Coinciding with a mobile-heavy CES 2014, back in January Khronos put out a short announcement stating that they were nearing the release of a new version of OpenGL ES. Dubbed OpenGL ES Next, we were given a high level overview of the features and a target date of 2014. As it turns out that target date was early 2014, and with GDC 2014 kicking off this week, Khronos is formally announcing the next version of OpenGL ES: OpenGL ES 3.1.

Compared to OpenGL ES 3.0, which was announced back in 2012, OpenGL ES 3.1 is a somewhat lower key announcement. Like mainline OpenGL, as OpenGL ES has continued its development it has continued to mature, and in the process the rate of advancement and need for overhauls has changed. As such OpenGL ES 3.1 is geared towards building on top of what ES 2.0 and 3.0 have already achieved, with a focus on bringing the most popular features from OpenGL 4.x down to OpenGL ES at a pace and in an order that makes the most sense for the hardware and software developers.

Version numbers aside, with OpenGL ES 3.1 Khronos has finally built out OpenGL ES to a point where it can be considered a subset of OpenGL 4.x. While OpenGL ES 3.0 was almost entirely constructed from OpenGL 3.x features, OpenGL ES 3.1’s near-exclusive borrowing of OpenGL 4.x features means that a several pieces of important functionality found in OpenGL 4.x are now available in OpenGL ES. Though at the end of the day it’s still a subset of OpenGL that’s lacking other important features.

Anyhow, as it turns out the early OpenGL ES Next announcement was surprisingly thorough. Khronos’s January announcement actually contained the full list of major new features for OpenGL ES 3.1, just without any descriptions to go with them. As such there aren’t any previously unannounced features here, but we do finally have a better idea of where Khronos is aiming with these features, and what kind of hardware it will take to drive them.

Compute Shaders

Compute shader functionality is without a doubt the marquee feature of OpenGL ES 3.1. Compute shader functionality was first introduced in mainline OpenGL 4.3, and at a high level is a much more flexible shader style that is further decoupled from the idiosyncrasies of graphics rendering, allowing developers to write programs that either weren’t possible using pixel shaders, or at best aren’t as efficient. Compute shaders in turn can be used for general purpose (non-graphical) programming tasks, however they’re more frequently used in conjunction with graphics tasks to more efficiently implement certain algorithms. In the gaming space ambient occlusion is a frequent example of a task that compute shaders can speed up, while in the mobile space photography is another oft-cited task that can benefit from compute shaders.

The increased flexibility is ultimately only as useful as software developers can make it, but of all of the features being released in OpenGL ES 3.1, this is the one that has the potential for the most profound increase in graphics quality on mobile devices. Furthermore compute shaders are based on GLSL ES, so they can be a fairly easy shader type for developers to adopt.

Separate Shader Objects & Shading Language Improvements

Speaking of shaders, there are also some smaller shader improvements coming in OpenGL ES 3.1. Developers can now more freely mix and match vertex shader and pixel shader programs thanks to separate shader object functionality, breaking up some of the pipelining imposed by earlier versions of OpenGL ES 3.0. Meanwhile 3.1 also introduces new bitfield and arithmetic operations, which should make desktop GPU programmers feel a bit more at home.

Indirect Draw Commands

Even with the tightly coupled nature of SoCs, SoC-class GPUs generally aren’t much better off than desktop GPUs when it comes to CPU bottlenecking. Consequently there’s performance (and quite possibly battery life) to be had by making the GPU more self-sufficient, which brings up indirect draw commands. Indirect commands allow the GPU to issue its own work rather than requiring the CPU to submit work, thereby freeing up the CPU. Khronos gives a specific example of having a GPU draw out the results of a physics simulation, though there are a number of cases where this can be used.

Enhanced Texture Functionality

Finally, OpenGL ES 3.1 will also be introducing new texture functionality into OpenGL ES. Texture multisampling is now in – a technology useful for using anti-aliasing in conjunction with off-screen rendering techniques – as is stencil textures. Texture gather support also makes an appearance, which allows sampling a texture in a 2x2 array of textures and is useful for texture filtering.

