You ever come across one of those ASMR programming videos? This video1 where the developer programs a terminal display with a couple of spinning cubes is neat. This video is the motivation for the development of a ncurses2 application that renders a user controlled 3D cube.

Perspective Projection and Rotation Matrices

So how do you take an object in 3D space and visualize it in 2D space? The answer is perspective projection. Many videos explain the technique in detail. One of the better videos is “Carl the Person”’s (cool name by the way) video tutorial:

No need to repeat Carl’s derivation of 3D to 2D coordinate transformation here. You just need to apply the secret sauce. To take a 3D coordinate \((x,y,z)\) and transform it to its 2D projection \((x_p, y_p)\), apply the following formulas:

\[ x_p = {x \over {z \tan{\theta \over 2}}} \] \[ y_p = {y \over {z \tan{\theta \over 2}}} \]

In these equations, \(\theta\) is the angle in radians of the camera’s field of view. More on that later.

Okay cool, so you can go from 3D to 2D. What about rotating the object? The general 3D rotation matrix that you can copy paste from Wikipedia3 does the trick:

\[ \begin{bmatrix} \cos \beta \cos \gamma & \sin \alpha \sin \beta \cos \gamma - \cos \alpha \sin \gamma & \cos \alpha \sin \beta \cos \gamma + \sin \alpha \sin \gamma \\ \cos \beta \sin \gamma & \sin \alpha \sin \beta \sin \gamma + \cos \alpha \cos \gamma & \cos \alpha \sin \beta \sin \gamma - \sin \alpha \cos \gamma \\ -\sin \beta & \sin \alpha \cos \beta & \cos \alpha \cos \beta \end{bmatrix} \begin{bmatrix} x \\ y \\ z \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} x_r \\ y_r \\ z_r \end{bmatrix} \]

Where \(\alpha\), \(\beta\), and \(\gamma\) are the camera’s yaw, pitch, and roll angles in radians. You need to zero the yaw and set the roll and pitch angles using a “cursor” location. To explain a bit further, when the application starts, an invisible cursor sits in the center of the screen. When the user presses the arrows keys, the application updates the \((x_{cursor}, y_{cursor})\) location of the cursor accordingly. The cursor location is later used to determine the roll and pitch angles using the following formulas:

\[\beta = {x_{cursor} \over s_{width}} \times \pi\] \[\gamma = {y_{cursor} \over s_{height}} \times \pi\]

Where \(s_{width}\) and \(s_{height}\) are the screen width/height.

Putting it all together, you get the following projection/rotation function:

Faces2D RotateAndProject3Dto2D(const Cube &cube, const ViewConfig &conf,
                        double cursor_x, double cursor_y) {
  const double kCursorXRatio = (cursor_x / conf.near_plane_width) * kPi;
  const double kCursorYRatio = (cursor_y / conf.near_plane_height) * kPi;

  ncube::Faces2D cube_faces_2d;
  for (const Face3D &face_3d : cube.GetFaces()) {
    ncube::Face2D face_2d;
    for (const Point3D &point : face_3d) {
      /* create the rotated 3D point */
      Point3D rotated_point = Rotate3D(
          point, {.roll = kCursorYRatio, .pitch = kCursorXRatio, .yaw = 0});

      /* distance the camera from the cube */
      rotated_point.z += conf.camera_distance;

      /* perform a perspective projection */
      Point2D projection_2d = {
          .x = Transform3DTo2D(rotated_point.x, rotated_point.z,
          .y = Transform3DTo2D(rotated_point.y, rotated_point.z,

      /* shift the coordinate to account for the fact the origin is the top left
       * of our screen */
      projection_2d.x =
          projection_2d.x * conf.near_plane_width + conf.near_plane_width / 2.0;
      projection_2d.y = projection_2d.y * conf.near_plane_height +
                        conf.near_plane_height / 2.0;
  return cube_faces_2d;

RotateAndProject3Dto2D() takes as input the cube, current cursor position, and the view configurations (that is, camera FOV angle, near plane dimensions, etc.). The function iterates over each 3D coordinate on each face of the cube. For each point, you perform the following steps:

  1. Rotate the point. Rotate3D() implements the rotation matrix multiplication.
  2. Apply the perspective projection. Transform3DTo2D() is a “generic” version of the perspective projection formulas.
  3. Offset the coordinate to account for the fact the 2D coordinate system (the screen as defined by ncurses) has its origin at the top left of the screen.

