An isosurface is a three-dimensional analog of an isoline. It is a surface that represents points of a constant value (e.g. pressure, temperature, velocity, density) within a volume of space; in other words, it is a level set of a continuous function whose domain is 3D-space.
Isosurfaces are normally displayed using computer graphics, and are used as data visualization methods in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), allowing engineers to study features of a fluid flow (gas or liquid) around objects, such as aircraft wings. An isosurface may represent an individual shock wave in supersonic flight, or several isosurfaces may be generated showing a sequence of pressure values in the air flowing around a wing. Isosurfaces tend to be a popular form of visualization for volume datasets since they can be rendered by a simple polygonal model, which can be drawn on the screen very quickly.
The marching cubes algorithm was first published in the 1987 SIGGRAPH proceedings by Lorensen and Cline, and it creates a surface by intersecting the edges of a data volume grid with the volume contour. Where the surface intersects the edge the algorithm creates a vertex. By using a table of different triangles depending on different patterns of edge intersections the algorithm can create a surface. This algorithm has solutions for implementation both on the CPU and on the GPU.
The Surface Nets algorithm places an intersecting vertex in the middle of a volume voxel instead of at the edges, leading to a smoother output surface.
The dual contouring algorithm was first published in the 2002 SIGGRAPH proceedings by Ju and Losasso, developed as an extension to both surface nets and marching cubes. It retains a dual vertex within the voxel but no longer at the center. Dual contouring leverages the position and normal of where the surface crosses the edges of a voxel to interpolate the position of the dual vertex within the voxel. This has the benefit of retaining sharp or smooth surfaces where surface nets often look blocky or incorrectly beveled. Dual contouring often uses surface generation that leverages octrees as an optimization to adapt the number of triangles in output to the complexity of the surface.
- William E. Lorensen, Harvey E. Cline: Marching Cubes: A high resolution 3D surface construction algorithm. In: Computer Graphics, Vol. 21, Nr. 4, July 1987
- Tao Ju, Frank Losasso, Scott Schaefer, Joe Warren: Dual Contouring of Hermite Data. In: ACM Transactions on Graphics, Volume 21 Issue 3, July 2002