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Programming the GPU...


What are Shaders?

Shaders are specialized programs that run on the graphics processing unit (GPU). Shaders determine how things look by defining the colors, shading, and special effects applied to each pixel on the screen.

Some common types of shaders (not all of them):

1. HLSL (High-Level Shading Language) and FX Files:
Example: In DirectX, you might have an HLSL file (commonly with a .fx extension) that contains code for creating realistic lighting on a 3D game character. This file encapsulates the shader logic and parameters needed for visual effects.

2. Assembly Shaders:
Example: Instead of using a high-level language, some programmers write shaders directly in assembly language, which is a low-level, machine-readable format. This allows for precise control but requires a deep understanding of hardware architecture.

3. Cg Shaders (C for Graphics):
Example: In some older games and graphics applications, you might find Cg shaders written in the Cg language. Cg is a higher-level language designed for graphics programming, making it more readable and accessible than assembly.

4. WGSL (WebGPU Shading Language):
Example: With the rise of web-based graphics through technologies like WebGPU, you may encounter WGSL. This language is used for shaders in the context of web applications, providing a modern and efficient way to handle graphics on the web.

5. GLSL (OpenGL Shading Language):
Example: OpenGL uses GLSL for shaders. You'll find GLSL code in shaders responsible for tasks like vertex manipulation, pixel coloring, and overall rendering in OpenGL-based applications. GLSL provides a high-level, C-like syntax for graphics programming.

Each type of shader serves a specific purpose and is used in different contexts. FX files are often employed in DirectX environments, assembly shaders for low-level optimization, Cg shaders for older graphics applications, and WGSL for web-based graphics. They collectively contribute to the immersive and visually appealing experiences we enjoy in video games, simulations, and various digital media.

In the past shaders were primarily used for programming the GPU for graphics - however, as time has gone by, the GPU is no long just a graphics resource - it's getting used for all sorts of data processing (due to the parallel nature of the processors). Hence, you'll find shader programs for all sorts of things, like machine learning, search algorithms, physics simulations and so on.

Comparing Shader Languages

A short comparison of some of the most popular shader languages.

Language Description File Format Complexity
HLSL High-Level Shading Language FX Files Medium
Assembly Low-level, direct instructions ASM High
Cg C for Graphics CG Medium
WGSL WebGPU Shading Language .wgsl Medium
GLSL OpenGL Shading Language .glsl Medium

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