The output of RotateAndProject3Dto2D() is a collection of 2D points that when plotted on the screen will show the cube projected and rotated.

Drawing the Line

You represent a cube as a collection of 3D points defining the vertices of the cube. You need a method to draw lines between the vertex points. Some demos use a visualization API capable of drawing lines between points. Take a look at the image below taken from “Carl the Person”’s video:

Cube With Edges

Now compare that with a capture of your cube in a similar orientation:

Cube Without Edges

Eight vertices floating around in space looks like crap. ncurses can’t draw anything more than vertical and horizontal lines. What now?

The solution is to define points along the edges of the cube. How do you do that? Well you could do it manually but that’s no fun. StackOverflow shows plenty of Python examples where you interpolate to define equally spaced points along a line in 3D space4. Cool, but you don’t want to implement that in C++ or integrate a 3rd party library just to solve this little problem.

There’s another solution5 for generating \(N\) equidistant points on the line between two endpoints. The idea is to repeatedly compute midpoints until you have generated \(N\) midpoints. Here’s an example.

Imagine you wanted to generate 7 points between an edge start and end point. You compute the midpoint of the start and end point call it \(M_1\). Then you compute the midpoint between the start and \(M_1\), \(M_2\), and the midpoint between \(M_1\) and end, \(M_3\). Continue applying this process recursively until you have generated the 7th midpoint, \(M_7\). The figure below illustrates the process.

Generating Edge Points

You want to generate midpoints in the order \(M_1, M_2, M_3, …, M_7\). Put in other words, you need to generate the tree in breadth-first order6.

Below is a C++ implementation of the algorithm:

Face3D Cube::GenPoints(const Point3D a, const Point3D& b,
                       unsigned int num_points) const {
  using PointPair = std::pair<Point3D, Point3D>;
  std::queue<PointPair> buffer;
  buffer.emplace(a, b);

  /* This a BFS traversal of the tree that is formed by recursively finding the
   * midpoint, m, of a and b, then the midpoint of a and m, m and b, and so on.
   * The process terminates when we have generated the requested number of
   * points: num_points. */
  Face3D points;
  while (points.size() != num_points) {
    PointPair pp = buffer.front();

    Point3D midpoint = Midpoint(pp.first, pp.second);

    buffer.push({pp.first, midpoint});
    buffer.push({midpoint, pp.second});
  return points;

GenPoints() implements a BFS traversal of the “midpoint tree.” The BFS queue’s elements are pairs of 3D points representing the start and end point of line segments on the original line. The algorithm terminates when the points vector has a size of num_points.

You can make the number of edge points a command line option. The cube below has an edge points count of 21:

Cube With Generated Edges

Not the prettiest cube in the world, but much easier to make out than before!


Below is a demo showing the ncube application in action:

The biggest takeaway from this project is learning the purpose, concepts, and math behind perspective projection. Bonus points for coming up with a solution to the problem of generating nice-ish looking edges for the cube using a textbook CS approach. ncube is satisfying to run. The crappy 3D graphics are something special.

The complete project source with build instructions, usage, etc. is available on GitHub under ncube.

  1. “ASMR Programming - Spinning Cube” ↩︎

  2. ncurses ↩︎

  3. General 3D Rotations ↩︎

  4. Is there a multi-dimensional version of arange/linspace in numpy? ↩︎

  5. Chances are this algorithm has existed since before the dawn of time. ↩︎

  6. All that time on LeetCode payed off! You get to encounter a BFS algorithm in the wild! ↩︎