Moving on, for today’s release Khronos also laid out their plans for conformance testing for OpenGL ES 3.1. OpenGL ES 3.1 has already been finalized – this isn’t a draft specification – so the specification is done, however the conformance tests are still a work in progress. Conformance testing is largely an OEM concern, but from a consumer perspective it’s notable since it means that OEMs and chip/IP vendors technically can’t label their parts as OpenGL ES 3.1 compliant until they pass the necessary tests. Khronos tells us that conformance tests are expected to be available within 3 months, so we should see conformance validation shortly after that.

Finally on the hardware side, again not unlike mainline OpenGL, OpenGL ES 3.1 is designed to be implemented on existing hardware, with many aspects of the standard just providing a formal API to functionality that the hardware can already achieve. To that end, Khronos tells us that a number of existing SoC GPUs will be OpenGL ES 3.1 capable; so OpenGL ES 3.1 can be rolled out to the public without new hardware in those cases.

Unfortunately we don’t have a list of what GPUs will be ES 3.1 capable – the lack of conformance tests being something of a roadblock. But in Khronos’s full press release both NVIDIA and Imagination Technologies note that they expect to fully support OpenGL ES 3.1 in their Kepler and Rogue architectures respectively. No doubt we’ll hear more about this in the coming weeks and months as the other SoC GPU vendors cement their OpenGL ES 3.1 plans and pass their conformance tests.

Source: Khronos

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  • ltcommanderdata - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    Are OES3.1 compute shaders comparable to DX11 and OGL4.3 compute shaders in functionality or are they closer to DX10 compute shaders? I ask, because many existing OES3.0 GPUs which are supposedly going to be OES3.1 compliant are only DX10 or even only DX9 compliant.
  • DanNeely - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    Ars Technica is reporting that some existing mobile gpus GPUs will be able to support ES3.1 with a new driver; and that other families will need new hardware to do so.
  • Haroon90 - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    According to this ,All socs bosed on powervr 6 are compatible,so including ipad air and iphone 5s.
  • TETRONG - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    Baffling that they would omit Tessellation. One would think this would be supremely useful on mobile in terms of upping perceived graphical quality.

    Little typo in the article,
    "Anyhow, as it turns out the early OpenGL ES Next announcement was surprisingly through."
  • inighthawki - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    From my understanding, both tessellation and geometry shaders take up a lot of die space and are very inefficient compared t the rest of the pipeline. You'd end up with underpowered GPUs wasting more battery life. I think they have the right move here.
  • ZeDestructor - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    Besides, there's nothing stopping SoC builders from adding tessellation anyways and exposing it as an extension taken straight from OGL 4.x.
  • errorr - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    Tessellation doesn't work well with tile-based rendering. The whole point for tile based solutions is to compute geometry first and store it in a small buffer to avoid power hungry writes. Tessellation would take up way too much memory in that it could exponentially increase the number of polygons within a tile. This message would fill up the buffer too quickly and force main memory access and power hungry bandwidth.

    Imagination and Adreno both have patents dealing with tesselation on tile based rendering but as far as I can tell they are about avoiding or minimizing tesselation.

  • Krysto - Thursday, August 14, 2014 - link

    Does anyone do tile-based rendering other than Imagination, anymore? Nvidia certainly doesn't.
  • djgandy - Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - link

    I am confused as to why you think this is? Screen sizes are far smaller on mobile so I don't see why you'd benefit a lot from increased geometry alone?
  • ShattaAD - Friday, March 21, 2014 - link

    Screen sizes on mobile may be small but most mobile devices these days are running on a resolution of ~1080p if not higher. This is equivalent to a typical home pc monitor resolution or that of the HDTV. Regardless whether or not you connect your mobile devices to your tv/monitor when @ home because you like to enjoy your mobile games on the big screen(which a lack of tessellation would be instantly apparent), the presence of tessellation would still be perceptible even on say a 4" screen as the increased poly-bumps simply makes everything more realistic and natural in appearance.

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