A Simple Quaternion-based Camera
by Robert Crossland


I looked through a thousand web pages for a good quaternion camera tutorial, and I could not find one. There is a good example on gametutorials.com that uses quaternions, but it uses them to rotate general objects and makes things a little more difficult than they actually need to be to use quaternions to make a camera. Therefore, in this article I am going to present a simple quaternion-based camera that can be used to rotate the view of your camera using the mouse.

So, what is a Quaternion?

Quaternions aren't actually as scary as they sound. Everything I read regarding quaternions talked about imaginary numbers, hyper-complex numbers, spinors, and other scary sounding things. There was too much maths jargon for my liking. If you understand what a vector is, it isn't very hard to understand what a quaternion is. One way to represent a quaternion is

Q = xi + yj + zk + w

where i,j & k are coordinate basis vectors for three dimensions.

I don't particularly like this representation for computer graphics, especially where cameras are concerned. I prefer thinking of a quaternion as an object that contains a vector and a scalar. We'll call the vector v and keep the scalar as w.

Q = [ w, v ]

where v = xi + yj + zk.

For use in the sample code below, here's a quaternion data structure:

struct quaternion
  double x, y, z, w;

This is a much easier representation to comprehend for me. Now for our purposes, quaternion addition, subtraction, etc., aren't needed. We only need to know how to normalize (scale to length=1), multiply and compute the conjugate of a quaternion in order to generate a rotation. These tasks are actually very simple and are described below.

Normalizing a quaternion

Normalizing a quaternion is almost the same as normalizing a vector. We start by computing the length of the quaternion to be normalized, which is done using the Euclidean distance forumula:

|Q| = sqrt( w^2 + x^2 + y^2 + z^2)

A function to implement this formula might look like this:

double length(quaternion quat)
  return sqrt(quat.x * quat.x + quat.y * quat.y +
              quat.z * quat.z + quat.w * quat.w);

Not too hard is it? Now to get the normalized vector Q, which we'll call Q*, we just divide every element of Q by |Q|.

Q* = Q/|Q| = [w/|Q|, v/|Q|]

Here's some sample code for this function:

quaternion normalize(quaternion quat)
  double L = length(quat);

  quat.x /= L;
  quat.y /= L;
  quat.z /= L;
  quat.w /= L;

  return quat;

This will give us a quaternion of length 1 (which is very important for rotations). Still nothing scary right? Well, it doesn't really get much harder than this.

The conjugate of a quaternion

Let's compute the conjugate of a quaternion and call it Q'. The conjugate is simply

Q' = [ w, -v ]

Here's the code for the conjugate:

quaternion conjugate(quaternion quat)
  quat.x = -quat.x;
  quat.y = -quat.y;
  quat.z = -quat.z;
  return quat;

The last thing you need to know is quaternion multiplication. Then you'll be ready to make a quaternion based camera.

Multiplying quaternions

Multiplication with quaternions is a little complicated as it involves dot-products cross-products. However, if you just use the following forumula that expands these operations, it isn't too hard. To multiply quaternion A by quaternion B, just do the following:

C = A * B

such that:

C.x = | A.w*B.x + A.x*B.w + A.y*B.z - A.z*B.y |
C.y = | A.w*B.y - A.x*B.z + A.y*B.w + A.z*B.x |
C.z = | A.w*B.z + A.x*B.y - A.y*B.x + A.z*B.w |
C.w = | A.w*B.w - A.x*B.x - A.y*B.y - A.z*B.z |

Here's some code for multiplication:

quaternion mult(quaternion A, quaternion B)
  quaternion C;

  C.x = A.w*B.x + A.x*B.w + A.y*B.z - A.z*B.y;
  C.y = A.w*B.y - A.x*B.z + A.y*B.w + A.z*B.x;
  C.z = A.w*B.z + A.x*B.y - A.y*B.x + A.z*B.w;
  C.w = A.w*B.w - A.x*B.x - A.y*B.y - A.z*B.z;
  return C;

That's not too that hard is it? Now we'll look at how to use these operations to make a quaternion based camera.

The quaternion camera

To make a camera you typically use three vectors: Position, View, and Up (or you may call them what you like). For a first person camera - which we will be using - we're only going to consider rotating the View vector. With quaternions we can rotate a vector around an arbitrary axis (same as with axis-angles) very easily.

To achieve this, first we need to turn our View vector into a quaternion, then define a rotation quaternion and lastly, apply the rotation quaternion to the View quaternion to make the rotation.

