The Developer’s Cry

Yet another blog by a hobbyist programmer

OpenGL font rendering with FTGL

OpenGL is a wonderful library for rendering graphics, but there is one thing it can not do: render text. It wasn’t exactly made for this purpose. Graphics and text are two different things. However, at some point you are going to want to display text in your rendered scene. Then you will encounter the terribly missing feature of OpenGL, its inability to render text. There is no such thing as a glPrintf() function.

Drawing text with OpenGL

OpenGL is a graphics library and it can draw anything you like, even characters. But OpenGL is a very low level library and leaves drawing characters as an exercise to the programmer. There are a number of approaches you can use to draw text:

So, drawing text is hard. Or you can use an external font rendering library, such as FTGL. FTGL is great. FTGL does the tricks mentioned above for TrueType fonts. Unfortunately, using FTGL can be frustrating because the documentation forgets to mention a some very essential points. Hence the reason for writing this blog entry.

Pitfall #1: Getting FTGL to work

To use FTGL, you should #include "FTGL/ftgl.h". If that produces an error about ft2build.h, you should also install the Freetype development package. Point your include path (gcc -I) and linker path (gcc -L) at the right places.

Pitfall #2: Using orthogonal mode correctly

FTGL can render text on a plane in 3D space, but in general you switch to orthogonal mode using glOrtho() before rendering text. The origin should be set to the lower left or you may get strange results like text appearing upside down. Also, set the current pen color before drawing. That’s easy.

Pitfall #3: Using glTranslate*() with raster fonts

FTGL supports two “raster” fonts: GLBitmapFont and GLPixmapFont. GLBitmapFont looks terrible and I would never want to use it, but GLPixmapFont looks nice. One reason to prefer GLPixmapFont over GLTextureFont is performance, another reason might be that it doesn’t use texture memory. However, since it is a raster font, you can not scale nor rotate it. You must position using glRasterPos*(). The fact that you can’t scale the font makes it less useful because it doesn’t give nice results at small sizes. Which brings us to the next point.

Pitfall #4: Font sizes

You might be inclined to think that with ftglSetFontSize() you could set a font’s size to 12 points and then get a good result on screen. If only it were that simple. In practice, you might see a blurry mess or even nothing at all. Why is this?
Fonts are rendered using dots per inch. OpenGL, however, has its own coordinate system. You initialized it by calling glOrtho(). Personally, I tend to set glOrtho() to pixel coordinates. Pixel coordinates have no relation to dots per inch, so it doesn’t fit. [In theory, you should be able to set OpenGL’s coordinate system to dots per inch and get good results right away, but haven’t tried this. My guess is that this won’t work either because of the following.]
When loading a texture font, FTGL creates textures for every character (or glyph) using the size and resolution parameters passed to ftglSetFontSize(). If you choose the parameters too small, the texture will be small and the result will be ugly. The key is to use fairly high values like 72 or simply one hundred. This may well cause the displayed text to appear huge; scale the result down again with glScale*() one tenth times or whatever works for you.
Since OpenGL is very good at scaling textured images, the end result will be good looking. Isn’t it kind of dumb to use a large font size and then scale it down again? Yes, but if you don’t, chances are that it won’t be good looking.

Pitfall #5: Font scaling

This is pitfall is a consequence of scaling. When you scale the FTGL font, you must take the scale into account when working with bounding boxes and string widths.

Wrapping up

FTGL is a very nice OpenGL font rendering library with good performance. It has an easy to use C++ API and good standard C interface. The documentation is a bit lacking though. For example, to get the string width in standard C, use ftglGetFontAdvance() * scale.
Let me end with a link into the FTGL User Guide at SourceForge.