AutoCAD to Interactive OpenGL

Written by Paul Bourke

AutoCAD Model by Chris Little
Melbourne University School of Architecture

Photos of "the real thing"
Photos courtesy of Terrence Cooney, Nark O'Toole, Ella Bourke.

This model is based upon the amphitheatre in the center of the ancient Roman city of Jerash a few kilometers outside Amman in Jordan. The theatre could seat around 4000 people and is similar in design to the amphitheatre in the center of Amman.


The following discusses an attempt to translate an Architectural model from AutoCAD so that it can be explored interactively in OpenGL. The AutoCAD model was supplied courtesy of the Melbourne University School of Architecture and like many models of this kind it was designed solely for AutoCAD and not for interactive rendering. The geometry was exported "as is", the aim was to explore how far one could go with automatic measures. Two wire frame shots of the model are shown below.

Note that there are a large number of facets, about 250,000. The vast majority were 3 vertex polygons, this is mostly due to the exporter for WRL files which was used to extract the geometry.

One thing to notice is the large variation in density of the polygons. A large number of polygons are used around the decorative parts of the columns and archways.

It is quite straightforward to write an OpenGL viewer for this geometry. Since the geometry is static it can all be placed in a display list using

   glNewList(itemid,GL_COMPILE);
      :
   /* Draw the polygons here */
      :
   glEndList();
The camera is moved around controlled by the user, the scene is rendered using
   glCallList(itemid);

With the OpenGL card available for this work the refresh rate was only about one frame per second, half that for viewing in stereo. The question then is what can be done to improve the frame rate. Certainly the biggest gains could be made by creating the geometry appropriately, for this exercise the geometry was taken as given. In many cases this is the situation, the software that created the model might not be available or the expertise/desire to make changes to a complicated model might not exist.

A obvious saving for environments that one mainly wishes to walk inside is to only render the geometry that is in front of the camera, or even better, within the view frustum. (Which of these is chosen usually depends on the number of items that need to be tested against the view frustum, if large then the simpler in-front/behind test is faster.) In this case one obviously doesn't want to compare each facet at each time step. One solution is to subdivide the geometry into pieces, form a display list for each one but only draw those that are visible from the current camera position.

The images here show the model subdivision at various levels of splitting. For a particular model there is an optimal level at which subdivision should be taken, too much and the intersection tests and display list handling dominate, too few and the geometry in the largest display list determines the frame rate.

How the subdivision is done is by no means trivial. A couple of schemes were tried for this exercise, the one finally used was to decide on a number of subdivisions and iteratively bisect the subdivision containing the largest number of polygons. This tends to form subdivisions with approximately equal numbers of polygons, for example it can be seen that there are smaller subdivisions around the columns than the seats. A better algorithm would be to base the centers of the subdivisions on the dense areas within the geometry. It should also be noted that while in this case the subdivisions didn't overlap, that restriction could be lifted for a more efficient partitioning scheme.

Geometry Optimisation

As well as doing things efficiently in OpenGL, there are some standard checks and transformations of the geometry that should be made whenever transforming geometry from a CAD package into an environment where "every polygon counts". There are a number of inefficiencies that can arise with modelling in a package such as AutoCAD and exporting the geometry through an intermediate format.