Let's Ray March!
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Let's Ray March!

Title done by flopine, she’s awesome!

Warning: This post might be shittily written. If you just want the code, dive right to the Code! section. Sorry for the inexplicable explanation. Sometimes I just fail to explain stuffs. You might be able to understand the code more easily than the shitty stuff I write.

I accidentally (did I?) bumped into Shader Showdown and now I really crave for some awesome shader coding. However I know nothing about it & I just started to understand stuffs recently. So why don’t I begin writing a Ray Marching shader on my own? Let’s do this! It will be so simple (yet so ugly), you will doubt what’s the point of learning this.

Well, I don’t really care about ya, mysterious reader: I care about myself. Let’s do this! I might update this for a few days, or this would be the last chapter. It really depends on my interest. Solely.

Let’s get started!

Before we start, we can use quite a few softwares to enhance our coding experience: you can either write one from the ground up (I used to did that), it’s just a rect rendering app anyway. Or, you could use bonzomatic. Or, you could use the ShaderToy VSCode Extension. All works!

And here’s how we are going to start. First, we are gonna write some really basic shaders:

void main() {
    vec2 uv = gl_FragCoord.xy / iResolution.xy;    
    gl_FragColor = vec4(uv, 0.0, 1.0);


This si the shader that just works. It’s the most basic shader, and as we could see, the bottom left is black: that’s because the red, green, blue components there are all zero. The top right is yellow: and yellow consists of full red and green. So as we could see, red increases as x increases; and green increases as y increases. Not a big deal!

And then we start marching!

Ray marching, as its name suggests, consists of rays marching. We could imagine this as putting a glass pane in front of us, and stand in front of it for a short distance. And then paint every glass tile as the color you could see through the tile.

Just like this.

To achieve this we will need an eye, or as we call in ray marching, a ray origin. It’s usually been abbreviated as ro. As we are going to simply things, let’s assume, as the OpenGL tradition does, our eye starts at the negative of z, and is looking towards positive z:

vec3 ro = vec3(0.0, 0.0, -2.0); // Ray Origin
vec3 rd = vec3(0.0, 0.0, 1.0); // Ray Direction

As fragment shader was run by every pixel, we need to shoot corresponding rays, otherwise according to the code above, all pixels will be shooting to the same direction. Lucky for us, as our ray direction is perpendicular to the XoY face, our rays could be just shooting just like the UV coordinate. There should be a bit of tweaking, though: the center of our image should be (0, 0).

vec2 c = 2.0 * (uv - vec2(0.5, 0.5));

In this way, we mapped the UV from [(0, 0), (1, 1)] to [(-1, -1), (1, 1)]. So that’s nice! Now what we should do next, is to define the real ray direction:

vec3 rd = vec3(c, 1.0); // Ray Direction

As I said, this is the oversimplified version. So there would be no diagonal ray thing whatsoever.

Finally, SDF!

The SDF function (Signed Distance Field) is a brilliant function, in a way that it is not ray marching but somehow achieve what ray marching could be done. Here, I am just gonna rip from Jamie Wong (who in turn ripped from GPU Gems 2):

SDF explained

SDF calculates the distance to the nearest obstacle, then march the ray in the corresponding distance (note, however, that the direction does not change). If no obstacle was met (distance > 0), the SDF would be calculated again, this time marching further; if an obstacle was met (distance < 0), then the SDF function would halt, indicating that its time to shade the stuff. So let’s get started with a simple function: sphere SDF!

float sphere(vec3 p) {
    return length(p) - 1.0;

This is the simplified version of . Which in turn means the sphere was located at (0, 0, 0), with a radius of 1. Thus if a given p’s sphere function returns less than 0, it indicates that the p is currently in the sphere.

After all those and I still got no idea what I was talking about. Maybe I am that bad at explaining, sorry. But now we got to see the beauty of the SDF function, when all of those pieces are placed together!


float sphere(vec3 p) {
    return length(p) - 1.0;

void main() {
    vec2 uv = gl_FragCoord.xy / iResolution.xy;
    vec2 c = 2.0 * (uv - vec2(0.5, 0.5));
    vec3 ro = vec3(0.0, 0.0, -2.0);
    vec3 rd = vec3(c, 1.0);
    vec3 resultColor = vec3(uv, 0.0);
    float depth = 0.01;
    for (int i = 0; i < 200; i++) {
        float dist = sphere(ro + rd * depth);
        if (dist <= 0.0) {
            resultColor = vec3(1.0, 0.0, 0.0);
        depth += dist;
    gl_FragColor = vec4(resultColor, 1.0);

See? It wasn’t that hard! Let’s walk through it!

  • First, we calculate UV
  • Then we calculate the centerized UV
  • Then we place the ray origin at (0, 0, -2)
  • Then we calculate the ray direction; where should it shoot to?
  • Then we define result color, giving it a good-looking (also debugging background) first
  • Then we define this depth thing, which is the current distance of the ray march
  • Then we enter the loop! We limited it to 200 times, so if the ray shoots outside of the sphere, it knows when to break. Also GLSL does NOT allow infinite loops.
  • We calculate the ray’s distance to the sphere.
  • If dist < 0, that means the ray is currently in the sphere! We got a hit! Set the color to red.
  • Otherwise there is no hit. It’s ok though; we march the ray further, to see if there will be any hits.
  • Finally, we set the output color to be the resultColor we got earlier.

If everything goes well, this should be the result:


Man, that’s way too ugly, isn’t it? Don’t worry! It will be better soon. Meanwhile, I know as much as you now. So that’s good news (or not). We’ll see!