To make the View quaternion, V, the x, y, and z values are taken from the View vector and we simply add a 0 for the scalar component w. Thus,

V = [0, View]

Then you need to make a quaternion to represent the rotation. To do this, you need the vector you want to rotate about, and the angle you wish to rotate by. We'll just simply term the vector to rotate about A, and the angle theta. Here is the formula to build your rotation quaternion, which we'll call R.

vector A = [x, y, z] 
R.x = A.x * sin(theta/2)
R.y = A.y * sin(theta/2)
R.z = A.z * sin(theta/2)
R.w = cos(theta/2)

So now we have the vector (View) and its quaternion V that we want to rotate by an angle theta about the vector A. The rotation quaternion R defines this rotation. After the rotation, we'll have the new quaternion representing our view, given by W. The rotation operation is simply

W = R * V * R'

where R' is the conjugate of R. To get our new view vector, we just take the vector components out of W.

NewView = [W.x W.y W.z]

The following function (using SDL, use glut or whatever you like) sets the view based on the distance from the current mouse coordinates to the centre of the screen. I learned how to do this from gametutorials.com, and modified the code for my purposes. In this code, positive x is to the right and positive y is down the screen.

void Camera::SetViewByMouse(void)
  // the coordinates of our mouse coordinates
  int MouseX, MouseY;

  // the middle of the screen in the x direction
  int MiddleX = SCREENWIDTH/2;

  // the middle of the screen in the y direction
  int MiddleY = SCREENHEIGHT/2;

  // vector that describes mouseposition - center
  Vector MouseDirection(0, 0, 0);

  // static variable to store the rotation about the x-axis, since
  // we want to limit how far up or down we can look.
  // We don't need to cap the rotation about the y-axis as we
  // want to be able to turn around 360 degrees
  static double CurrentRotationAboutX = 0.0;

  // The maximum angle we can look up or down, in radians
  double maxAngle = 1;

  // This function gets the position of the mouse
  SDL_GetMouseState(&MouseX, &MouseY);

  // if the mouse hasn't moved, return without doing
  // anything to our view
  if((MouseX == MiddleX) && (MouseY == MiddleY))

  // otherwise move the mouse back to the middle of the screen
  SDL_WarpMouse(MiddleX, MiddleY);

  // get the distance and direction the mouse moved in x (in
  // pixels). We can't use the actual number of pixels in radians,
  // as only six pixels  would cause a full 360 degree rotation.
  // So we use a mousesensitivity variable that can be changed to
  // vary how many radians we want to turn in the x-direction for
  // a given mouse movement distance

  // We have to remember that positive rotation is counter-clockwise. 
  // Moving the mouse down is a negative rotation about the x axis
  // Moving the mouse right is a negative rotation about the y axis
  MouseDirection.x = (MiddleX - MouseX)/MouseSensitivity; 
  MouseDirection.y = (MiddleY - MouseY)/MouseSensitivity;

  CurrentRotationX += MouseDirection.y;
  // We don't want to rotate up more than one radian, so we cap it.
  if(CurrentRotationX > 1)
    CurrentRotationX = 1;
  // We don't want to rotate down more than one radian, so we cap it.
  if(CurrentRotationX < -1)
    CurrentRotationX = -1;
    // get the axis to rotate around the x-axis. 
    Vector Axis = CrossProduct(View - Position, Up);
    // To be able to use the quaternion conjugate, the axis to
    // rotate around must be normalized.
    Axis = Normalize(Axis);

    // Rotate around the y axis
    RotateCamera(MouseDirection.y, Axis.x, Axis.y, Axis.z);
    // Rotate around the x axis
    RotateCamera(MouseDirection.x, 0, 1, 0);

This function actually rotates our view. After we are done, just plug your camera vectors (Position, View, and Up) into gluLookAt(Position.x, Position.y, Position.z, View.x, View.y, View.z, Up.x, Up.y, Up.z). Here is the code for the rotation.

void RotateCamera(double Angle, double x, double y, double z)
  quaternion temp, quat_view, result;

  temp.x = x * sin(Angle/2);
  temp.y = y * sin(Angle/2);
  temp.z = z * sin(Angle/2);
  temp.w = cos(Angle/2);

  quat_view.x = View.x;
  quat_view.y = View.y;
  quat_view.z = View.z;
  quat_view.w = 0;

  result = mult(mult(temp, quat_view), conjugate(temp));

  View.x = result.x;
  View.y = result.y;
  View.z = result.z;

Again, at the end of the above functions, you should call

gluLookAt(Position.x, Position.y, Position.z,
          View.x, View.y, View.z, Up.x, Up.y, Up.z).

and your camera should work just perfectly. Maybe some other time, I'll do a third person camera tutorial, and explain how to use SLERP.

Discuss this article in the forums

Date this article was posted to GameDev.net: 9/22/2003
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Featured Articles

© 1999-2011 Gamedev.net. All rights reserved. Terms of Use Privacy Policy
Comments? Questions? Feedback? Click here!