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WebGL2 Shadertoy

This article assumes you've read many of the other articles starting with the fundamentals. If you have not read them please start there first.

In the article on the drawing without data we showed a few examples of drawing things with no data using a vertex shader. This article will be about drawing things with no data using fragment shaders.

We'll start with a simple solid color shader with no math using the code from the very first article.

A simple vertex shader

const vs = `#version 300 es
  // an attribute is an input (in) to a vertex shader.
  // It will receive data from a buffer
  in vec4 a_position;

  // all shaders have a main function
  void main() {

    // gl_Position is a special variable a vertex shader
    // is responsible for setting
    gl_Position = a_position;
  }
`;

and a simple fragment shader

const fs = `#version 300 es
  precision highp float;

  // we need to declare an output for the fragment shader
  out vec4 outColor;

  void main() {
    outColor = vec4(1, 0, 0.5, 1); // return reddish-purple
  }
`;

Then we need to compile and link the shaders and look up position attribute location.

function main() {
  // Get A WebGL context
  /** @type {HTMLCanvasElement} */
  const canvas = document.querySelector("#canvas");
  const gl = canvas.getContext("webgl2");
  if (!gl) {
    return;
  }

  // setup GLSL program
  const program = webglUtils.createProgramFromSources(gl, [vs, fs]);

  // look up where the vertex data needs to go.
  const positionAttributeLocation = gl.getAttribLocation(program, "a_position");

and then create a vertex array, fill out a buffer with 2 triangles that make a rectangle in clip space that goes from -1 to +1 in x and y to cover the canvas, set set the attributes.

  // Create a vertex array object (attribute state)
  const vao = gl.createVertexArray();

  // and make it the one we're currently working with
  gl.bindVertexArray(vao);

  // Create a buffer to put three 2d clip space points in
  const positionBuffer = gl.createBuffer();

  // Bind it to ARRAY_BUFFER (think of it as ARRAY_BUFFER = positionBuffer)
  gl.bindBuffer(gl.ARRAY_BUFFER, positionBuffer);

  // fill it with a 2 triangles that cover clip space
  gl.bufferData(gl.ARRAY_BUFFER, new Float32Array([
    -1, -1,  // first triangle
     1, -1,
    -1,  1,
    -1,  1,  // second triangle
     1, -1,
     1,  1,
  ]), gl.STATIC_DRAW);

  // Turn on the attribute
  gl.enableVertexAttribArray(positionAttributeLocation);

  // Tell the attribute how to get data out of positionBuffer (ARRAY_BUFFER)
  gl.vertexAttribPointer(
      positionAttributeLocation,
      2,          // 2 components per iteration
      gl.FLOAT,   // the data is 32bit floats
      false,      // don't normalize the data
      0,          // 0 = move forward size * sizeof(type) each iteration to get the next position
      0,          // start at the beginning of the buffer
  );

And then we draw

  webglUtils.resizeCanvasToDisplaySize(gl.canvas);

  // Tell WebGL how to convert from clip space to pixels
  gl.viewport(0, 0, gl.canvas.width, gl.canvas.height);

  // Tell it to use our program (pair of shaders)
  gl.useProgram(program);

  // Bind the attribute/buffer set we want.
  gl.bindVertexArray(vao);

  gl.drawArrays(
      gl.TRIANGLES,
      0,     // offset
      6,     // num vertices to process
  );

And of course we get a solid color that covers the canvas.

In the article on how WebGL works we added more color by providing a color for each vertex. In the article on textures we added more color by supplying textures and texture coordinates. So how do we get something more than a solid color with out any more data? WebGL provides a variable called gl_FragCoord that is equal to the pixel coordinate of the pixel currently being drawn.

So let's change our fragment shader to use that to compute a color

const fs = `#version 300 es
  precision highp float;

  // we need to declare an output for the fragment shader
  out vec4 outColor;

  void main() {
-    outColor = vec4(1, 0, 0.5, 1); // return reddish-purple
+    outColor = vec4(fract(gl_FragCoord.xy / 50.0), 0, 1);
  }
`;

Like we mentioned above gl_FragCoord is a pixel coordinate so it will count across and up the canvas. By dividing by 50 we'll get a value that goes from 0 to 1 from as gl_FragCoord goes from 0 to 50. By using fract we'll keep just the fractional part so for example when gl_FragCoord is 75. 75 / 50 = 1.5, fract(1.5) = 0.5 so we'll get a value that goes from 0 to 1 every 50 pixels.

As you can see above every 50 pixels across red goes from 0 to 1 and every 50 pixels up green goes from 0 to 1.

