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ASTC Format Overview

Adaptive Scalable Texture Compression (ASTC) is a next-generation lossy texture compression technology developed by Arm and AMD. It has been adopted as an official Khronos extension to the OpenGL and OpenGL ES APIs, and as a standard optional feature for the Vulkan API.

ASTC offers a number of advantages over earlier texture compression formats:

  • Format flexibility: ASTC supports compressing between 1 and 4 channels of data, including support for one non-correlated channel such as RGB+A (correlated RGB, non-correlated alpha).
  • Bit rate flexibility: ASTC supports compressing images with a fine grained choice of bit rates between 0.89 and 8 bits per texel (bpt). The bit rate choice is independent to the color format choice.
  • Advanced format support: ASTC supports compressing images in either low dynamic range (LDR), LDR sRGB, or high dynamic range (HDR) color spaces, as well as support for compressing 3D volumetric textures.
  • Improved image quality: Despite the high degree of format flexibility, ASTC manages to beat nearly all legacy texture compression formats -- such as ETC2, PVRCT, and the BC formats -- on image quality at equivalent bit rates.

This article explores the ASTC format, and how it manages to generate the flexibility and quality improvements that it achieves.

Why ASTC?

Before the creation of ASTC, the format and bit rate coverage of the available formats was very sparse:

Legacy texture compression formats and bit rates

In reality the situation is even worse than this diagram shows, as many of these formats are proprietary or simply not available on some operating systems, so any single platform will have very limited compression choices.

For developers this situation makes developing content which is portable across multiple platforms a tricky proposition. It's almost certain that differently compressed assets will be needed for different platforms. Each asset pack would likely then need to use different levels of compression, and may even have to fall back to no compression for some assets on some platforms, which leaves either some image quality or some memory bandwidth efficiency untapped.

It was clear a better way was needed, so the Khronos group asked members to submit proposals for a new compression algorithm to be adopted in the same manner that the earlier ETC algorithm was adopted for OpenGL ES. ASTC was the result of this, and has been adopted as an official algorithm for OpenGL, OpenGL ES, and Vulkan.

Format overview

Given the fragmentation issues with the existing compression formats, it should be no surprise that the high level design objectives for ASTC were to have something which could be used across the whole range of art assets found in modern content, and which allows artists to have more control over the quality to bit rate tradeoff.

There are quite a few technical components which make up the ASTC format, so before we dive into detail it will be useful to give an overview of how ASTC works at a higher level.

Block compression

Compression formats for real-time graphics need the ability to quickly and efficiently make random samples into a texture. This places two technical requirements on any compression format:

  • It must be possible to compute the address of data in memory given only a sample coordinate.
  • It must be possible to decompress random samples without decompressing too much surrounding data.

The standard solution for this used by all contemporary real-time formats, including ASTC, is to divide the image into fixed-size blocks of texels, each of which is compressed into a fixed number of output bits. This feature makes it possible to access texels quickly, in any order, and with a well-bounded decompression cost.

The 2D block footprints in ASTC range from 4x4 texels up to 12x12 texels, which all compress into 128-bit output blocks. By dividing 128 bits by the number of texels in the footprint, we derive the format bit rates which range from 8 bpt (128/(4*4)) down to 0.89 bpt (128/(12*12)).

Color encoding

ASTC uses gradients to assign the color values of each texel. Each compressed block stores the end-point colors for a gradient, and an interpolation weight for each texel which defines the texel's location along that gradient. During decompression the color value for each texel is generated by interpolating between the two end-point colors, based on the per-texel weight.

One partition gradient storage

In many cases a block will contain a complex distribution of colors, for example a red ball sitting on green grass. In these scenarios a single color gradient will not be able to accurately represent all of the texels' values. To support this ASTC allows a block to define up to four distinct color gradients, known as partitions, and can assign each texel to a single partition. For our example we require two partitions, one for our ball texels and one our grass texels.

Two partition gradient storage

Now that you know the high level operation of the format, we can dive into more detail.

Integer encoding

Initially the idea of fractional bits per texel sounds implausible, or even impossible, because we're so used to storing numbers as a whole number of bits. However, it's not quite as strange as it sounds. ASTC uses an encoding technique called Bounded Integer Sequence Encoding (BISE), which makes heavy use of storing numbers with a fractional number of bits to pack information more efficiently.

Storing alphabets

Even though color and weight values per texel are notionally floating-point values, we have far too few bits available to directly store the actual values, so they must be quantized during compression to reduce the storage size. For example, if we have a floating-point weight for each texel in the range 0.0 to 1.0 we could choose to quantize it to five values - 0.0, 0.25, 0.5, 0.75, and 1.0 - which we can then represent in storage using the integer values 0 to 4.

