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voxel landscape explanation/demo

DrWatson's profile picture
Published in 
 · 20 Jan 2024

otmvoxel released 11-08-94

voxel landscape explanation/demo
by Voltaire/OTM
all source Copyright (C) 1994 Zach Mortensen


see OTMVOXEL.NFO and OTM-94.NFO for more information


I make the assumption that you have at least some experience in writing 3d code. You should not attempt to understand voxels if you cannot understand the basics of 3d. If you are interested in the 3d engine used to make this demo, it is availible via ftp at

the archive is


I highly recommend picking it up (unbiased opinion of the author ;))


A voxel is an approximation of volume, much in the same way a pixel is an approximation for area. Imagine a voxel as a cube in space, it has length, width and depth. Just pixels have a fixed length and width, voxels have a fixed length, width, and depth.

|\ \
| \ \
| \ \
| --------- ---------
| | | | |
| | | | |
| | voxel | | pixel |
\ | | | |
\ | | | |
\|_______| ---------

gotta love my ascii art...hehehe

Now that you know what voxels are...


Because they can approximate volume, voxels can be used to create very complex formations in three dimensions. Commanche made voxels famous for creating somewhat realistic landscapes in realtime. Many recent demos have also made use of voxels in landscapes, ocean waves, etc.

But how do they do it so quickly? It would seem that in order to draw a voxel, one must keep track of its verticies, rotate and translate them, and draw a cube in every frame. This is obviously too slow to do in realtime, because landscapes usually contain upwards of 1000 voxels.

Here's the quick and dirty shortcut: If we limit our perspective so that we only view voxels from the front, each cube looks like this:

| |
| |
| voxel |
| |
| |

Wow...that looks an awful lot like a square, and we can draw squares MUCH faster than we can draw polygons with arbitrary angles that are required to draw a cube in 3d. More importantly, we only need to keep track of one point.

| |
| |
| voxel |
| |
| |


Well, now that we know voxels can be approximated by a point and a square, we need to define a pattern for our voxels that looks somewhat like a landscape. It's best to start out simple, by defining a parametric curve in 3d such as

        x = 10t 
y = 20(sin x + sin z) + 25
z = 10t

make sure you convert x and z to radians before you take their sine when you are calculating the y value. These equations form something that vaguely resembles a hill. Make a 10x10 array of points, assign a voxel to each point, and you can rotate your hill, translate it, etc. Several problems soon become evident, though. First, our hill seems to have some unsightly holes in it. This is due to the fact that we have attempted to project a voxel without changing its size. When a voxel is closer to the viewer, it must be larger. Of course, it must also appear to be smaller when it is far away. Remember to scale your voxels to a size determined by their distance from the viewer. This is a simple 3d projection, the same way 2d screen coordinates are determined from 3d world coordinates.

        newSize = SIZE * DIST / z3d

where SIZE is the set size for a voxel and DIST is the distance between the viewer and the screen. I like to use SIZE = 16 and DIST = 1024. Of course, your landscape will look better if you make your voxels smaller and closer together.

Another obvious problem is that our hill appears as a blob of one color. In order to get around this, we need to shade our voxels in some inventive way.


this is perhaps the easiest way to shade a voxel:


If we assign the the y value of each voxel's point to the starting color value (represented above by 5), we get a hill that is smoothly shaded from top to bottom. Of course, this requires a carefully chosen palette, but I'll leave that up to you. Some popular ideas include shading the palette from blue (low colors = water) to green (middle colors = land) to white (upper colors = snowcapped mountains). I use a grossly simple green to white gradient.

Other methods of shading (I haven't tried these, but they seem like they would work):

|1234567| (light appears to be coming from one side)

|1234567| (If I'm not mistaken, this is the type of shading
|2345678| that was used in Mars)

give these a try and see what happens...


Although shading makes our hill look much better, it does limit the way in which we can use our landscape. If we use this easy method of shading, we cannot rotate our landscape around any axis but the y. Rotation around the y axis does not change the y coordinate of a point, which is the basis for this shading technique. The shading routine we use simply assumes that color will change in the vertical direction. By rotating the vertical direction, (rotating around the x or z axis), we make the shading appear incorrect.


Now that we have a disgustingly simple landscape working properly, we are ready to move on to bigger and better things. First, we must find an equation that will create a more exciting landscape. I have found that plasmas and certain fractals are best suited for this purpose. Extruding a plasma or fractal into a landscape is an easy process:

for every point (x,y,color) in the plasma or fractal image, create a 3d point (x,color,y) in the landscape.

