Precision Matters

28 Feb 2010 13:26
Last Modified
13 Jan 2013 17:46

The Vector3 struct uses 32-bit floating-point values. On a solar-system scale, this does not have sufficient precision to accurately position objects such as the far outer planets.

A single-precision (32-bit) floating-point value stores 7 decimal digits of precision. Neptune, for example, has an approximate distance from the sun of 4.5x109km. Expressed with 7 significant figures, this has an error of approximately 500km (one half of the value of the last significant place). For Pluto (although no longer classified by the IAU as a planet), at a distance of approximately 5.9x109km, 500km is approximately one quarter of its diameter! Clearly single-precision floating point numbers are not sufficient to store these positions to the required level of accuracy.

One option is to use double-precision (64-bit) values, which store 15 decimal digits of precision. Most modern GPUs remain incapable of performing double-precision arithmetic, however this level of precision is only required to calculate the position of the object relative to the camera. This can be done on the CPU, after which point single-precision calculations are just fine, as shown below in Figures 1-3.


Figure 1. Uranus and moon orbits


Figure 2. Neptune and moon orbits


Figure 3. Pluto and moon orbits

An example struct for dealing with double-precision vectors is as follows:

public struct Vector3Double
    double _x, _y, _z;

    public double X { get { return _x; } set { _x = value; } }
    public double Y { get { return _y; } set { _y = value; } }
    public double Z { get { return _z; } set { _z = value; } }

    public Vector3Double(double x, double y, double z)
        _x = x;
        _y = y;
        _z = z;

Using operator overloading it is possible to work with Vector3Double the same way as Vector3, for example:

public static Vector3Double operator -(Vector3Double vector1, Vector3Double vector2)
    return new Vector3Double(
        vector1._x - vector2._x,
        vector1._y - vector2._y,
        vector1._z - vector2._z);

Conversions, for example to and from Vector3 can also be easily supported, for example:

public static implicit operator Vector3(Vector3Double vector)
    return new Vector3(

Note that while double-precision solves the problem to the levels of accuracy described here, a better long-term option will be to use fixed-precision types such as 64-bit integers.

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