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October 15, 2004

While CPUs are hitting "90nm walls" and Moore's Law seems to be under some
duress, graphic processing units (GPUs)
have continued to dramatically increase their
performance with each new generation. New GPUs are programmable at
the pixel level, offering astonishing graphic capabilities without
bothering the CPU. Fortunately, Java is along for the ride, thanks to
the JOGL project.

JOGL, hosted on and supported by Sun's gaming group,
provides a Java wrapper to the popular and widely supported OpenGL
graphics API. In other words, it allows Java applications to make
calls to graphics hardware in much the same way that native code
would. And with all the heavy lifting being done in hardware, it
significantly narrows the performance gap between Java and languages
like C and C++.

JOGL's Genesis

JOGL was started in the summer of 2002 by former MIT graduate students
Ken Russell and Chris Kline. Russell says the goal was simply "to access
the most leading-edge graphics technology from Java." That meant
using OpenGL because of the wide support for OpenGL
by various graphics-card manufacturers. There were other projects at
the time with similar goals, but each had significant drawbacks--
incompatibility with AWT and Swing, incomplete support for standard
and vendor-extension OpenGL calls, etc. So over the course of many
evenings and weekends for nine months, the two began what they call a "skunkworks"
project to build an OpenGL layer with that met their requirements.

As the project came along, Russell and Kline showed their work to
the gaming group at Sun, which adopted it as their OpenGL story for
Java. When premiered in June 2003, JOGL made its public
debut as one of the first big projects on the new site.

Reaching 1.0

The JOGL project released version 1.0 in April 2004, but kept
working. 1.1, currently in beta, supports full-screen anti-aliasing,
among other features. Russell says that while the version numbering
is arbitrary, advancing to version 1.1 is also meant to warn
developers of some API changes.

Another significant new feature is multi-monitor support, which
JOGL picks up by way of working with Java's AWT. Russell says that while
JOGL's internals required some cleaning up to work with AWT, it was
worth it to expand the realm of possible JOGL applications. "It
expands the scope of the applications you can write," he explains,
because while similar libraries "are optimized for single-screen
games, while we can do modelers, CAD/CAM ... multi-monitor

Uses and Possibilities

"I don't have a 10,000-foot view of the market," says Russell, "but
OpenGL seems to be the best API for doing even 2D, hardware-accelerated
graphics. This is the best, most portable way to use OpenGL, and then
add in 3D if you like." Eventually, he says, applications like Studio
3D Max and Maya could be done in Java, thanks to JOGL.

Of course, high-performance 3D graphics still comes back to games,
and JOGL excels in this field.
German developer Bytonic ported the
Quake II engine to Java by way of JOGL, calling it Jake2.
This is a "remarkable feat," according
to Russell, due to some "C-isms" that don't necessarily translate
easily to Java. Despite this, the final product runs at 85 percent of the
speed of the optimized C version--conventional wisdom about Java
performance notwithstanding.

In fact, it gets better: while the Quake II engine was
state-of-the-art in its day, newer graphics engines push more of the
work off of the CPU and onto the GPU. This raises the possibility
that JOGL-powered Java games could close the gap with C even

Much of the work currently done with JOGL consists of scene-graphs put atop
JOGL, allowing developers to use a higher-level API. One popular example is
Xith3D, which closely resembles the older
Java3D API, but is more aligned with the needs of game programmers, providing
better gaming performance.

While commercial uses of JOGL are hard to spot--game developers
aren't typically in a hurry to tell competitors what technology
they're using--Java/JOGL does offer an appealing alternative
to buying expensive middleware that may or may not make ports between
platforms possible. One thing that Russell said would be "really
cool" would be to have Java support on the gaming consoles, and have
high-performance game titles that are bytecode-compatible on different
platforms out of the box. Or maybe there wouldn't even be a box--with Java's superb network support and security architecture,
games (and their expansion packs, team roster updates, etc.) could be
sent across the network directly to the end user's machine.

The JOGL Community

Russell says that the JOGL community on is particularly
active, making for the most active message forums on the site. The community is particularly effective at
testing JOGL on a wide variety of graphics hardware, exposing JOGL to
a greater number of configurations than would ever be practical to set up in a
lab. He notes that the best bug fixes come from the community.

That said, to keep JOGL "close to product quality," the number
of developers with commit access to the project has been deliberately
kept small. Those that show an ability to work with the existing code
base and make improvements without causing collateral damage are
allowed in. But the project has clearly been changed by exposure to
its active community. Russell says the reporting from the community
"allows us to understand where the problems lie in the source base,"
and makes them expose JOGL to testing on real-world hardware rather
than "going feed forward and assuming that everything will work

The Future of JOGL

Currently, the beta-quality JOGL 1.1 provides support for OpenGL
and "most if not all vendor extensions." These include specific
optimizations and features for ATI and Nvidia hardware, along with
some other extensions that happen to be present on more or less all
hardware. "The users clamored for it," Russell explains, "so we put
it in the extensions portion of JOGL."

As far as what he'd like to tell the community, Russell
says he'd like to thank everyone for their work on the project and
for their support. He encourages everyone interested in JOGL to
continue to send reports, demos, and other applications built with
JOGL and, if possible, to get involved with the
technical side of the project, by checking out the code and working
with it. "The more eyes that are on the source code, the better it
will be."


Chris Adamson is the former editor of
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