Arkanis Development


sdt_dead_reckoning.h - Single header file library to create signed distance fields


Another small C function that came out of the project I'm currently working on. This one is to create a signed distance field out of a black and white image (see pictures below). Signed distance fields are quite useful for rendering 2D or 3D shapes on the GPU. I came across them while investigating text rendering but they're very versatile constructs.

While searching for a function to create one I stumbled across the paper "The dead reckoning signed distance transform" by George J. Grevera. It contained a quite nice pseudo-code implementation of the algorithm so I ended up implementing it in C. This is how code using it looks like:

// Load the mask image with stb_image.h
int width = 0, height = 0;
uint8_t* mask = stbi_load("mask.png", &width, &height, NULL, 1);

// Allocate and create the distance field for the mask. Pixels > 16 in the
// mask are considered inside. Negative distances in the distance field are
// inside, positive ones outside.
float* distance_field = malloc(width * height * sizeof(float));
sdt_dead_reckoning(width, height, 16, mask, distance_field);

// Create an 8 bit version of the distance field by mapping the distance
// -128..127 to the brightness 0..255
uint8_t* distance_field_8bit = malloc(width * height * sizeof(uint8_t));
for(int n = 0; n < width * height; n++) {
    float mapped_distance = distance_field[n] + 128;
    float clamped_distance = fmaxf(0, fminf(255, mapped_distance))
    distance_field_8bit[n] = clamped_distance;

The distance field itself is written into an float buffer. I've added the "mapping" part above because in most use cases you want to store the distance field not as floats but as something else (e.g. as 8 bit image). The function leaves that to you because it would make the API quite a lot more bloated.

Below is an example of an 500x500 pixel black and white mask image and the distance field computed for it. On my old Intel Core i5-3570K @3.40GHz it took about 5ms to compute it (single threaded, compiled with -O2 -ffast-math). Not useful for fancy realtime stuff but fast enough for my needs. And above all: Simple to use. :)

A mask image for a 2D shape. White pixels are considered inside the shape, black pixels outside (pretty intuitive for humans).
The resulting distance field. Each pixel contains the distance (in pixels) to the outline. Gray (128) is a distance of 0, white (255) is 127 pixels outside of the outline and black (0) is 128 pixels inside the outline.

While it doesn't look like much a distance field is really easy to render with a GLSL shader. And you get high-quality anti-aliasing almost for free. Another very handy thing is that you can shrink or grow the shape by simply adding or subtracting a value from the distance in the shader. And a lot of other cool things.

Without going into to much detail… if you have to render 2D shapes look into signed distance fields. :)

One comment for this post

leave a new one

#1 by


I love your site, man. Its looks like you haven't posted in a while though. I'm really interested in your writings. Please continue to post… Sincerely, Anonymous

Leave a new comment

Having thoughts on your mind about this stuff here? Want to tell me and the rest of the world your opinion? Write and post it right here. Be sure to check out the format help (focus the large text field) and give the preview button a try.


Format help

Please us the following stuff to spice up your comment.

An empty line starts a new paragraph. ---- print "---- lines start/end code" ---- * List items start with a * or -

Just to keep your skill sharp and my comments clean.