What is OpenGL: Revving Up the Hardware-Acceleration Feature in GPUs

| Last Updated: November 29, 2021

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If you are an avid gamer or modeler, you might have encountered or heard the word OpenGL countless times. Have you ever been curious about what OpenGL is? What does it do on the vector graphics that the games that we enjoy right now are made up of?

In this article, we’ll delve into the meaning of OpenGL along with its background, use, and importance in today’s 2D and 3D vector graphics. We’ll tackle the latest news and applications involving OpenGL and the promising future for this powerful tool.

So, we wanted to provide you with a breakdown of what makes this platform such an excellent and trustworthy program. Ready? Let’s get started!

What is OpenGL?

OpenGL or Open Graphics Library is an interface application for rendering 2D and 3D vector graphics from various languages and platforms. The application enables interaction with the graphics card activating the hardware acceleration for real-time rendering on supported operating systems such as Windows, Mac, or Linux.

History and Background

Founded in 1981, Silicon Graphics, Inc. or SGI is the creator of OpenGL. This graphics API development started in 1991, in conjunction with their line of rendering engines. After one year, the first version of OpenGL was launched.

Since then, the application of OpenGL has opened doors for optimizing graphics cards in ways never seen or imagined before. New capabilities such as computer-aided design, virtual reality games, scientific visualizations, and more were now possible because of this breakthrough.

Early Design Stage

The earlier OpenGL manual specifies that it is an abstract API that will handle graphics in 2D and 3D. Though the graphics API may be implemented to run only in software, it was later decided to execute it entirely for the graphics card hardware.

Open Standard API 

OpenGL is an API that is compatible with various platforms and allows code execution written in any language. The unique API focuses primarily on graphics rendering, offering no specifications for other aspects of windowing, audio, and input.

Continuing API Development

Khronos Group has been actively improving and developing new versions of OpenGL regularly and launching them openly to support all-new features and applications. 

Additional details for each version are decided by several groups comprised of general technology companies like Google and Mozilla, operating system designers, graphics card manufacturers, and Khronos OpenGL Group members.

Extensions and Custom APIs

Aside from what the OpenGL API features can offer, video card vendors can add or modify the attributes' functions by coding extensions.

The extensions mentioned above introduce and initiate new constants and capabilities. It can also eliminate or maintain restrictions available on the current OpenGL version being used. Moreover, extensions permit the addition of custom APIs without needing Khronos Group’s approval.

OpenGL Update Trackers

A series of textbooks containing manuals and specifications were issued by the OpenGL Architecture Review Board to document and track all of the updates and modifications applied to the API.

Traditionally, these mentioned printed manuals are also known by their cover color: 

The Red Book

Entitled OpenGL Programming Guide, this textbook is also labeled as The Official Guide to Learning OpenGL. Its latest published version is already in the 9th Edition.

The Orange Book

The Orange Book is a reference and tutorial book solely dedicated to understanding GLSL. The manual is titled OpenGL Shading Language, and it is now in its 3rd edition.

The Green Book

The OpenGL Programming for the X Window System is a book with a green cover that tackles X11 interfacing and OpenGL Utility Toolkit, also referred to as GLUT.

The Blue Book

On its 4th edition, the OpenGL Reference Manual donning a cover in blue, is a published hardcopy of the Unix Manual. The book comes with a poster-sized fold-out diagram laying out the ideal structure of an OpenGL implementation.

The Alpha Book in White Cover

Also referred to as the Alpha Book, the OpenGL Programming for Windows 95 and Windows NT is a book covered in white color that discusses the OpenGL interface with Microsoft Windows.

The OpenGL specification, manual, and documents can also be accessed and read thoroughly via opengl.org, its official website.

OpenGL Today

At present, OpenGL has undergone continuous improvement. It has allowed users, even those without coding knowledge, to take full advantage of openly free and readily available online programs for all, such as SketchUp and Google Earth Pro.

The organization managing OpenGL since 2006 is called Khronos Group, a non-profit technology consortium ensuring interoperability across multiple platforms for both desktop computers and mobile, including Android or Windows desktop operating systems.

