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Hello, Metal! Written by Caroline Begbie & Marius Horga

You’ve been formally introduced to Metal and discovered its history and why you should use it. Now you’re going to to try it out for yourself in a Swift playground. To get started, you’re going to render this sphere on the screen:

It may not look exciting, but this is a great starting point because it lets you touch on almost every part of the rendering process. But before you get started, it’s important to understand the terms rendering and frames.

What is rendering?

The Oxford Dictionary describes computer rendering as:

The processing of an outline image using color and shading to make it appear solid and three-dimensional.

There are many ways to render a 3D image, but most start with a model built in a modeling app such as Blender or Maya. Take, for example, this train model that was built in Blender:

This model, like all other models, is made up of vertices. A vertex refers to a point in three dimensional space where two or more lines, curves or edges of a geometrical shape meet, such as the corners of a cube. The number of vertices in a model may vary from a handful, as in a cube, to thousands or even millions in more complex models. A 3D renderer will read in these vertices using model loader code, which parses the list of vertices. The renderer then passes the vertices to the GPU, where shader functions process the vertices to create the final image or texture to be sent back to the CPU and displayed on the screen.

The following render uses the 3D train model and some different shading techniques to make it appear as if the train were made of shiny copper:

The entire process from importing a model’s vertices to generating the final image on your screen, is commonly known as a rendering pipeline. The rendering pipeline is a list of commands sent to the GPU, along with resources (vertices, materials and lights) that make up the final image.

The pipeline includes programmable and non-programmable functions; the former, known as vertex functions and fragment functions, are where you can manually influence the final look of your rendered models. You will learn more about each later in the book.

What is a frame?

A game wouldn’t be much fun if it simply rendered a single still image. Moving a character around the screen in a fluid manner requires the GPU to render a still image roughly 60 times a second.

Each still image is known as a frame and the speed at which the images appear is called the frame rate.

When your favorite game appears to stutter, it’s usually because of a decrease in the frame rate, especially if there’s an excessive amount of background processing eating away at the GPU.

When designing a game, it’s important to balance the result you want with what the hardware can deliver.

While it might be cool to add real-time shadows, water reflections and millions of blades of animated grass — all of which you’ll learn how to do in this book — finding the right balance between what is possible and what the GPU can process in 1/60th of a second can be tough.

Your first Metal app

In your first Metal app, the shape you’ll be rendering will look more like a flat circle than a 3D sphere. That’s because your first model will not include any perspective or shading; however, its vertex mesh contains the full three-dimensional information.

The process of Metal rendering is much the same no matter the size and complexity of your app, and you’ll become very familiar with the following sequence of drawing your models on the screen:

You may initially feel a little overwhelmed by the number of steps Metal requires, but rest assured that you’ll always perform these steps in the same sequence, and they’ll gradually become second nature.

This chapter won’t go into detail on every step, but as you progress through the book, you’ll get more information as you need it. For now, concentrate on getting your first Metal app running.

Getting started

Start Xcode and create a new playground by selecting File ▸ New ▸ Playground… from the main menu. When prompted for a template, choose macOS Blank.

Name the playground Chapter1 and click Create. Next, delete everything in the playground.

The view

Now that you have a playground, you’ll create a view to render into. Import the two main frameworks that you’ll be using:

import PlaygroundSupport
import MetalKit

PlaygroundSupport lets you see live views in the assistant editor, and MetalKit is a framework that makes using Metal easier. MetalKit has a customized view named MTKView and many convenience methods for loading textures, working with Metal buffers and interfacing with another useful framework: Model I/O, which you’ll learn about later.

Check for a suitable GPU by creating a device:

guard let device = MTLCreateSystemDefaultDevice() else {
  fatalError("GPU is not supported")
}

Note: Are you getting an error? If you accidentally created an iOS playground instead of a macOS playground, you’ll get a fatal error, as the iOS simulator is not supported.

Set up the view:

let frame = CGRect(x: 0, y: 0, width: 600, height: 600)
let view = MTKView(frame: frame, device: device)
view.clearColor = MTLClearColor(red: 1, green: 1, blue: 0.8, alpha: 1)

This configures an MTKView for the Metal renderer. MTKView is a subclass of NSView on macOS and of UIView on iOS.

MTLClearColor represents an RGBA value — in this case, cream. The color value is stored in clearColor and is used to set the color of the view.

The model

Model I/O is a framework that integrates with Metal and SceneKit. Its main purpose is to load 3D models that were created in apps like Blender or Maya, and to set up data buffers for easier rendering.

Instead of loading a 3D model, you’re going to load a Model I/O basic 3D shape, also called a primitive. A primitive is typically considered a cube, a sphere, a cylinder or a torus.

