At the Game Developers Conference 2010 OpenGL 4.0 was announced, and it looks to me like the released the OpenGL 3.3 specs at almost exactly the same time. So...is there anything interesting here?
A Quick Response
In understanding OpenGL 4.0, let's keep in mind how OpenGL works: OpenGL gains new capabilities by extensions. This is like a new item appearing on a menu at your favorite restaurant. Today we have two new specials: pickles in cream sauce, and fried potatoes. Fortunately, you don't have to order everything on the menu.
So what is OpenGL 4.0? It's a collection of extensions: if an implementation has all of them it can call itself 4.0. An application might not care. If we only want 2 of the 4 extensions, we're just going to look for those 2 extensions, not sweat what "version number" we have.
Now go back to OpenGL 3.0, and DirectX 10. When DX10 and the GeForce 8800 came out, nVidia published a series of OpenGL extensions that allowed OpenGL applications to use "cool DirectX 10 tricks". The problem was: the extensions were all NVidia specific tricks. After a fairly long time, OpenGL's architectural review board (ARB) picked up the specs, and eventually most of them made it into OpenGL 3.0 and 3.1. The process was very slow and very drawn out, with some of these "cool DirectX 10 tricks" only making it into "official" OpenGL now.
If there were OpenGL extensions for DirectX 10, who cares that the ARB was so slow to adopt these standards proposed by NVidia? Well, I do. If NVidia proposes an extension and then ATI proposes a different extension and the ARB doesn't come up with a unified official extension, then application like X-Plane have to have different code for different video cards. Our work-load doubles, and we can only put in half as many new cool features. Applications like X-Plane depend on unity among the vendors, via the ARB making "official" extensions.
So the most interesting thing about OpenGL 4.0 is how quickly they* made official ARB extensions for OpenGL that match DirectX 11's capabilities. (NVidia hasn't even managed to ship a DirectX 11 card yet, ATI's HD5000 series has only been out for a few months, and OpenGL already has a spec.) OpenGL 4.0 exposes pretty much everything that is interesting in DirectX 11. By having official ARB extensions, developers like Laminar Research now know how we will take advantage of these new cards as we plan new features.
Things I Like
So are any of the new OpenGL 3.3 and 4.0 capabilities interesting? Well, there are three I like:
Dual-source blending. It is way beyond this blog to explain what this is or why anyone would care, and it won't show up as a new OBJ ATTRibute or anything. But this extension does make it possible to optimize some bottlenecks in the internal rendering engine.
Instancing. Instancing is the ability to draw a mesh more than one time (with slight variants in each copy) with only one instruction to the graphics card. Since many games (like X-Plane) are limited in their ability to use the CPU to talk to the graphics card (we are "CPU bound" when rendering) the ability to ask for more work with fewer requests is a huge win.
There are a number of different ways to program "instancing" with OpenGL, but this particular extension is the one we prefer. It is not available on NVidia cards right now. So it's nice to see it make it into the core spec - this is a signal that this particular draw path is considered important and will get attention.
The biggest feature in OpenGL 4.0 (and DirectX 11) is tessellation. Tessellation is the ability for the graphics card to turn a crude mesh with a few triangles into a detailed mesh with lots of triangles. You can see ATI demoing this capability here.
* who is "they " for OpenGL? Well, it's the architectural review board (ARB) and the Khronos group, but in practice these groups are made up of employees from NVidia, ATI, Apple, Intel, and other companies, so it's really a collective of people involved in OpenGL use. There's a lot of input from hardware vendors, but if you read the OpenGL extensions, you'll sometimes see game development studios get involved; Transgaming and Blizzard show up every now and then.