


This allows you to simply set a target polygon size in screen space without adjusting any per-mesh properties. This method could have prevented the problems Crysis 2 had with polygon density. This also solves the problem that prevented me from using tessellation for terrain. The per-mesh tessellation settings I worked on a couple days ago will be removed since it is not needed.

Parallax Mapping Fallback

Finally, I added a simple parallax mapping fallback that gets used when tessellation is disabled. This makes an inexpensive option for low-end machines that still conveys displacement.


Next I am going to try processing some models that were not designed for tessellation and see if I can use tessellation to add geometric detail to low-poly models without any cracks or artifacts.

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