A series of voxels in a stack with a single voxel shaded
Illustration of a voxel grid, each containing a color value.
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Video game graphics

A voxel represents a value on a regular grid in three-dimensional space. As with pixels in a bitmap, voxels themselves do not typically have their position (their coordinates) explicitly encoded along with their values. Instead, the position of a voxel is inferred based upon its position relative to other voxels (i.e., its position in the data structure that makes up a single volumetric image). In contrast to pixels and voxels, points and polygons are often explicitly represented by the coordinates of their vertices. A direct consequence of this difference is that polygons are able to efficiently represent simple 3D structures with lots of empty or homogeneously filled space, while voxels are good at representing regularly sampled spaces that are non-homogeneously filled.

Voxels are frequently used in the visualization and analysis of medical and scientific data. Some volumetric displays use voxels to describe their resolution. For example, a display might be able to show 512×512×512 voxels.

The word voxel is based on a contraction of vox ("volume") and el (for "element");[1] similar formations with el  for "element" include the words pixel and texel.[1]


A volume described as voxels can be visualized either by direct volume rendering or by the extraction of polygon iso-surfaces that follow the contours of given threshold values. The marching cubes algorithm is often used for isosurface extraction, however other methods exist as well.

Both ray-tracing and ray-casting, as well as rasterisation, can be applied to voxel data to obtain 2D raster graphics to depict on a monitor.

Incremental error rasterisation

Another technique for voxels involves raster graphics where you simply raytrace every pixel of the display into the scene, tracking an error term to determine when to step. A typical implementation will raytrace each pixel of the display starting at the bottom of the screen using what is known as a y-buffer. When a voxel is reached that has a higher y value on the display it is added to the y-buffer overriding the previous value and connected with the previous y-value on the screen interpolating the color values. There is a major downside to voxel rasterization when transformation is applied which causes severe aliasing. The advantage was the ability to rasterise using cheap integer calculations on a CPU without hardware acceleration.[2]

Outcast, and other 1990s video games employed this graphics technique for effects such as reflection and bump-mapping and usually for terrain rendering. Outcast's graphics engine was mainly a combination of a ray casting (heightmap) engine, used to render the landscape, and a texture mapping polygon engine used to render objects. The "Engine Programming" section of the games credits in the manual has several subsections related to graphics, among them: "Landscape Engine", "Polygon Engine", "Water & Shadows Engine" and "Special effects Engine".[3] Although Outcast is often cited as a forerunner of voxel technology,[4] this is somewhat misleading. The game does not actually model three-dimensional volumes of voxels. Instead, it models the ground as a surface, which may be seen as being made up of voxels. The ground is decorated with objects that are modeled using texture-mapped polygons. When Outcast was developed, the term "voxel engine", when applied to computer games, commonly referred to a ray casting engine (for example the VoxelSpace engine). On the engine technology page of the game's website, the landscape engine is also referred to as the "Voxels engine".[5] The engine is purely software-based; it does not rely on hardware-acceleration via a 3D graphics card.[6]

John Carmack also experimented with Voxels for the Quake III engine.[7] One such problem cited by Carmack was the lack of graphics cards designed specifically for such rendering requiring them to be software rendered.

Comanche was also the first commercial flight simulation based on voxel technology. NovaLogic used the proprietary Voxel Space engine developed for the company by Kyle Freeman [8](written entirely in Assembly language) to create open landscapes.[9] This rendering technique allowed for much more detailed and realistic terrain compared to simulations based on vector graphics at that time.[6]


Voxel data

A voxel represents a single sample, or data point, on a regularly spaced, three-dimensional grid. This data point can consist of a single piece of data, such as an opacity, or multiple pieces of data, such as a color in addition to opacity. A voxel represents only a single point on this grid, not a volume; the space between each voxel is not represented in a voxel-based dataset. Depending on the type of data and the intended use for the dataset, this missing information may be reconstructed and/or approximated, e.g. via interpolation.

The value of a voxel may represent various properties. In CT scans, the values are Hounsfield units, giving the opacity of material to X-rays.[10]:29 Different types of value are acquired from MRI or ultrasound.

Voxels can contain multiple scalar values, essentially vector (tensor) data; in the case of ultrasound scans with B-mode and Doppler data, density, and volumetric flow rate are captured as separate channels of data relating to the same voxel positions.

While voxels provide the benefit of precision and depth of reality, they are typically large data sets and are unwieldy to manage given the bandwidth of common computers. However, through efficient compression and manipulation of large data files, interactive visualization can be enabled on consumer market computers.

Other values may be useful for immediate 3D rendering, such as a surface normal vector and color.


