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Infinite Resolution Materials Format (IRMF) Shaders

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IRMF is a file format used to describe GLSL ES shaders that define the materials in a 3D object with infinite resolution. IRMF eliminates the need for software slicers, STL, and G-code files used in 3D printers.

I believe that IRMF shaders will some day revolutionize the 3D-printing industry.


This article is about a computational technique, "infinite resolution materials format" (IRMF) shaders, that takes digitally-generated 3D models to the next level. You can think of it as the equivalent of Gutenberg’s press for the creation of 3D physical objects. Perhaps a more modern analogy would be to think of IRMF as the 3D-printer equivalent to PostScript for 2D printers.

Historically, geometric primitives such as spheres, cubes, cones, etc. were combined to build up complex 3D models. Today, sophisticated parametric CAD programs such as Onshape allow designers to model complex 3D parts. However, it takes a great deal of computing power to run the algorithms necessary to convert these models into STL triangle meshes that are then sliced and converted to G-code that a 3D printer can use to manufacture the objects. Additionally, extremely complex parts, especially organic shapes, are not well suited to this style of design and frequently overwhelm the legacy algorithms and slicing programs. Most importantly, the resulting STL triangle mesh doesn’t accurately describe the desired surface of the model, but is only a tessellated approximation of the truly-desired object, having limited resolution. Not only that, but the higher the desired resolution, the larger the STL file itself grows... to the point where it can not be easily handled by the tools that need to process it.

IRMF shaders turn this operation inside-out. Instead of imperatively building up an object with a sequence of steps, IRMF shaders take a functional declarative approach. IRMF shaders answer the question “What material exists at this point in 3D space?” The advantage to this approach is that the same shader can instantly provide a voxelized representation of the object at any desired output resolution by simply instantiating as many instances of this IRMF shader as needed. This is what is called an “embarrassingly parallel” computation and is what GPUs were designed for (although typically for rendering images on a 2D screen). With IRMF shaders, GPUs are used to determine what material is printed at each point in 3D space.

What is an “infinite resolution materials format (IRMF) shader?”

An IRMF shader consists of two parts: a JSON blob description and a set of instructions used to determine what material is placed at any point in 3D space. What makes it a shader is that it is used simultaneously for every voxel (volumetric pixel) within the object. This means that the code has to behave differently for every (x,y,z) position within 3D space. Like a type press, the shader is passed a position in space and returns the percentages of one or more materials. When compiled and run in parallel (one shader per point in 3D space), it will be incredibly fast... nearly instantaneous.

If the GPU does not have enough capacity to assign one shader per point in 3D space, the design can be diced up into cubes or slices and then reassembled, or more GPUs could be employed to cover the full 3D object at the resolution desired.

Alternatively, depending on the style of 3D printer, the IRMF shader could be processed within the 3D printer itself and no slicing step would be needed at all! Light-based 3D printers are exceptionally well suited to this paradigm. As the 3D printer is ready to create material, it simply asks the IRMF shader what percentage of materials belong at each location, and generates the materials without the need for slicing at all. The 3D printer could simply accept the extremely compact IRMF file itself as input, then generate the 3D object at any resolution the printer supports. In fact, one option on the 3D printer might be “How fast do you want this part? It can be made with 1μm resolution in 1 minute and 1nm resolution in 10 minutes.” The exact same IRMF file describes the model with infinite resolution and does not need to be changed in this scenario.

The JSON blob is used to describe the physical dimensions (the minimum bounding box) of the object, how many materials it uses, and other parameters used by the shader. The shader portion itself is a standard GLSL ES shader.

Do IRMF shaders really have infinite resolution?

Well, yes and no. They are currently limited by the resolution of a GPU's float representation. However, the IRMF shader itself is pure math and does not limit the resolution of the model, so IRMF is truly an appropriate term for the shaders as they are not the limiting factor.

When GPUs have higher resolution in their numeric representations, no major changes will be needed to update the IRMF shaders... most likely it will involve a simple name change from float to the new keyword.

What? 3D printers with GPUs? Are you crazy?

Why not? Check out this beauty:

Inspiration is an amazing collection of GLSL ES shaders written by a lot of amazing, creative people. From there, I found this incredible website: The Book of Shaders which teaches shader writing from the ground up.

