Cg Programming/Unity/Billboards

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Billboards along a highway. Note the orientation of the billboards for best visibility.

This tutorial introduces billboards.

It is based on Section “Textured Spheres” and the discussion in Section “Vertex Transformations”.


In computer graphics, billboards are textured rectangles that are transformed such that they always appear parallel to the view plane. Thus, they are similar to billboards along highways in that they are rotated for best visibility. However, they are different from highway billboards since they are dynamically rotated to always offer best visibility.

The main use of billboards is to replace complex three-dimensional models (e.g. grass, bushes, or even trees) by two-dimensional images. In fact, Unity also uses billboards to render grass. Moreover, billboards are often used to render two-dimensional sprites. In both applications, it is crucial that the billboard is always aligned parallel to the view plane in order to keep up the illusion of a three-dimensional shape although only a two-dimensional image is rendered.

Vertex Transformation for Billboards[edit]

Similarly to Section “Skyboxes”, we can use the default cube object to render a billboard. However, the following shader will also work with the default plane. The basic idea is to transform only the origin (0,0,0,1) of the object space to view space with the standard model-view transformation UNITY_MATRIX_MV. (In homogeneous coordinates all points have a 1 as fourth coordinate; see the discussion in Section “Vertex Transformations”.) View space is just a rotated version of world space with the x y plane parallel to the view plane as discussed in Section “Vertex Transformations”. Thus, this is the correct space to construct an appropriately rotated billboard. We subtract the x and z object coordinates (vertex.x and vertex.z) from the transformed origin in view coordinates and then transform the result with the projection matrix UNITY_MATRIX_P:

            output.pos = mul(UNITY_MATRIX_P, 
              mul(UNITY_MATRIX_MV, float4(0.0, 0.0, 0.0, 1.0))
              - float4(input.vertex.x, input.vertex.z, 0.0, 0.0));

Apart from this, we only have to set texture coordinates, which is done the same way as in Section “Screen Overlays”:

            output.tex = input.tex;

Then the fragment shader just looks up the color at the interpolated texture coordinates.

Complete Shader Code[edit]

The complete shader code for the standard cube object is now:

Shader "Cg  shader for billboards" {
   Properties {
      _MainTex ("Texture Image", 2D) = "white" {}
   SubShader {
      Pass {   
         #pragma vertex vert  
         #pragma fragment frag 

         // User-specified uniforms            
         uniform sampler2D _MainTex;        
         struct vertexInput {
            float4 vertex : POSITION;
            float4 tex : TEXCOORD0;
         struct vertexOutput {
            float4 pos : SV_POSITION;
            float4 tex : TEXCOORD0;
         vertexOutput vert(vertexInput input) 
            vertexOutput output;

            output.pos = mul(UNITY_MATRIX_P, 
              mul(UNITY_MATRIX_MV, float4(0.0, 0.0, 0.0, 1.0))
              - float4(input.vertex.x, input.vertex.y, 0.0, 0.0));
            output.tex = input.tex;

            return output;
         float4 frag(vertexOutput input) : COLOR
            return tex2D(_MainTex, float2(input.tex.xy));   

Note that we never apply the model matrix to the object coordinates because we don't want to rotate them. However, this means that we also cannot scale them. Thus, in order to scale the billboard you should introduce additional shader properties for scaling the object coordinates in the vertex shader.


Congratulations, you made it to the end of this tutorial. We have seen:

  • How to transform and texture a cube in order to render a view-aligned billboard.

Further Reading[edit]

If you still want to learn more

< Cg Programming/Unity

Unless stated otherwise, all example source code on this page is granted to the public domain.