In the general case we need to be able to efficiently store characters of an alphabet containing N symbols if we choose quantize to N levels. An N symbol alphabet contains log2(N) bits of information per character. If we have an alphabet of 5 possible symbols then each character contains ~2.32 bits of information, but simple binary storage would require us to round up to 3 bits. This wastes 22.3% of our storage capacity. The chart below shows the percentage of our bit-space wasted when using simple binary encoding to store an arbitrary N symbol alphabet:

Binary encoding efficiency

... which shows for most alphabet sizes we waste a lot of our storage capacity when using an integer number of bits per character. Efficiency is of critical importance to a compression format, so this is something we needed to be able to improve.

Note: We could have chosen to round-up the quantization level to the next power of two, and at least use the bits we're spending. However, this forces the encoder to spend bits which could be used elsewhere for a bigger benefit, so it will reduce image quality and is a sub-optimal solution.

Quints

Instead of rounding up a 5 symbol alphabet - called a "quint" in BISE - to three bits, we could choose to instead pack three quint characters together. Three characters in a 5-symbol alphabet have 53 (125) combinations, and contain 6.97 bits of information. We can store this in 7 bits and have a storage waste of only 0.5%.

Trits

We can similarly construct a 3-symbol alphabet - called a "trit" in BISE - and pack trit characters in groups of five. Each character group has 35 (243) combinations, and contains 7.92 bits of information. We can store this in 8 bits and have a storage waste of only 1%.

BISE

The BISE encoding used by ASTC allows storage of character sequences using arbitrary alphabets of up to 256 symbols, encoding each alphabet size in the most space-efficient choice of bits, trits, and quints.

  • Alphabets with up to (2n - 1) symbols can be encoded using n bits per character.
  • Alphabets with up (3 * 2n - 1) symbols can be encoded using n bits (m) and a trit (t) per character, and reconstructed using the equation (t * 2n + m).
  • Alphabets with up to (5 * 2n - 1) symbols can be encoded using n bits (m) and a quint (q) per character, and reconstructed using the equation (q * 2n + m).

When the number of characters in a sequence is not a multiple of three or five we need to avoid wasting storage at the end of the sequence, so we add another constraint on the encoding. If the last few values in the sequence to encode are zero, the last few bits in the encoded bit string must also be zero. Ideally, the number of non-zero bits should be easily calculated and not depend on the magnitudes of the previous encoded values. This is a little tricky to arrange during compression, but it is possible. This means that we do not need to store any padding after the end of the bit sequence, as we can safely assume that they are zero bits.

With this constraint in place - and by some smart packing the bits, trits, and quints - BISE encodes an string of S characters in an N symbol alphabet using a fixed number of bits:

  • S values up to (2n - 1) uses (NS) bits.
  • S values up to (3 * 2n - 1) uses (NS + ceil(8S / 5)) bits.
  • S values up to (5 * 2n - 1) uses (NS + ceil(7S / 3)) bits.

... and the compressor will choose the one of these which produces the smallest storage for the alphabet size being stored; some will use binary, some will use bits and a trit, and some will use bits and a quint. If we compare the storage efficiency of BISE against simple binary for the range of possible alphabet sizes we might want to encode we can see that it is much more efficient.

BISE encoding efficiency

Block sizes

ASTC always compresses blocks of texels into 128-bit outputs, but allows the developer to select from a range of block sizes to enable a fine-grained tradeoff between image quality and size.

ASTC 2D block footprint bit rates

Color endpoints

The color data for a block is encoded as a gradient between two color endpoints, with each texel selecting a position along that gradient which is then interpolated during decompression. ASTC supports 16 color endpoint encoding schemes, known as "endpoint modes". Options for endpoint modes include:

  • Varying the number of color channels: e.g. luminance, luminance + alpha, rgb, and rgba.
  • Varying the encoding method: e.g. direct, base+offset, base+scale, quantization level.
  • Varying the data range: e.g. low dynamic range, or high dynamic range

The endpoint modes, and the endpoint color BISE quantization level, can be chosen on a per-block basis.

Color partitions

Colors within a block are often complex, and cannot be accurately captured by a single color gradient, as discussed earlier with our example of a red ball lying on green grass. ASTC allows up to four color gradients - known as "partitions" - to be assigned to a single block. Each texel is then assigned to a single partition for the purposes of decompression.

Rather then directly storing the partition assignment for each texel, which would need a lot of decompressor hardware to store it for all block sizes, we generate it procedurally. Each block only needs to store the partition index - which is the seed for the procedural generator - and the per texel assignment can then be generated on-the-fly during decompression. The image below shows the generated texel assignments for two (top), three (middle), and four (bottom) partitions for the 8x8 block size.

ASTC partition table

The number of partitions and the partition index can be chosen on a per-block basis, and a different color endpoint mode can be chosen per partition.

Note: ASTC uses a 10-bit seed to drive the partition assignments. The hash used will introduce horizontal bias in a third of the partitions, vertical bias in a third, and no bias in the rest. As they are procedurally generated not all of the partitions are useful, in particular with the smaller block sizes.

