Using Multiple OpenGL Views And UIKit

The iPhone includes OpenGL ES for graphics rendering (thank you Apple for not coming up with a custom API!). Specifically, it uses OpenGL ES 1.1 plus a few extensions. It’s all very familiar and standard, except for the actual setup, which requires some integration with the iPhone UI.

The now gone CrashLander sample, in spite of some atrocious code, was the best example on how to get a simple, OpenGL app on the iPhone. It covered the basics: creating an OpenGL frame buffer, loading some textures, drawing some polys, and presenting the result to the screen. It was very useful because it was a very small and concise and it made for a great starting point for any OpenGL-based app.

Unfortunately, because it was so basic, it didn’t show how OpenGL can play with the rest of UIKit user interface. Instead, it took the approach from many games of taking control of the full screen and viewing it a a single resource. That’s fine as long as you’re making those kind of games, but I found myself having to mix OpenGL and UIKit quite a bit in my current project. And eventually, I even had to use multiple OpenGL views in different parts of the app.

Single OpenGL View

To render with OpenGL to a view, you have to first set the class-static method +layerClass so it creates the right type of layer. Specifically, we need a CAEAGLLayer:

+ (Class)layerClass
    return [CAEAGLLayer class];

You can create a view of that type in code, or you can lay it out on the Interface Builder. I actually like the Interface Builder quite a bit, so that’s how I end up creating all of mine.

Then, you need to create an OpenGL context:

    m_eaglContext = [[EAGLContext alloc] initWithAPI:kEAGLRenderingAPIOpenGLES1];
    [EAGLContext setCurrentContext:m_eaglContext];

Finally, you need to create a valid frame buffer object from the CAEAGLLayer from the view you just created:

    glGenFramebuffersOES(1, &buffer.m_frameBufferHandle);
    glGenRenderbuffersOES(1, &buffer.m_colorBufferHandle);
    glGenRenderbuffersOES(1, &buffer.m_depthBufferHandle);

    glBindRenderbufferOES(GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_colorBufferHandle);
    [m_eaglContext renderbufferStorage:GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES fromDrawable:drawable];
    glGetRenderbufferParameterivOES(GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, GL_RENDERBUFFER_WIDTH_OES, &buffer.m_width);
    glGetRenderbufferParameterivOES(GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, GL_RENDERBUFFER_HEIGHT_OES, &buffer.m_height);

    glBindRenderbufferOES(GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_depthBufferHandle);
    glRenderbufferStorageOES(GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, GL_DEPTH_COMPONENT16_OES, buffer.m_width, buffer.m_height);
    glBindRenderbufferOES(GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_colorBufferHandle);

    glBindFramebufferOES(GL_FRAMEBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_frameBufferHandle);
    glFramebufferRenderbufferOES(GL_FRAMEBUFFER_OES, GL_COLOR_ATTACHMENT0_OES, GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_colorBufferHandle); 
    glFramebufferRenderbufferOES(GL_FRAMEBUFFER_OES, GL_DEPTH_ATTACHMENT_OES, GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_depthBufferHandle)

It’s all pretty standard frame buffer OpenGL stuff. The renderBufferStorage:fromDrawable function is the one that actually allocates buffer storage for that particular view.

After that, you’re home free and you can use OpenGL the way you’ve always done. The only difference is that to present, you call this functions instead:

    [m_eaglContext presentRenderbuffer:GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES];


Integrating OpenGL and UIKit

After you have the basic OpenGL app set up, you can treat it as a full-screen, exclusive resource and do all your output through it. That works fine for a lot of games, but there are a lot of games and apps that benefit from using some amount of UIKit functionality. After all, UIKit is a great UI API, and it seems like a shame to reinvent it all if it’s not necessary.

The good news is that OpenGL rendering is happen in a view, so you can do everything you can do with views: Animate it, do fancy transitions, add them to nav bars or tab bars, etc. The bad news is that, unless you’re careful, performance will suffer.

Apple has some best practices on what to do with OpenGL views, but it comes down to avoid doing transforms on them (instead, use the transforms in OpenGL), and avoid putting other UIKit elements on top of it, especially transparent ones. Although, I seem to be able to get away with small buttons and such without affecting the frame rate, so that’s always a plus.

So having realized that, now you can make your application transition between the OpenGL view, and other views. Maybe you have a table view with settings, or some sort of UIKit dialog box, or a high-score table. You can safely do all of that with UIKit (and add your own graphics and custom rendering if you want to give it a totally different look).

One thing to watch out for: Whenever your OpenGL view isn’t visible, make sure to stop doing frame updates (for simulation and rendering). Otherwise, the rest of the UI is going to be very unresponsive (and you might not find that out until you run it on the device, because the simulator is very fast). The UIViewController viewWillAppear and viewDidDisappear functions are perfect to find out when you should start and stop frame updates.

Multiple Views

Things get more complicated when you want to have multiple views with OpenGL rendering. I don’t mean multiple viewports in the same screen, but multiple views in the sense of multiple UIViews. My current project, for example, has different views connected with a UITabBarController. Some of the are custom UIViews and some of them are OpenGL views.

My first thought was to try to have different OpenGL contexts for each view, but that would complicate things because I wanted to share the same textures and other resources. I know there’s a shared groups option, but that was definitely not the way to go.

The best solution I found was to use multiple frame buffers, binding each of them to the correct OpenGL view. That way, when I switch views, I switch frame buffers and everything works correctly.

On the -viewDidLoad function for each view controller with an OpenGL view, I call the function listed above to create a new frame buffer bound to that view, and it returns an index. Then, in the -viewWillAppear function, I set the frame buffer corresponding to that index:

    const FrameBuffer& buffer = m_frameBuffers[bufferIndex];
    glBindFramebufferOES(GL_FRAMEBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_frameBufferHandle);   
    glBindRenderbufferOES(GL_RENDERBUFFER_OES, buffer.m_colorBufferHandle);

That’s it. Now you can switch between different OpenGL views and UIKit views without any problems. Just make sure to only render the visible views! That can be trickier than it sounds because the viewWillAppear and viewDidDisappear functions only get called for views that were layed out in the Interface Builder. If you added them by hand, you need to call those methods yourself (why??!?!). So keep tabs on that, otherwise everything will slow down to a halt.

And To Wrap It Up…

You thought I had forgotten about the promise to slowly unveil art from my current project, uh? Fear not, here comes the next teaser. This is an actually screenshot taken a minute ago. Incidentally, this is not one of the views using OpenGL. We’ll have to save those for another day 🙂