With our setup now we could make more complex math for a fancier image. but we have one problem in that we have no idea how large the canvas is so we'd have to hard code for a specific size. We can solve that problem by passing in the size of the canvas and then divide gl_FragCoord by the size to give us a value that goes from 0 to 1 across and up the canvas regardless of size.

const fs = `#version 300 es
  precision highp float;

+  uniform vec2 u_resolution;

  // we need to declare an output for the fragment shader
  out vec4 outColor;

  void main() {
-    outColor = vec4(fract(gl_FragCoord.xy / 50.0), 0, 1);
+    outColor = vec4(fract(gl_FragCoord.xy / u_resolution), 0, 1);
  }
`;

and look up and set the uniform

// look up where the vertex data needs to go.
const positionAttributeLocation = gl.getAttribLocation(program, "a_position");

+// look up uniform locations
+const resolutionLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_resolution");

...

+gl.uniform2f(resolutionLocation, gl.canvas.width, gl.canvas.height);

gl.drawArrays(
    gl.TRIANGLES,
    0,     // offset
    6,     // num vertices to process
);

...

which lets us make our spread of red and green always fit the canvas regardless of resolution

Let's also pass in the mouse position in pixel coordinates.

const fs = `#version 300 es
  precision highp float;

  uniform vec2 u_resolution;
+  uniform vec2 u_mouse;

  // we need to declare an output for the fragment shader
  out vec4 outColor;

  void main() {
-    outColor = vec4(fract(gl_FragCoord.xy / u_resolution), 0, 1);
+    outColor = vec4(fract((gl_FragCoord.xy - u_mouse) / u_resolution), 0, 1);
  }
`;

And then we need to look up the uniform location,

// look up uniform locations
const resolutionLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_resolution");
+const mouseLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_mouse");

track the mouse,

let mouseX = 0;
let mouseY = 0;

function setMousePosition(e) {
  const rect = canvas.getBoundingClientRect();
  mouseX = e.clientX - rect.left;
  mouseY = rect.height - (e.clientY - rect.top) - 1;  // bottom is 0 in WebGL
  render();
}

canvas.addEventListener('mousemove', setMousePosition);

and set the uniform.

gl.uniform2f(resolutionLocation, gl.canvas.width, gl.canvas.height);
+gl.uniform2f(mouseLocation, mouseX, mouseY);

We also need to change the code so we render when the mouse position changes

function setMousePosition(e) {
  const rect = canvas.getBoundingClientRect();
  mouseX = e.clientX - rect.left;
  mouseY = rect.height - (e.clientY - rect.top) - 1;  // bottom is 0 in WebGL
+  render();
}

+function render() {
  webglUtils.resizeCanvasToDisplaySize(gl.canvas);

  ...

  gl.drawArrays(
      gl.TRIANGLES,
      0,     // offset
      6,     // num vertices to process
  );
+}
+render();

and while we're at it lets handle touch too

canvas.addEventListener('mousemove', setMousePosition);
+canvas.addEventListener('touchstart', (e) => {
+  e.preventDefault();
+}, {passive: false});
+canvas.addEventListener('touchmove', (e) => {
+  e.preventDefault();
+  setMousePosition(e.touches[0]);
+}, {passive: false});

and now you can see if you move the mouse over the example it affects our image.

The final major piece is we want to be able to animate something so we pass in one more thing, a time value we can use to add to our computations.

For example if we did this

const fs = `#version 300 es
  precision highp float;

  uniform vec2 u_resolution;
  uniform vec2 u_mouse;
+  uniform float u_time;

  // we need to declare an output for the fragment shader
  out vec4 outColor;

  void main() {
-    outColor = vec4(fract((gl_FragCoord.xy - u_mouse) / u_resolution), 0, 1);
+    outColor = vec4(fract((gl_FragCoord.xy - u_mouse) / u_resolution), fract(u_time), 1);
  }
`;

And now the blue channel will pulse to the time. We just need to look up the uniform, and set it in a requestAnimationFrame loop.

// look up uniform locations
const resolutionLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_resolution");
const mouseLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_mouse");
+const timeLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_time");

...

-function render() {
+function render(time) {
+  time *= 0.001;  // convert to seconds

  webglUtils.resizeCanvasToDisplaySize(gl.canvas);

  ...

  gl.uniform2f(resolutionLocation, gl.canvas.width, gl.canvas.height);
  gl.uniform2f(mouseLocation, mouseX, mouseY);
+  gl.uniform1f(timeLocation, time);

  gl.drawArrays(
      gl.TRIANGLES,
      0,     // offset
      6,     // num vertices to process
  );

+  requestAnimationFrame(render);
+}
+requestAnimationFrame(render);
-render();

Also we no longer need to render on mousemove since we're rendering continuously.

let mouseX = 0;
let mouseY = 0;
canvas.addEventListener('mousemove', (e) => {
  const rect = canvas.getBoundingClientRect();
  mouseX = e.clientX - rect.left;
  mouseY = rect.height - (e.clientY - rect.top) - 1;  // bottom is 0 in WebGL
-  render();
});

And we get some simple but boring animation.