Common uses of voxels include volumetric imaging in medicine and representation of terrain in games and simulations. Voxel terrain is used instead of a heightmap because of its ability to represent overhangs, caves, arches, and other 3D terrain features. These concave features cannot be represented in a heightmap due to only the top 'layer' of data being represented, leaving everything below it filled (the volume that would otherwise be the inside of the caves, or the underside of arches or overhangs).

Computer games

Voxel editors

While scientific volume visualization doesn't require modifying the actual voxel data, voxel editors can be used to create art (especially 3D pixel art) and models for voxel based games. Some editors are focused on a single approach to voxel editing while others mix various approaches. Some common approaches are:

Voxel editors for games

Many game developers use in-house editors that are not released to the public, but a few games have publicly available editors, some of them created by players.

General purpose voxel editors

There are a few voxel editors available that are not tied to specific games or engines. They can be used as alternatives or complements to traditional 3D vector modeling.


A generalization of a voxel is the doxel, or dynamic voxel. This is used in the case of a 4D dataset, for example, an image sequence that represents 3D space together with another dimension such as time. In this way, an image could contain 100×100×100×100 doxels, which could be seen as a series of 100 frames of a 100×100×100 volume image (the equivalent for a 3D image would be showing a 2D cross section of the image in each frame). Although storage and manipulation of such data requires large amounts of memory, it allows the representation and analysis of spacetime systems.

See also


  1. 1 2 Foley, James D.; Andries van Dam; John F. Hughes; Steven K. Feiner (1990). "Spatial-partitioning representations; Surface detail". Computer Graphics: Principles and Practice. The Systems Programming Series. Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-201-12110-7. These cells are often called voxels (volume elements), in analogy to pixels.
  2. "Voxels". tnlc.com.
  3. Outcast manual. Infogrames. 1999. p. 34.
  4. Bertuch, Manfred (2009). "'Klötzchenwelten' [Worlds of little blocks] in c't Magazin issue 04/2009". Hannover: Heise Zeitschriften Verlag GmbH & Co. KG: 183. ISSN 0724-8679.
  5. "OUTCAST – Technology: Paradise". archive.org. 7 May 2006.
  6. 1 2 "Voxel terrain engine", introduction. In a coder's mind, 2005.
  7. "A Little Bit Of History – Next-Gen 3D Rendering Technology: Voxel Ray Casting". tomshardware.com. 21 October 2009.
  8. "Kyle G. Freeman Inventions, Patents and Patent Applications – Justia Patents Search". justia.com.
  9. "FlightSim.Com – NovaLogic Awarded Patent For Voxel Space Graphics Engine". flightsim.com.
  10. Novelline, Robert. Squire's Fundamentals of Radiology. Harvard University Press. 5th edition. 1997. ISBN 0-674-83339-2.
  11. "Boundless – Explore, Collaborate, Build, Conquer, Discover.". oortonline.com.
  12. "wonderstruck". wonderstruckgames.com.
  13. http://projectorgames.net/blog/?p=168
  14. "Home – From The Depths". fromthedepthsgame.com.
  15. "Chunk format: Block format". Minecraft Wiki. Retrieved 2016-02-07.
  16. "Chunk format: Entity format". Minecraft Wiki. Retrieved 2016-02-07.
  17. "Appeal S.A. - MobyGames". mobygames.com.
  18. "OUTCAST – Technology: Paradise". outcast-thegame.com. Archived from the original on 2010-06-15. Retrieved 2009-12-20.
  19. Zak, Robert (4 April 2016). ""There's never been a better time": Planet Coaster rides to meet the demand for deep simulation games". Retrieved 11 July 2016.
  20. "RealityCapture LIVE Volumetric Video". www.organicmotion.com. Retrieved 2016-06-20.
  21. "Trove – A Voxel MMO Adventure from Trion Worlds". trovegame.com.
  22. "VANGERS". kdlab.com. Retrieved 2009-12-20.
  23. http://www.vox-l.com/
  24. http://multidimensionalgames.com/
  25. Ars Technica. "We <3 voxels: why Voxatron is an exciting indie shooter".
  26. "Lexaloffle BBS :: Voxatron". lexaloffle.com. Retrieved 2011-01-12.
  27. "Project Perfect Mod". Ppmsite.com. 2007-04-04. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
  28. "Ken Silverman's Projects Page". Advsys.net. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
  29. "Ken Silverman's Voxlap Page". Advsys.net. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
  30. "CryEngine2 Sandbox2 Tutorial". Konakona.nbtxathcx.net. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
  31. "C4 Engine Features". Terathon.com. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
  32. "The Transvoxel Algorithm for Voxel Terrain". Retrieved 2016-02-20.
  33. "Qubicle's Main Page". minddesk.com. Retrieved 2014-07-06.

External links

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