GDC: Khronos group unveils OpenGL 4.0 and 3.3

The Khronos group has released versions 4.0 and 3.3 of the OpenGL spec, the latest version of the cross-platform, royalty-free 2D and 3D graphics API used on all major desktop operating systems, including Mac OS X. It also serves as the basis for OpenGL ES for smart phones and the upcoming WebGL standard for Web browsers.

OpenGL 4.0 brings support for more advanced features like geometry tessellation as well as tighter integration with the OpenCL language, in order to match Microsoft's competing DirectX 11 API. This release continues to grant programmers the option of working with a smaller, streamlined "Core" API focused on modern features in lieu of the bloated, backwards compatible appropriately dubbed "Compatibility" API, first introduced in OpenGL 3.2. The full specification is available at the OpenGL registry.

Among the benefits OpenGL 4.0 brings to software developers are two new shader stages to allow the graphics card (GPU) to handle the previously processor-intensive task of geometry tessellation. It also grants the GPU the ability to draw data generated by OpenGL—or external APIs, such as OpenCL—without any intervention from the CPU. This helps reduce the load on your computer's processor by sharing the work with the graphics card—that means easier programming for game developers and better performance for you.

Granted, we won't see OpenGL 4.0 supported until the next generation of graphics hardware hits the market, so even if you buy a new Mac today, you're unlikely to see the benefits of all of OpenGL 4.0's new features and improvements. But never fear, that's what the OpenGL 3.3 specification is for. OpenGL 3.3 seeks to retrofit some features of the OpenGL 4.0 to run on today's hardware. That specification can also be found on the OpenGL registry.

Nvidia has already promised OpenGL 4.0 support for its upcoming Fermi-based graphics hardware, and competing graphics card maker ATI, as strong contributors and supporters of the spec, is highly likely to support it as well.

It is unknown exactly when Mac OS X users will see the benefits of OpenGL 4.0. Today, Mac OS X Leopard and Snow Leopard only support OpenGL 2.1 in full, and Snow Leopard only supports a subset of OpenGL 3.0. But it is a given that the benefits of OpenGL 4.0 will filter down to OpenGL ES for iPhones, iPads, and smartphones, as well as the upcoming WebGL spec, meaning better graphics on all platforms. And hopefully soon.

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