So now with all of that we can take a shader from Shadertoy.com. Shadertoy shaders you provide a function called mainImage in this form

void mainImage(out vec4 fragColor, in vec2 fragCoord)
{    
}

Where your job is to set fragColor just like you'd normally set gl_FragColor and fragCoord is the same as gl_FragCoord. Adding this extra function lets Shadertoy impose a little more structure as well as do some extra work before or after calling mainImage. For us to use it we just need to call it like this

#version 300 es
precision highp float;

uniform vec2 u_resolution;
uniform vec2 u_mouse;
uniform float u_time;

out vec4 outColor;

//---insert shadertoy code here--

void main() {
  mainImage(outColor, gl_FragCoord.xy);
}

Except that Shadertoy uses the uniform names iResolution, iMouse and iTime so let's rename them.

#version 300 es
precision highp float;

-uniform vec2 u_resolution;
-uniform vec2 u_mouse;
-uniform float u_time;
+uniform vec2 iResolution;
+uniform vec2 iMouse;
+uniform float iTime;

//---insert shadertoy code here--

out vec4 outColor;

void main() {
  mainImage(outColor, gl_FragCoord.xy);
}

and look them up by the new names

// look up uniform locations
-const resolutionLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_resolution");
-const mouseLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_mouse");
-const timeLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "u_time");
+const resolutionLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "iResolution");
+const mouseLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "iMouse");
+const timeLocation = gl.getUniformLocation(program, "iTime");

Taking this shadertoy shader and pasting it in our shader above where it says //---insert shadertoy code here-- gives us...

That's an extraordinarily beautiful image for having no data!

I made the sample above only render when the mouse is over the canvas or when touched. This is because the math required to draw the image above is complex and slow and letting it run continuously would make it very difficult to interact with this page. If you have a very fast GPU the image above might run smooth. On my laptop though it runs slow and jerky.

This brings up an extremely important point. The shaders on shadertoy are not best practice. Shadertoy is a puzzle and a challenge of "If I have no data and only a function that takes very little input can I make an interesting or beautiful image". It's not the way to make performant WebGL.

Take for example this amazing shadertoy shader that looks like this

It's beautiful but it runs at about 19 frames a second in a tiny 640x360 window on my high powered laptop. Expand the window to full screen and it runs around 2 or 3 frames per second. Testing on my higher spec desktop it still only hits 45 frames per second at 640x360 and maybe 10 full screen.

Compare it to this game that's also fairly beautiful and yet runs at 30 to 60 frames per second even on lower-powered GPUs

This is because the game uses best practices drawing things with textured triangles instead of complex math.

So, please take that to heart. The examples on Shadertoy are simply amazing in part because now you know they are made under the extreme limit of almost no data and are complex functions that draw pretty pictures. As such they are a thing of wonder.

They are also a great way to learn a lot of math. But, they are also not remotely the way you get a performant WebGL app. So please keep that in mind.

Otherwise, if you want to run more Shadertoy shaders you'll need to provide a few more uniforms. Here's a list of the uniforms Shadertoy provides

typenamewheredescription
vec3iResolutionimage / bufferThe viewport resolution (z is pixel aspect ratio, usually 1.0)
floatiTimeimage / sound / bufferCurrent time in seconds
floatiTimeDeltaimage / bufferTime it takes to render a frame, in seconds
intiFrameimage / bufferCurrent frame
floatiFrameRateimage / bufferNumber of frames rendered per second
floatiChannelTime[4]image / bufferTime for channel (if video or sound), in seconds
vec3iChannelResolution[4]image / buffer / soundInput texture resolution for each channel
vec4iMouseimage / bufferxy = current pixel coords (if LMB is down). zw = click pixel
sampler2DiChannel{i}image / buffer / soundSampler for input textures i
vec4iDateimage / buffer / soundYear, month, day, time in seconds in .xyzw
floatiSampleRateimage / buffer / soundThe sound sample rate (typically 44100)

Notice iMouse and iResolution are actually supposed to be a vec4 and a vec3 respectively so you may need to adjust those to match.

iChannel are textures so if the shader needs them you'll need to provide textures.

Shadertoy also lets you use multiple shaders to render to offscreen textures so if a shader needs those you'll need to setup textures to render to.

The "where" column indicates which uniforms are available in which shaders. "image" is a shader that renders to the canvas. "buffer" is a shader that renders to an offscreen texture. "sound" is a shader where your shader is expected to generate sound data into a texture.

I hope this helped explain Shadertoy. It's a great site with amazing works but is good to know what's really going on. If you want to learn more about the techniques used in these kinds of shader 2 good resources are the blog of the person that created the shadertoy website and The Book of Shaders (which is a little misleading since it really only covers the kind of shaders used on shadertoy, not the kind used in performant apps and games. Still, it's a great resource!

Pixel Coordinates

Pixel coordinates in WebGL are referenced by their edges. So for example if we had a canvas that was 3x2 pixels big then the value for gl_FragCoord at the pixel 2 from the left and 1 from the bottom would be 2.5, 1.5

Questions? Ask on stackoverflow.
Issue/Bug? Create an issue on github.
Use <pre><code>code goes here</code></pre> for code blocks
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