3D computer graphics (in contrast to 2D computer graphics) are graphics that use a three-dimensional representation of geometric data (often Cartesian) that is stored in the computer for the purposes of performing calculations and rendering 2D images. Such images may be stored for viewing later or displayed in real-time.
Despite these differences, 3D computer graphics rely on many of the same algorithms as 2D computer vector graphics in the wire-frame model and 2D computer raster graphics in the final rendered display. In computer graphics software, the distinction between 2D and 3D is occasionally blurred; 2D applications may use 3D techniques to achieve effects such as lighting, and 3D may use 2D rendering techniques.
3D computer graphics are often referred to as 3D models. Apart from the rendered graphic, the model is contained within the graphical data file. However, there are differences. A 3D model is the mathematical representation of any three-dimensional object. A model is not technically a graphic until it is displayed. Due to 3D printing, 3D models are not confined to virtual space. A model can be displayed visually as a two-dimensional image through a process called 3D rendering, or used in non-graphical computer simulations and calculations.
William Fetter was credited with coining the term computer graphics in 1961 to describe his work at Boeing. One of the first displays of computer animation was Futureworld (1976), which included an animation of a human face and hand—produced by Ed Catmull and Fred Parke at the University of Utah.
Before objects are rendered, they must be placed (laid out) within a scene. This is what defines the spatial relationships between objects in a scene including location and size. Animation refers to the temporal description of an object, i.e., how it moves and deforms over time. Popular methods include keyframing, inverse kinematics, and motion capture, though many of these techniques are used in conjunction with each other. As with modeling, physical simulation is another way of specifying motion.