The new Go qml OpenGL API

As detailed in the preliminary release of qml.v1 for Go a couple of weeks ago, my next task was to finish the improvements in its OpenGL API. Good progress has happened since then, and the new API is mostly done and available for experimentation. At the same time, there’s still work to do on polishing edges and on documenting the extensive API. This blog post aims to present the improvements made, their internal design, and also to invite help for finishing the pending details.

Before diving into the new, let’s first have a quick look at how a Go application using OpenGL might look like with qml.v0. This is an excerpt from the old painting example:

import (

func (r *GoRect) Paint(p *qml.Painter) {
        width := gl.Float(r.Int("width"))
        height := gl.Float(r.Int("height"))
        // ...

The example imports both the qml and the gl packages, and then defines a Paint method that makes use of the GL types, functions, and constants from the gl package. It looks quite reasonable, but there are a few relevant shortcomings.

One major issue in the current API is that it offers no means to tell even at a basic level what version of the OpenGL API is being coded against, because the available functions and constants are the complete set extracted from the gl.h header. For example, OpenGL 2.0 has GL_ALPHA and GL_ALPHA4/8/12/16 constants, but OpenGL ES 2.0 has only GL_ALPHA. This simplistic choice was a good start, but comes with a number of undesired side effects:

  • Many trivial errors that should be compile errors fail at runtime instead
  • When the code does work, the developer is not sure about which API version it is targeting
  • Symbols for unsupported API versions may not be available for linking, even if unused

That last point also provides a hint of another general issue: portability. Every system has particularities for how to load the proper OpenGL API entry points. For example, which libraries should be linked with, where they are in the local system, which entry points they support, etc.

So this is the stage for the improvements that are happening. Before detailing the solution, let’s have a look at the new painting example in qml.v1, that makes use of the improved API:

import (

func (r *GoRect) Paint(p *qml.Painter) {
        gl := GL.API(p)
        width := float32(r.Int("width"))
        height := float32(r.Int("height"))
        // ...

With the new API, rather than importing a generic gl package, a version-specific gl/2.0 package is imported under the name GL. That choice of package name allows preserving familiar OpenGL terms for both the functions and the constants (gl.Enable and GL.BLEND, for example). Inside the new Paint method, the gl value obtained from GL.API holds only the functions that are defined for the specific OpenGL API version imported, and the constants in the GL package are also constrained to those available in the given version. Any improper references become build time errors.

To support all the various OpenGL versions and profiles, there are 23 independent packages right now. These packages are of course not being hand-built. Instead, they are generated all at once by a tool that gathers information from various sources. The process can be tersely described as:

  1. A ragel-based parser processes Qt’s qopenglfunctions_*.h header files to collect version-specific functions
  2. The Khronos OpenGL Registry XML is parsed to collect version-specific constants
  3. A number of tweaks defined in the tool’s code is applied to the state
  4. Packages are generated by feeding the state to text templates

Version-specific functions might also be extracted from the Khronos Registry, but there’s a good reason to use information from the Qt headers instead: Qt already solved the portability issue. It works in several platforms, and if somebody is using QML successfully, it means Qt is already using that system’s OpenGL capabilities. So rather than designing a new mechanism to solve the same problem, the qml package now leverages Qt for resolving all the GL function entry points and the linking against available libraries.

Going back to the example, it also demonstrates another improvement that comes with the new API: plain types that do not carry further meaning such as gl.Float and gl.Int were replaced by their native counterparts, float32 and int32. Richer types such as Enum were preserved, and as suggested by David Crawshaw some new types were also introduced to represent entities such as programs, shaders, and buffers. The custom types are all available under the common gl/glbase package that all version-specific packages make use of.

So this is all working and available for experimentation right now. What is left to do is almost exclusively improving the list of function tweaks with two goals in mind, which will be highlighted below as those are areas where help would be appreciated, mainly due to the footprint of the API.

Documentation importing

There are a few hundred functions to document, but a large number of these are variations of the same function. The previous approach was to simply link to the upstream documentation, but it would be much better to have polished documentation attached to the functions themselves. This is the new documentation for MultMatrixd, for example. For now the documentation is being imported manually, but the final process will likely consist of some automation and some manual polishing.

Function polishing

The standard C OpenGL API can often be translated automatically (see BindBuffer or BlendColor), but in other cases the function prototype has to be tweaked to become friendly to Go. The translation tool already has good support for defining most of these tweaks independently from the rest of the machinery. For example, the following logic changes the ShaderSource function from its standard from into something convenient in Go:

name: "ShaderSource",
params: paramTweaks{
        "glstring": {rename: "source", retype: "...string"},
        "length":   {remove: true},
        "count":    {remove: true},
before: `
        count := len(source)
        length := make([]int32, count)
        glstring := make([]unsafe.Pointer, count)
        for i, src := range source {
                length[i] = int32(len(src))
                if len(src) > 0 {
                        glstring[i] = *(*unsafe.Pointer)(unsafe.Pointer(&src))
                } else {
                        glstring[i] = unsafe.Pointer(uintptr(0))

Other cases may be much simpler. The MultMatrixd tweak, for instance, simply ensures that the parameter has the proper length, and injects the documentation:

name: "MultMatrixd",
before: `
        if len(m) != 16 {
                panic("parameter m must have length 16 for the 4x4 matrix")
doc: `
        multiplies the current matrix with the provided matrix.

and as an even simpler example, CreateProgram is tweaked so that it returns a glbase.Program instead of the default uint32.

name:   "CreateProgram",
result: "glbase.Program",

That kind of polishing is where contributions would be most appreciated right now. One valid way of doing this is picking a range of functions and importing and polishing their documentation manually, and while doing that keeping an eye on required tweaks that should be performed on the function based on its documentation and prototype.

If you’d like to help somehow, or just ask questions or report your experience with the new API, please join us in the project mailing list.

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