Additionally, I came across a similar use of JSON and GLSL ES called ISF but used for video.

What is the difference between GLSL ES and IRMF?

GLSL ES is the OpenGL Shading Language developed by the Khronos Group. GLSL ES files are compiled into shaders that can be run in parallel on GPU cards.

IRMF is designed to be a standard for working with GLSL ES in such a way that 3D printers can manufacture objects at any resolution possible. IRMF files consist of a JSON blob followed by a GLSL ES shader.

How are IRMF shaders different from signed distance functions (SDFs)?

IRMF shaders are much easier to write than SDFs. In fact, one could write genetic programs to generate IRMF shaders.

Back in 2018, I was fed up with STL models and CAD tools that couldn't handle non-trivial booleans (think bifilar coils) so I came across the idea of voxels and wrote some tools to make it easier to manipulate voxel designs and perform complex boolean operations that otherwise cause the other popular CAD tools (I tried most of them) to choke.

Then I came to the realization that voxels, although they solved the boolean operation problems, did not address the problem of generating smooth curves and surfaces because voxels are inherently limited by the resolution of the image slices.

Finally, I came across SDFs and thought that I had found the modeling tool that would solve all the boolean and smooth surface problems for good. But then I contributed my first primitive, a spiral, and found it incredibly difficult to get it right.

In a 2D or 3D SDF, you must specify the signed distance from any point in 2D or 3D space (respectively) to the nearest edge of your primitive (negative is inside the object, zero is on the edge, and positive is outside the object). Imagine implementing this for a spiral. It is a royal pain in the rear. The math was not fun.

An IRMF shader, on the other hand, is given a single point in 3D space and all that is needed is for the shader to report what material(s) exist at that one point in space, and not how far it is to some other material. For the spiral case, you only need to determine if the point is inside the spiral or outside it, not how far the point is to the edge.

This makes IRMF shaders orders of magnitude easier to write than SDFs. IRMF shaders make boolean operations a breeze: zero times anything is zero; one times anything is that thing. Booleans solved. Likewise, IRMF shaders can represent curved surfaces as fine as the GPU can resolve... which is mighty fine.

I'm very excited about the future of IRMF shaders, and envision a day when the Star Trek replicator will be a household device. “Hey replicator, print me a widget.” “OK, your widget is ready.”

How do I use IRMF?

An IRMF shader editor is in the works. See the examples below for models that display in the IRMF editor.

I'm also working on an IRMF slicer that will provide a bridge from IRMF shaders to 3D printers that can accept STL or voxel image slices as input, until the time when all 3D printers natively support *.irmf files as an alternative input format to *.gcode files.

Eventually, firmware for 3D printers will be written that natively read, parse, and process IRMF files to generate physical objects with one or more materials... thereby mostly eliminating the need for STL files, software slicers, and G-Code files. It turns out that not everything is easy to model in IRMF, and there may always be a need for mesh models (preferably spline-based), which will hopefully be shared using more modern formats such as 3MF.

OpenSCAD export to IRMF

OpenSCAD has the ability to export its designs in a lossless format called CSG (constructive solid geometry).

I've written a converter that reads .csg files and writes .irmf files called csg2irmf that is available to use.

Who created IRMF?

The IRMF specification, editor, and slicer were created and are maintained by Glenn M. Lewis.

Issues can be raised on the GitHub issues page for the IRMF specification (or editor or slicer).

What is the status of IRMF?

Currently, IRMF is just an idea that needs fully fleshing out.

Please see the IRMF Spec and provided examples for more information.


Note that as of July 14, 2022, all examples have been moved to a separate repo.




























Note that to reduce the size of this repo, STL files are no longer generally retained except for exceptional cases. 😄


Copyright 2019 Glenn M. Lewis. All Rights Reserved.

Licensed under the Apache License, Version 2.0 (the "License"); you may not use this file except in compliance with the License. You may obtain a copy of the License at

Unless required by applicable law or agreed to in writing, software distributed under the License is distributed on an "AS IS" BASIS, WITHOUT WARRANTIES OR CONDITIONS OF ANY KIND, either express or implied. See the License for the specific language governing permissions and limitations under the License.


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