Windows Phone

Developing for Windows Phone and Xbox Live : 3D Math Basics (part 1) - Coordinate Systems

12/14/2010 4:57:53 PM
Those who are new to 3D graphics might ask the question, “Do I need to know math to create 3D graphics?” The simple answer is “Yes, there is a level of mathematics that is required when you are working on a 3D game.” Can you get by without knowing much? Absolutely, and we have seen many examples where people have created a 3D game but don’t necessarily understand how they are getting the results they see. This often leads to questions such as, “Why is my model orbiting around the camera when I wanted it to rotate on its axis like a planet?”

Without a doubt, having a better understanding of underlying mathematics leads you to be less confused, more quickly understand new concepts, and be more productive.

This section attempts to strike a balance of theory and practical use. The goal is to give you the higher level concepts that are used throughout 3D graphics without having to explain the details of how to do specific mathematical operations such as vector arithmetic or matrix multiplication. There are countless educational sources on these operations, and they are already implemented in the math types provided in XNA Game Studio. We spend our time focusing on what these operations mean geometrically and how they are used within 3D graphics.

Coordinate Systems

We already used one type of coordinate system, which were screen coordinates when drawing sprites on the screen. In screen coordinate space, there are two dimensions: one for each of the X and Y directions. In screen coordinates, the X direction increases in value from the left side of the screen to the right, and the Y increases in value from the top of the screen to the bottom.

There are two main types of 3D coordinate systems used in computer graphics. These two different types differ in direction from the positive Z points relative to the X and Y axes. The two types of coordinate systems are called right-handed and left-handed (see Figure 1). Both of these systems contain three directions for the X, Y, and Z axes. The three axes converge at a central point called the origin where their values equal 0. The values along each axis either gain or lower in value at regular intervals depending on whether you are moving in the positive or negative direction along that axis.

Figure 1. Left- and right-handed coordinate systems

To visualize these two different coordinate systems, let’s do a quick exercise. Take your right hand and make a fist. Turn your hand so your bent fingers face you and the top of your hand faces away from you. Now, extend your thumb. It should point directly to your right. Your thumb represents the positive X axis. Now extend your index finger, also known as your pointer finger, directly up in the air. This represents the positive Y direction. Your hand should look like it is making a capital L now with your thumb facing right and representing the positive X axis and your index finger pointing upwards representing the positive Y axis. Finally, extend your middle finger and point it directly at yourself. Your middle finger represents the positive Z axis (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Right fist forming the right-handed coordinate system

Imagine lines that extend from the tips of all three of your fingers; they should be 90 degrees apart from each other forming right angles between themselves. Having each axis be at right angles from each other creates what is called an orthogonal coordinate system. In this case, you created a right-handed coordinate system. This is the coordinate system used by default in XNA Game Studio. In a right-handed coordinate system, the negative Z axis is used for the forward direction.


DirectX by default uses a left-handed coordinate system. The properties and methods in XNA Game Studio assume you are using a right-handed coordinate system. Some methods also provide a left-handed equivalent for those who want to use a left-handed system.

To visualize a left-handed system, follow the previous instruction except face your palm away from yourself but still make a capital L with your thumb and index finger for the positive X and Y axes. Now when you extend your middle finger to form the positive Z axis, notice that it now points away from you. In a left-handed coordinate system, the positive Z axis is used for the forward direction (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Left fist forming the left-handed coordinate system


Although we just stated that Z axis is used for the forward direction, this is not always true. In some 3D art creation packages, the Z axis actually represents the up direction. The good news is that this difference is accounted for when XNA Game Studio loads models from those specific 3D content packages.

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