Reflections & Refractions For Beginners & Intermediate

I can haz Reflections?! Refractions?

Zoe loves all things reflective and refractive and it was almost a year ago that they started looking into how to achieve compelling illusions of reflection and refraction. Then Matthew went to Macau, then Chicago, then Zoe dove headlong into their thesis project… fast forward to 2019, and it was time for Matthew to finally follow through on a long overdue promise to create some examples of reflection and refraction in TouchDesigner. It didn’t hurt that Zoe gently reminded Matthew that it was time for more refractive rendering in life. Good places to start for these kinds of questions are to look at existing references in the world. 


Reflections are hard. In part because they often mean that we need to see the whole world - even the parts that our virtual camera can’t. We might know this intuitively, but the reach of this is easy to forget. When we point the camera in our smartphone at a mirror we see ourselves, the world behind us, above us, and and and. If we point a virtual camera at a virtual mirror we need the same things. That can be a wobbly bit to wrap your head around, and develop a better sense of this challenge I look a look at a reference book I picked up earlier this year - OpenGL 4 Shading Language Cookbook - Second Edition. This has a great chapter on reflection techniques, specifically generating them by using cube-maps. Cubemaps look like an unfolded box, and have a long history of use in computer graphics. 

One of the primary challenges of using cubemaps is that you need to also know the perspective of the object that’s reflective. In other words, cube maps can be very convincing as long as you move the camera, but not the reflective object. But what if we want the option to both move the camera, and the object? In this quick tutorial, we look at how we can use a cube map to create convincing reflections, as well as what steps we need to consider if want not only the camera to move, but the object itself. 


The one and only Carlos Garcia (L05) has a great example posted on the TouchDesigner forum. This great example helps illustrate the part of what we’re after with this kind of work is the sleight of hand that hints at refraction, but isn’t necessarily true to the physics of light. Almost all realtime rendering tricks are somewhere between the Truth (with a capital T) of the world, and the truth (sneaky lower case t) of perception. We’ve all fallen for the perceptual tricks of optical illusions, and many times the real work of the digital alchemist is to fool observers into believing a half truth. Carlos’ example proves just that point, and helps us see that with a little tricksy use of the displacement TOP we can achieve a healthy bit of trickery. 

That’s an excellent start to our adventure, but we can dig-in a little more if we keep searching. Another post on the forum links over to an article on medium that showcases an approach for webGL that leverages the use of a UV map to “pre-compute” the direction of displacement of the light that passes through a transparent object. This is an interesting approach, and in fact there’s a middle ground between the webGL example and Carlos’ TOX that gives us some interesting results. 

In the following tutorial we can see how we remix these two ideas. The big picture perspective here is that we can leverage TouchDesigner’s real-time rendering engine to provide the same “pre-computed” asset that’s utilized in the webGL approach, and then use Carlos’ displacement TOP technique. We can also short-cut Carlos’ use of a rendering a second version of the object as a mask, and instead use a threshold TOP looking at our alpha channel to achieve the same effect. This isn’t a huge change, but it’s a bit faster in some implementations and saves us the wobbles that sometimes come with multiple render passes. Finally, a little post processing can help us achieve some more convincing effects that help sell our illusion as a true to the eye. 




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