Tuesday, November 02, 2010

2D musings

If you've been following graphics developments in the 2D world over the last few years you've probably seen a number of blogs and articles complaining about performance. In particular about how slow 2D is on GPUs. Have you ever wondered why it's possible to make this completely smooth but your desktop still sometimes feels sluggish?

Bad model

For some weird reason ("neglect" being one of them) 2D rendering model hasn't evolved at all in the last few years. That is if it has evolved at all since the very first "draw line" became a function call. Draw line, draw rectangle, draw image, blit this, were simply joined by fill path, stroke path, few extra composition modes and such. At its very core the model remained the same though, meaning lots of calls to draw an equally large number of small primitives.

This worked well because technically zero, or almost zero, setup code was necessary to start rendering. Then GPUs became prevalent and they could do amazing things but to get them to do anything you had to upload the data and the commands that would tell them what to do. With time more and more data had to be sent to the GPU to describe the increasingly complex and larger scenes. It made sense to optimize the process of uploads (I keep calling them "uploads" but "GPU downloads" is closer to the true meaning) by allowing to upload an entire resource once and then refer to it via a handle. Buffers, shaders, addition of new shading stages (tessellation, geometry) all meant to reduce the size of data that had to be uploaded to the GPU before every rendering.

At least for games and well designed 3D software. 2D stuck to its old model of "make GPU download everything on every draw request". It worked ok because most of the user interface was static and rather boring so the performance was never much of an issue. Plus in many cases the huge setup costs are offset by the fact that the Graphics Processing Units are really good at processing graphics.

Each application is composed of multiple widgets each widget draws itself using multiple primitives (pixmaps, rectangles, lines, paths) and each primitive needs to first upload the data needed by the GPU to render it. It's like that because from the 2D api perspective there's no object persistence. The api has no idea that you keep re-rendering the same button over and over again. All the api sees is another "draw rectangle" or "draw path" call which it will complete.

On each frame the same data is being copied to the GPU over and over again. It's not very efficient, is it? There's a limited number of optimizations you can do in this model. Some of the more obvious ones include:
  • adding unique identifiers to the pixmaps/surfaces and using those as identifiers as keys in a texture cache which allows you to create a texture for every pixmap/surface only once,
  • collecting data from each draw call in a temporary buffer and copying it all at once (e.g. in SkOSWindow::afterChildren, QWindowSurface::endPaint or such),
  • creating a shader cache for different types of fills and composition modes

  • But the real problem is that you keep making the GPU download the same data every frame and unfortunately that is really hard to fix in this model.

    Fixing the model

    It all boils down to creating some kind of a store where lifetime of an object/model is known. This way the scene knows exactly what objects are being rendered and before rendering begins it can initialize and upload all the data the items need to be renderer. Then rendering is just that - rendering. Data transfers are limited to object addition/removal or significant changes to their properties and then further limited by the fact that a lot of the state can always be reused. Note that trivial things like changing the texture (e.g. on hover/push) don't require any additional transfers and things like translations can be limited to just two floats (translation in x and y) and they're usually shared for multiple primitives (e.g. in a pushbutton it would be used by the background texture and the label texture/glyphs)

    It would seem like the addition of QGraphicsView was a good time to change the 2D model, but that wasn't really possible because people like their QPainter. No one likes when a tool they have been using for a while and are fairly familiar with is suddenly taken away. Completely changing a model required a more drastic move.

    QML and scene-graph

    QML fundamentally changes the way we create interfaces and it's very neat. From the api perspective it's not much different from JavaFX and one could argue which one is neater/better but QML allows us to almost completely get rid of the old 2D rendering model and that's why I love it! A side-effect of moving to QML is likely the most significant change we've done to accelerated 2D in a long time. The new Qt scene graph is a very important project that can make a huge difference to the performance, look and feel of 2D interfaces.
    Give it a try. If you don't have OpenGL working, no worries it will work fine with Mesa3D on top of llvmpipe.

    A nice project would be doing the same in web engines. We have all the info there but we decompose it into the draw line, draw path, draw rectangle, draw image calls. Short of the canvas object which needs the old style painters, everything is there to make accelerated web engines a lot better at rendering the content.