Shader Composition

osgEarth uses GLSL shaders in several of its rendering modes. By default osgEarth will detect the capabilities of your graphics hardware and automatically select an appropriate mode to use.

Since osgEarth relies on shaders, you as a developer may wish to customize the rendering or add your own effects and features in GLSL. Anyone who has worked with shaders has run into the same challenges:

  • Shader programs are monolithic. Adding new shader code requires you to copy, modify, and replace the existing code so you don’t lose its functionality.
  • Keeping your changes in sync with changes to the original code’s shaders is a maintenance nightmare.
  • Maintaining multiple versions of shader main()s is cumbersome and difficult.
  • Maintaining the dreaded “uber shader” becomes unmanageable as the GLSL code base grows in complexity and you add more features.

Shader Composition solves these problems by modularizing the shader pipeline. You can add and remove functions at any point in the program without copying, pasting, or hacking other people’s GLSL code.

Next we will discuss the structure of osgEarth’s shader composition framework.

Framework Basics

The Shader Composition framework provides the main() functions automatically. You do not need to write them. Instead, you write modular functions and tell the framework when and where to execute them.

Below you can see the main() functions that osgEarth creates. The LOCATION_* designators allow you to inject functions at various points in the shader’s execution pipeline.

Here is the pseudo-code for osgEarth’s built-in shaders mains:


void main(void)
    vec4 vertex = gl_Vertex;

    // "LOCATION_VERTEX_MODEL" user functions are called here:

    vertex = gl_ModelViewMatrix * vertex;

    // "LOCATION_VERTEX_VIEW" user functions are called here:

    vertex = gl_ProjectionMatrix * vertex;

    // "LOCATION_VERTEX_CLIP" user functions are called last:

    gl_Position = vertex;


void main(void)
    vec4 color = gl_Color;

    // "LOCATION_FRAGMENT_COLORING" user functions are called here:

    // "LOCATION_FRAGMENT_LIGHTING" user functions are called here:

    gl_FragColor = color;

As you can see, we have made the design decision to designate function injection points that make sense for most applications. That is not to say that they are perfect for everything, rather that we believe this approach makes the Framework easy to use and not too “low-level”.

Important: The Shader Composition Framework at this time only supports VERTEX and FRAGMENT shaders. It does not support GEOMETRY or TESSELLATION shaders yet. We are planning to add this in the future.


osgEarth introduces a new OSG state attribute called VirtualProgram that performs the runtime shader composition. Since VirtualProgram is an osg::StateAttribute, you can attach one to any node in the scene graph. Shaders that belong to a VirtualProgram can override shaders higher up in the scene graph. In this way you can add, combine, and override individual shader functions in osgEarth.

At run time, a VirtualProgram will look at the current state and assemble a full osg::Program that uses the built-in main()s and calls all the functions that you have injected via VirtualProgram.

Adding Functions

From the generated mains we saw earlier, osgEarth calls into user functions. These don’t exist in the default shaders that osgEarth generates; rather, they represent code that you as the developer can “inject” into various locations in the shader pipeline.

For example, let’s use user functions to create a simple “haze” effect:

// haze_vertex:
out vec3 v_pos;
void setup_haze(inout vec4 vertexView)
    v_pos =;

// haze_fragment:
in vec3 v_pos;
void apply_haze(inout vec4 color)
    float dist = clamp( length(v_pos)/10000000.0, 0, 0.75 );
    color = mix(color, vec4(0.5, 0.5, 0.5, 1.0), dist);

// C++:
VirtualProgram* vp = VirtualProgram::getOrCreate( stateSet );

vp->setFunction( "setup_haze", haze_vertex,   ShaderComp::LOCATION_VERTEX_VIEW);
vp->setFunction( "apply_haze", haze_fragment, ShaderComp::LOCATION_FRAGMENT_LIGHTING);

In this example, the function setup_haze is called from the built-in vertex shader main() after the built-in vertex functions. The apply_haze function gets called from the core fragment shader main() after the built-in fragment functions.

There are SIX injection points, as follows:

Location Shader Type Signature
ShaderComp::LOCATION_VERTEX_MODEL VERTEX void func(inout vec4 vertex)
ShaderComp::LOCATION_VERTEX_VIEW VERTEX void func(inout vec4 vertex)
ShaderComp::LOCATION_VERTEX_CLIP VERTEX void func(inout vec4 vertex)
ShaderComp::LOCATION_FRAGMENT_COLORING FRAGMENT void func(inout vec4 color)
ShaderComp::LOCATION_FRAGMENT_LIGHTING FRAGMENT void func(inout vec4 color)
ShaderComp::LOCATION_FRAGMENT_OUTPUT FRAGMENT void func(inout vec4 color)

Each VERTEX locations let you operate on the vertex in a particular coordinate space. You can alter the vertex, but you must leave it in the same space.