Application of OpenGL in Various Fields

For three decades, OpenGL’s versatility has provided developers and users the power to maximize their graphics processing unit hardware while pairing it with any available platform.

In this section, the application of OpenGL in various fields such as gaming, video, 3D modeling, and visualizations are mentioned emphasizing the great contribution of this API from the modern arts and entertainment up to our newest approach to scientific studies nowadays.

OpenGL in Gaming Software

OpenGL has provided several advantages for the gaming industry, such as photorealistic lighting effects and accessibility to a broad range of programming languages and game development software.

Numerous gaming software have been enhanced and improved using OpenGL API. These famous games are some of the noteworthy software that utilize this platform:

  1. World of Warcraft
  2. Half-Life
  3. Star Wars
  4. Far Cry
  5. Left 4 Dead
  6. City of Heroes
  7. Call of Duty
  8. Hitman
  9. Counter-Strike
  10. Doom

OpenGL in Video and Photography

This graphics API has an essential role in upgrading the latest video and photography we enjoy today. With OpenGL, developers and users can control every aspect of their visuals on their devices, from rendering quality to color depth. 

Some well-known photography and video editing programs that use OpenGL are listed below: 

  1. Kodi, a cross-platform
  2. ArtRage
  3. Adobe Photoshop
  4. Adobe After Effects
  5. Adobe Premiere Pro

OpenGL in CAD and 3D Modeling

Interior designers and architects use CAD and 3D Modeling programs to create entire virtual projects from scratch allowing them to see the finished structure before construction. OpenGL has paved the way to make their animated walkthroughs more presentable for their clients. 

Here are some of the OpenGL-powered CAD and 3D modeling software that are being used in architecture, engineering, and graphics design today:

  1. Scilab
  2. LARSA4D
  3. SAP2000
  4. Google SketchUp
  5. 3D Studio Max
  6. VirtualMec
  7. Autodesk AutoCAD
  8. Autodesk Maya
  9. Blender
  10. Cadence Allegro

OpenGL in Scientific Research and Visualizations

The last few years have seen a considerable increase in the use of OpenGL in a wide array of fields, including the different sciences. The graphics API has been a significant part of such studies by bringing lifelike movement, accuracy, and lighting to any topic of interest.  

Some of the scientific visualization applications for medical, interactive space, physics, and molecular research operated through the OpenGL platform are the following: 

  1. Google Earth
  2. Vizard
  3. Universe Sandbox
  4. SpaceEngine
  5. QuteMol
  6. InVesalius
  7. Algodoo
  8. Avogadro
  9. Celestia
  10. Enhanced Machine Controller or EMC2

The Future of OpenGL

It's no secret that graphics technology has come a long way since the original release of OpenGL. Graphics cards have advanced, with today's newest models running up to millions of operations per second. 

With this much power behind them, it's not hard to see how the API has become so popular for various applications in professional, commercial, and creative settings.   

Vulkan: Next-Gen OpenGL

Vulkan, also referred to as the Next Generation OpenGL Initiative, is a ground-up redesign effort to unify OpenGL and OpenGL ES into one common API, which will not be backward compatible with existing versions of either. 

The initial release date for this new standard was on February 16, 2016, which means that it already had many advancements over its predecessor, OpenGL.

Latest OpenGL Implementation

Although API upgrades are currently being rolled out, few projects still prioritize the implementation of OpenGL over Vulkan. Such projects are ANGLE by Google and Mesa3D, both of which have recently received conformance with the latest OpenGL version. 

Transition from OpenGL to Vulkan


One of the gaming industry’s best, id Software issued an update for the id Tech 6 game engine supporting both Vulkan and OpenGL. For the succeeding id Tech 7, only Vulkan support was retained.


All Apple platforms such as iOS, macOS, and tvOS are migrating to their very own Metal API in place of OpenGL.

Google OS Fuchsia and Stadia are made solely compatible with Vulkan.