Add this code to the end of the playground:

// 1
let allocator = MTKMeshBufferAllocator(device: device)
// 2
let mdlMesh = MDLMesh(sphereWithExtent: [0.75, 0.75, 0.75],
                      segments: [100, 100],
                      inwardNormals: false,
                      geometryType: .triangles,
                      allocator: allocator)
// 3
let mesh = try MTKMesh(mesh: mdlMesh, device: device)

Going through this code:

  1. The allocator manages the memory for the mesh data.
  2. Model I/O creates a sphere with the specified size and returns an MDLMesh with all the vertex information in data buffers.
  3. For Metal to be able to use the mesh, you convert it from a Model I/O mesh to a MetalKit mesh.

Queues, buffers and encoders

Each frame consists of commands that you send to the GPU. You wrap up these commands in a render command encoder. Command buffers organize these command encoders and a command queue organizes the command buffers.

Add this code to create a command queue:

guard let commandQueue = device.makeCommandQueue() else {
  fatalError("Could not create a command queue")
}

You should set up and the device and the command queue at the start of your app, and generally you should use the same device and command queue throughout.

On each frame, you’ll create a command buffer and at least one render command encoder. These are lightweight objects that point to other objects, such as shader functions and pipeline states, that you set up only once at the start of the app.

Shader functions

Shader functions are small programs that run on the GPU; you write them in the Metal Shading Language which is a subset of C++.

Normally, you’d create a separate file with a .metal extension specifically for shader functions but for now, create a multi-line string containing the shader function code and add it to your playground:

let shader = """
#include <metal_stdlib> 
using namespace metal;

struct VertexIn {
  float4 position [[ attribute(0) ]];
};

vertex float4 vertex_main(const VertexIn vertex_in [[ stage_in ]]) {
  return vertex_in.position;
}

fragment float4 fragment_main() {
  return float4(1, 0, 0, 1);
}
"""

There are two shader functions in here: a vertex function named vertex_main and a fragment function named fragment_main. The vertex function is where you usually manipulate vertex positions and the fragment function is where you specify the pixel color.

Set up a Metal library containing these two functions:

let library = try device.makeLibrary(source: shader, options: nil)
let vertexFunction = library.makeFunction(name: "vertex_main")
let fragmentFunction = library.makeFunction(name: "fragment_main")

The compiler will check that these functions exist and make them available to a pipeline descriptor.

The pipeline state

In Metal, you set up a pipeline state for the GPU. By setting up this state, you’re telling the GPU that nothing will change until the state changes. With the GPU in a fixed state, it can run more efficiently. The pipeline state contains all sorts of information that the GPU needs, such as which pixel format it should use and whether it should render with depth. The pipeline state also holds the vertex and fragment functions that you just created.

However, you don’t create a pipeline state directly, rather you create it through a descriptor. This descriptor holds everything the pipeline needs to know, and you only change the necessary properties for your particular rendering situation.

Add this code:

let pipelineDescriptor = MTLRenderPipelineDescriptor()
pipelineDescriptor.colorAttachments[0].pixelFormat = .bgra8Unorm
pipelineDescriptor.vertexFunction = vertexFunction
pipelineDescriptor.fragmentFunction = fragmentFunction

Here you’ve specified the pixel format to be 32 bits with color pixel order of blue/green/red/alpha. You also set the two shader functions.

You’ll also describe to the GPU how the vertices are laid out in memory using a vertex descriptor. Model I/O automatically created a vertex descriptor when it loaded the sphere mesh, so you can just use that one.

Add this code:

pipelineDescriptor.vertexDescriptor = 
     MTKMetalVertexDescriptorFromModelIO(mesh.vertexDescriptor)

You’ve now set up the pipeline descriptor with the necessary information. MTLRenderPipelineDescriptor has many other properties, but for now you’ll just use the defaults.

Create the pipeline state from the descriptor:

let pipelineState = 
  try device.makeRenderPipelineState(descriptor: pipelineDescriptor)

Creating a pipeline state takes valuable processing time, so all of the above should be a one-time setup. In a real app, you might create several pipeline states to call different shading functions or use different vertex layouts.

Rendering

From now on, the code should be performed every frame. MTKView has a delegate method that runs every frame, but as you’re doing a simple render which will simply fill out a static view, you don’t need to keep refreshing the screen every frame.

When performing graphics rendering, the GPU’s ultimate job is to output a single texture from a 3d scene. This texture is similar to the digital image created by a physical camera. The texture will be displayed on the device’s screen each frame.

Render passes

If you’re trying to achieve a realistic render, you’ll want to take into account shadows, lighting and reflections. Each of these takes a lot of calculation and is generally done in separate render passes. For example, a shadow render pass will render the entire scene of 3D models, but only retain grayscale shadow information. A second render pass would render the models in full color. You can then combine the shadow and color textures to produce the final output texture that will go to the screen.

