Higher-Order Fun

Game Design & Game Programming

Math for game programmers 03 – Geometrical representation of vectors

In the previous post, we introduced vectors, and showed some very elementary uses for them. We presented them as a simple and convenient way to pack a number (3, in our case) of scalar values into a single object. Now, we’ll consider their geometrical representation, which will help you grasp them more intuitively. For simplification’s sake, we’ll use two-dimensional vectors for all our examples, but the same extends to 3D vectors.


First, consider two points, A and B. A is located at (1, 2), and B is located at (4, 3) (If you are unfamiliar with the cartesian plane, points are represented as coordinate pairs in the form (x,y), so (1, 2) means that A is at x=1 and y=2), as shown in the following picture:

vectors_fig1As we’ve mentioned in the previous post, positions in space can be represented as vectors. So we would have a vector A and a vector B, each representing one of the points in the figure. But points are not the SAME as vectors! A vector should always be thought of as a “delta”, it’s merely an increment. Without a reference, it’s meaningless as a position. For points, we adopt the point (0,0) as our origin (represented by the letter O), so all points can be represented as a vector from the origin. Drawing our vectors as arrows, we get this:

vectors_fig2Consider it for a moment. If we have O=(0,0), and we add a vector A=(1,2) to it, you’ll get the point (0+1, 0+2) = (1,2), which is exactly our original point A. However, vector A by itself is merely an increment of 1 in x and an increment of 2 in y… As such, we could also represent it as:

vectors_fig4This might all sound confusing, but don’t worry, it’ll eventually “click” into place! If you don’t fully understand the concept now, don’t worry about it.

Addition and Subtraction

What if you took vector B and subtracted A from it? From our previous lesson, we know that B – A is simply (B.x – A.x, B.y – A.y), so, given that B = (4, 3) and A = (1, 2), B-A = (3, 1). Let’s call that vector “C”. If we do A + C, we should naturally get B back: (1, 2) + (3, 1) = (4, 3). If you remember that we said that vectors are merely offsets, then this means that we can represent C as the vector that takes “A” and turns it into “B”, as in the following picture:

vectors_fig3If you look to the axes, you’ll see that vector C (the orange vector) spans x from 1 to 4, meaning that its x component is 3 (4-1), and y from 2 to 3, meaning that its y component is 1 (3-2).

Length and Distances

The geometrical representation of vectors leads to a very intuitive way to understand one of their most important operations, length. The length of a vector (or magnitude) is simply its geometrical length! Take vector B, for example. It has a x component of 4, and a y component of 3. How can we get its length? The pythagorean theorem solves that for us: we simply take the square root of the sum of its squared components. For a 2D vector, length = sqrt(x²+y²). For a 3D vector, length = sqrt(x²+y²+z²), and so forth.

For example, the length of vector B is sqrt(3²+4²) = sqrt(25) = 5.

One immediate use for the length operation is to find distances. Say that you want to find the distance between points A and B. You subtract one from the other (order doesn’t matter), and take its length. In C++, that would look as simple as:

float distance = (a-b).length();

The reason why the order of the subtraction doesn’t matter is that (A-B) results in the opposite vector of (B-A), that is, a vector with the same length, but opposite direction. A-B results in (-3,-1), and B-A in (3,1). Both have a length of sqrt(10).

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