A major gaming software developer, Valve has decided to eliminate their use of OpenGL in Dota 2 for subsequent updates.

The Samsung-compatible Atypical Games has currently mobilized their game engines to opt for Vulkan. The gaming company has also applied this change to their other non-Apple platforms.

The New Vulkan Website Launch

The former Vulkan website has become the go-to site for users and developers for official reference materials and community content. However, this old webpage is quite limited and its overall design no longer efficiently serves its purpose.

Coping up with the ever-growing amount of news, libraries, tools, and materials is getting difficult for the old single-page Vulkan website. In response to this situation, an all-new webpage was built to enable its visitors to easily navigate and search the necessary data all in one place. 

People Also Ask

What is OpenGL, and why is it used?

With the recent advances in modern graphics and cutting-edge computer technology, it's no surprise that there is now an open-source standard for handling two- and three-dimensional model and visualization graphics. 

The OpenGL or Open Graphics Library provides over 250 functions that can be used to compose complex scenes and animations, starting from simple geometric primitives such as points or lines to 3D modeling and shading with ease!

Is OpenGL a language, and how does it work?

First of all, OpenGL is not a programming language; it is an application programming interface or API that activates the hardware-acceleration features of a graphic processing unit.

The purpose of OpenGL is to send pieces of information from your computer’s central processing unit to the graphics card device. 

For instance, a computer graphics developer transfers data to the graphics processing unit by using OpenGL. 

Is OpenGL a good API?

Yes, OpenGL is a good API since many graphics development and enhancement were made possible then and now with the use of this technology.

According to reviews, OpenGL has been widely utilized in graphics design, creation, and production for various applications such as games and programs for mobile devices. 

It has been involved in the ever-growing development, support, and compatibility of graphics today.   

Is OpenGL free to use?

Yes, by default, OpenGL is an open standard that can be used for free by any developer. 

However, if you are a vendor and want your own video card build to work with the OpenGL API, then you need to buy the software license. 

For distributing the said system, the compatibility between your hardware and OpenGL must be confirmed first.

Do I need to download OpenGL?

Depending on what OS you are working on, downloading OpenGL isn’t always necessary.

If you are using one of the three major computer operating systems such as Linux, Mac, and Windows, OpenGL API comes with them as a default standard. 

On the other hand, it's always worthwhile checking and downloading the most recent drivers available for your GPU to experience the best performance you can get out of your PC.

Do I have OpenGL installed?

To know if you have OpenGL, an OpenGL viewer like GL view utility must be installed on your desktop computer.

The OpenGL version that is currently available and running on your PC can be checked through the use of this GLview utility,

This is also applicable for Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP users.

What is the difference between OpenGL and DirectX?

Although both are functional and powerful APIs, OpenGL and DirectX are two different interface platforms.

OpenGL can be accessed and run using multiple systems, and its main focus is on graphics rendering that is optimized through hardware-acceleration features of a graphics card.

On the other hand, DirectX is only compatible with Xbox and Windows systems, and its function primarily revolves around other aspects of the virtual world such as music, sound effects, input, networking, and multimedia. 

Is OpenGL better than DirectX?

In terms of functionalities, OpenGL and DirectX are two different APIs. 

However, if compared by the speed these programs take to process their respective tasks, OpenGL is reported to be faster.

The reason behind this fact is that OpenGL seems to have a more efficient pipeline and thus enables a smoother and accelerated real-time rendering when set side by side with DirectX.


OpenGL has been the go-to platform for developing games and professional software. The reason it's so significant is that it activates hardware-accelerated real-time rendering, which allows users to interact with their programs in a more fluid way. 

We hope that you've gathered some interesting tidbits from this article! Stay tuned for our next blog post on yet another topic related to graphics cards, gaming software, professional programs, and cutting-edge applications.


When the tech company I worked for restructured and I ended up jobless, I decided to put the wealth of knowledge and management skills to use somewhere new. I’d checked out a few buyer’s guides on the site in the past and reached out to the previous owner. A few months later, here we are. Now, I get to be behind the scenes, helping people find the best tech.