  • Many partitions are duplicates.
  • Many partitions are degenerate (an N partition hash results in at least one partition assignment that contains no texels).

Texel weights

Each texel requires a weight, which defines the relative contribution of each color endpoint when interpolating the color gradient.

For smaller block sizes we can choose to store the weight directly, with one weight per texel, but for the larger block sizes we simply do not have enough bits of storage to do this. To work around this ASTC allows the weight grid to be stored at a lower resolution than the texel grid. The per-texel weights are interpolated from the stored weight grid during decompression using a bilinear interpolation.

The number of texel weights, and the weight value BISE quantization level, can be chosen on a per-block basis.

Dual-plane weights

Using a single weight for all color channels works well when there is good correlation across the channels, but this is not always the case. Common examples where we would expect to get low correlation at least some of the time are textures storing RGBA data - alpha masks are not usually closely correlated with the color value - or normal data - the X and Y normal values often change independently.

ASTC allows a dual-plane mode, which uses two separate weight grids for each texel. A single channel can be assigned to a second plane of weights, while the other three use the first plane of weights.

The use of dual-plane mode can be chosen on a per-block basis, but its use prevents the use of four color partitions as we do not have enough bits to concurrently store both an extra plane of weights and an extra set of color endpoints.

End results

So, if we pull all of this together what do we end up with?

Adaptive

The first word in the name of ASTC is "adaptive", and it should now hopefully be clear why. Each block always compresses into 128-bits of storage, but the developer can choose from a wide range of texel block sizes and the compressor gets a huge amount of latitude to determine how those 128 bits are used.

The compressor can trade off the number of bits assigned to colors (number of partitions, endpoint mode, and stored quantization level) and weights (number of weights per block, use of dual-plane, and stored quantization level) on a per-block basis to get the best image quality possible.

ASTC compressed parrot at various bit rates

Format support

The compression scheme used by ASTC effectively compresses arbitrary sequences of floating point numbers, with a flexible number of channels, across any of the supported block sizes. There is no real notion of "color format" in the format itself at all, beyond the color endpoint mode selection, although a sensible compressor will want to use some format-specific heuristics to drive an efficient state-space search.

The orthogonal encoding design allows ASTC to provide complete coverage of our desirable format matrix from earlier, across a wide range of bit rates:

ASTC 2D formats and bit rates

... ticking the requirement that almost any asset can be compressed to some degree, and that content creators can make an appropriate bit rate choice based on their quality needs rather than something enforced by a format constraint.

Image quality

The normal expectation would be that this level of format flexibility would come at a cost of image quality; it has to cost something, right? Luckily this isn't true. The high packing efficiency allowed by BISE encoding, and the ability to dynamically choose where to spend encoding space on a per-block basis, means that an ASTC compressor is not forced to spend bits on things that don't help image quality.

This gives some significant improvements in image quality compared to the older texture formats, even though ASTC also handles a much wider range of options.

  • ASTC at 2 bpt outperforms PVRTC at 2 bpt by ~2.0dB.
  • ASTC at 3.56 bpt outperforms PVRTC and BC1 at 4 bpt by ~1.5dB, and ETC2 by ~0.7dB, despite a 10% bit rate disadvantage.
  • ASTC at 8 bpt for LDR formats is comparable in quality to BC7 at 8 bpt.
  • ASTC at 8 bpt for HDR formats is comparable in quality to BC6H at 8 bpt.

Differences as small as 0.25dB are visible to the human eye, and remember that dB uses a logarithmic scale, so these are significant image quality improvements.

3D compression

One of the nice bonus features of ASTC is that the techniques which underpin the format generalize to compressing volumetric texture data without needing very much additional decompression hardware.

ASTC is therefore also able to optionally support compression of 3D textures, which is a unique feature not found in any earlier format, at the following bit rates:

ASTC 3D block footprint bit rates

Availability

The ASTC functionality is specified as a set of three feature profiles:

  • 2D LDR profile
  • 2D LDR + HDR profile
  • 2D LDR + HDR and 3D LDR + HDR profile

The 2D LDR profile is mandatory in OpenGL ES 3.2, and a standardized optional feature for Vulkan, and therefore widely supported on contemporary mobile devices. The 2D HDR profile is not mandatory, but is widely supported.

Khronos extensions

Official Khronos extensions exist for the feature profiles of ASTC:

A convenience extension which provides the full feature set implied by supporting all three KHR extensions also exists.

ASTC is specified to decompress texels into fp16 intermediate values, except for sRGB which always decompresses into 8-bit UNORM intermediates. For many use cases this gives more dynamic range and precision than required, and can cause a reduction in texturing efficiency due to the larger data size.

A pair of extensions exist, and are supported on recent mobile GPUs, which allow applications to reduce the intermediate precision to either UNORM8 (recommended for LDR textures) or RGB9e5 (recommended for HDR textures).

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