This produces some truly incredible results. Plasmas are spectacular with their hills and valleys, and some complex canyon landscapes can be obtained by using a section of the Mandelbrot set. Feel free to experiment with any other of your favorite fractals as well.

One thing that is an absolute necessity is that you depth sort your points from back to front. If you do not, your landscape will look VERY bad.

Now that we have a potentially HUGE landscape, we must also decide where to stop displaying voxels. This is extremely simple, just weed out points that are too far away while you are sorting. It's up to you to decide how far you want your landscape to extend.


I honestly hope this explanation along with the example code helps to clarify the uses of voxels. If for some reason my explanation seems vague in any way, feel free to email me with any questions. I do not claim to be the world's most talented coder, and I realize that I make my share of mistakes. Just make sure you point them out to me ;)


#include <stdio.h> 
#include <conio.h>
#include <math.h>
#include "3dtools.h"
#include "mode13h.h"

// otmvoxel.cpp - released 11-08-94
// simple voxel landscape demo
// coded by Voltaire/OTM
// all source Copyright (C) 1994 Zach Mortensen
// see OTMVOXEL.NFO and OTM-94.NFO for more information
// this source is included purely as an example. If you want to re-compile
// it as is, you must link in the following files:
// 3dtools.obj
// mode13h.obj
// sin.obj
// sources to these files have been previously released in V3DT090.ZIP
// which is availible via ftp at in the
// /demos/code/graph/library directory, as well as at OTM distribution
// sites listed in OTM-94.NFO

// z threshold - maximum depth at which a voxel is displayed

#define ZTHRESH 2048

int *x16;
char *vPage;

void initX16(int threshold);
void voxel(int x, int y, int z, int c);

void main()
int count, x, y, pos;
point3d *temp;

// create object and associated points

obj3d *land = new obj3d(0, -75, 1024);
point3d **point = new point3d* [100];

// set up object as 3d sine curve

for (y = 0; y < 10; y++)
for (x = 0; x < 10; x++)
point[y * 10 + x] = new point3d(x * 10,
(int) ((double) 25 * (sin((double) PI * 18 *x / 180) + sin((double) PI * 18 * y / 180))) + 25,
y * 10);
land->addLocalPoint(point[y * 10 + x]);

// initialize speedy size routine and sin/cos tables


// virtual page for off screen drawing

vPage = new char [64000];

// setup video mode etc.


// initialize palette

for (count = 1; count < 16; count++)
set_dac_register(count, 0, 0, 0);

for (count = 1; count < 32; count++)
set_dac_register(count + 16, 0, count * 2, 0);
set_dac_register(count + 31 + 16, count * 2, 63, count * 2);

// setup for off screen drawing


// main loop

while (!kbhit())

// draw the landscape

for (count = 99; count > 0; count--)
voxel(point[count]->x2d, point[count]->y2d, point[count]->z3d, point[count]->localY);

// now show the virtual page


// rotate the landscape 1 degree about the y axis

land->localRotate(0, 1, 0);

// linear sort points according to depth

for (count = 0; count < land->numPoints - 1; count++)
pos = count;
for (x = count + 1; x < land->numPoints; x++)
if (point[x]->z3d < point[pos]->z3d)
pos = x;

if (pos != count)
temp = point[pos];
point[pos] = point[count];
point[count] = temp;


// read a keypress


// back to 80x25 text mode


// clean house

delete x16;
delete vPage;
delete land;
delete point;


void initX16(int threshold)
int count;

x16 = new int [threshold];

// setup a table containing perspective sizes of 16 pixels at given
// depths for speedy reference

for (count = 1; count < threshold; count++)
x16[count] = 16 * 1024 / count;


void voxel(int x, int y, int z, int c)
int index, count, col;

// make sure we're positive

if (c < 0)
c += 256;

// calculate starting offset into virtual screen

index = (int) vPage + (320 * y) + x;

// display the voxel if it is within the z threshold

if (z < ZTHRESH)
// draw a shaded square to the offscreen buffer

for (count = 0; count < x16[z]; count++)
// draw one row of the square

for (col = 0; col < x16[z]; col++)
*(char *) index = (char) c;

// go to next line

index += 320;
index -= x16[z];

// change colors



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