You’ll learn about multipass rendering later; for the first part of this book you’ll use a single render pass.

Conveniently, MTKView provides a render pass descriptor that will hold a texture called the drawable.

Add this code to the end of the playground:

// 1
guard let commandBuffer = commandQueue.makeCommandBuffer(),
// 2
  let renderPassDescriptor = view.currentRenderPassDescriptor,
// 3
  let renderEncoder = commandBuffer.makeRenderCommandEncoder(descriptor:
	renderPassDescriptor)  
else { fatalError() } 

Here’s what’s happening:

  1. You create a command buffer. This stores all the commands that you’ll ask the GPU to run.
  2. You obtain a reference to the view’s render pass descriptor. The descriptor holds data for the render destinations, called attachments. Each attachment will need information such as a texture to store to, and whether to keep the texture throughout the render pass. The render pass descriptor is used to create the render command encoder.
  3. From the command buffer, you get a render command encoder using the render pass descriptor. The render command encoder holds all the information necessary to send to the GPU so that it can draw the vertices.

If the system fails to create a metal object, such as the command buffer or render encoder, that’s a fatal error. The view’s currentRenderPassDescriptor may not be available in a particular frame, and usually you’ll just return from the rendering delegate method. As you’re only asking for it once in this playground, it’s a fatal error here.

Now add the following code:

renderEncoder.setRenderPipelineState(pipelineState)

This gives the render encoder the pipeline state that you set up earlier.

The sphere mesh that you loaded earlier holds a buffer containing a simple list of vertices. Give this buffer to the render encoder:

renderEncoder.setVertexBuffer(mesh.vertexBuffers[0].buffer, 
                              offset: 0, index: 0)

The offset is the position in the buffer where the vertex information starts. The index is how the GPU vertex shader function will locate this buffer.

Submeshes

The mesh is made up of submeshes. When the artist creates a 3D model, they design it with different material groups. These translate to submeshes. For example, if you were rendering a car object, you might have a shiny car body and rubber tires. One material is a shiny paint and another material rubber. On import, Model I/O will create two different submeshes that index to the correct vertices for that group. One vertex can be rendered multiple times by different submeshes. This sphere only has one submesh, so you’ll just use one.

Add this code:

guard let submesh = mesh.submeshes.first else { 
  fatalError() 
}

Now for the exciting part: drawing! You draw in Metal with a draw call.

Add this code:

renderEncoder.drawIndexedPrimitives(type: .triangle,
                          indexCount: submesh.indexCount,
                          indexType: submesh.indexType,
                          indexBuffer: submesh.indexBuffer.buffer,
                          indexBufferOffset: 0)

Here, you’re instructing the GPU to render a vertex buffer consisting of triangles with the vertices placed in the correct order by the submesh index information. This code does not do the actual render — that doesn’t happen until the GPU has received all the command buffer’s commands.

To complete sending commands to the render command encoder and finalize the frame, add this code:

// 1
renderEncoder.endEncoding()
// 2
guard let drawable = view.currentDrawable else {
  fatalError()
}
// 3 
commandBuffer.present(drawable)
commandBuffer.commit()

Going through the code:

  1. You tell the render encoder that there are no more draw calls.

  2. You get the drawable from the MTKView. The MTKView is backed by a Core Animation CAMetalLayer and the layer owns a drawable texture which Metal can read and write to.

  3. Ask the command buffer to present the MTKView’s drawable and commit to the GPU.

Finally, add this code to the end of the playground:

PlaygroundPage.current.liveView = view

With that line of code, you’ll be able to see the Metal view in the assistant editor.

Run the playground and in the playground’s live view, you will see a red sphere on a cream background.

Note: Sometimes playgrounds don’t compile or run when they should. If you’re sure you’ve written the code correctly, then restart Xcode and reload the playground. Wait for a second or two before running.

Congratulations! You’ve written your first Metal app, and you’ve also used many of the Metal API commands that you will use in every single Metal app you write.

Challenge

Where you created the initial sphere mesh, experiment with setting the sphere to different sizes. What happens if you change the size from:

[0.75, 0.75, 0.75]

To:

[0.2, 0.75, 0.2]

Change the color of the sphere. In the shader function string, you’ll see

return float4(1, 0, 0, 1);

This returns red=1, green=0, blue=0, alpha=1, which results in the red color. Try changing the numbers (from zero to 1) for a different color. Stay on brand with Ray Wenderlich green :]

float4(0, 0.4, 0.21, 1)

In the next chapter, you’ll examine 3D models up close in Blender. Then continuing in your Swift Playground, you’ll import and render a train model.

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