MODEL:Vertex is the raw, untransformed values from the geometry.
VIEW:Vertex is relative to the eyepoint, which lies at the origin (0,0,0) and points down the -Z axis. In VIEW space, the orginal vertex has been transformed by gl_ModelViewMatrix.
CLIP:Post-projected clip space. CLIP space lies in the [-w..w] range along all three axis, and is the result of transforming the original vertex by gl_ModelViewProjectionMatrix.

The FRAGMENT locations are as follows.

COLORING:Functions here are called when resolving the fragment color before lighting is applied. Texturing or color adjustments typically happen during this stage.
LIGHTING:Functions here affect the lighting applied to a fragment color. This is where things like sun lighting, bump mapping or normal mapping would typically occur.
OUTPUT:This is where gl_FragColor is set. By default, the built-in fragment main() will set it for you. But you can set an OUTPUT shader to replace this behavior with your own. A typical reason to do this would be to implement MRT rendering (see the osgearth_mrt example).

Shader Packages

Earlier we showed you how to inject functions using VirtualProgram. The Shader Composition Framework also provides the concept of a ShaderPackage that supports more advanced methods of shader management. We will talk about some of those now.

VirtualProgram Metadata

As we have seen, when you add a shader function to the pipeline using VirtualProgram you need to tell osgEarth the name of the GLSL function to call, and the location in the pipeline at which to call it, like so:

VirtualProgram* vp;
vp->setFunction( "color_it_red", shaderSource, ShaderComp::LOCATION_FRAGMENT_COLORING );

That works. But if the function name or the inject location changes, you need to remember to keep the GLSL code in sync with the setFunction() parameters.

It would be easier to specify this all in once place. A ShaderPackage lets you do just that. Here is an example:

#version 110

#pragma vp_entryPoint  color_it_red
#pragma vp_location    fragment_coloring
#pragma vp_order       1.0

void color_it_red(inout vec4 color)
    color.r = 1.0;

Now instead of calling VirtualProgram::setFunction() directory, you can create a ShaderPackage, add your code, and call load to create the function on the VirtualProgram:

ShaderPackage package;
package.add( shaderFileName, shaderSource );
package.load( virtualProgram, shaderFileName );

It takes a “file name” because the shader can be in an external file. But that is not a requirement. Read on for more details.

The vp_location values follow the code-based values, and are as follows:


External GLSL Files

The ShaderPackage lets you load GLSL code from either a file or a string. When you call the add method as show above, this tells the package to (a) first look for a file by that name and load from that file; and (b) if the file doesn’t exist, use the code in the source string.

So let’s look at this example:

ShaderPackage package;
package.add( "myshader.frag.glsl", backupSourceCode );
package.load( virtualProgram, "myshader.frag.glsl" );

The package will try to load the shader from the GLSL file. It will search for it in the OSG_FILE_PATH. If it cannot find the file, it will load the shader from the backup source code associated with that shader in the package.

osgEarth uses this technique internally to “inline” its stock shader code. That gives you the option of deploying GLSL files with your application OR keeping them inline – the application will still work either way.

Include Files

The ShaderPackage support the concept if include files. Your GLSL code can include any other shaders in the same package by referencing their file names. Use a custom #pragma to include another file:

#pragma include myCode.vertex.glsl

Just as in C++, the include will load the other file (or source code) directly inline. So the file you are including must be structured as if you had placed it right in the including file. (That means it cannot have its own #version string, for example.)

Again: the includer and the includee must be registered with the same ShaderPackage.

Concepts Specific to osgEarth

Even though the VirtualProgram framework is included in the osgEarth SDK, it really has nothing to do with map rendering. In this section we will go over some of the things that osgEarth does with shader composition.

Terrain Variables

There are some built-in shader uniforms and variables that the osgEarth terrain engine uses and that are available to the developer.

Important: Shader variables starting with the prefix ``oe_`` or ``osgearth_`` are reserved for osgEarth internal use.


oe_tile_key:(vec4) elements 0-2 hold the x, y, and LOD tile key values; element 3 holds the tile’s bounding sphere radius (in meters)
oe_layer_tex:(sampler2D) texture applied to the current layer of the current tile
oe_layer_texc:(vec4) texture coordinates for current tile
oe_layer_tilec:(vec4) unit coordinates for the current tile (0..1 in x and y)
oe_layer_uid:(int) Unique ID of the active layer
oe_layer_order:(int) Render order of the active layer
 (float) Opacity [0..1] of the active layer

Vertex attributes:

 (vec4) elements 0-2 hold the unit height vector for a terrain vertex, and element 3 holds the raw terrain elevation value
 (vec4) element 0 holds the parent tile’s elevation value; elements 1-3 are currently unused.

Shared Image Layers

Sometimes you want to access more than one image layer at a time. For example, you might have a masking layer that indicates land vs. water. You may not actually want to draw this layer, but you want to use it to modulate another visible layer.

You can do this using shared image layers. In the Map, mark an image layer as shared (using ImageLayerOptions::shared()) and the renderer will make it available to all the other layers in a secondary sampler.

Please refer to osgearth_sharedlayer.cpp for a usage example!