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UE3 Home > Unreal Development Kit Gems > Sobel Edge Detection Post Process Effect
UE3 Home > Post Process Effects > Sobel Edge Detection Post Process Effect

Sobel Edge Detection Post Process Effect

Last tested against UDK Mar, 2011
PC compatible


Sobel edge detection works by calculating the gradient of the image intensity at each pixel. The end result is that it produces a value which correlates to how abruptly the image changes at each pixel. Doing this on the scene depth will allow us to detect edges easily. This document will not go into too much detail explaining the sobel operator. More information can be found here. The simplest reason why you would use this post process effect is to draw edge lines as it is part of toon rendering. Another reason is to perform a blur filter on edges to remove some of the aliasing produced by polygons.

Material Shader

The material shader is built up of several discrete steps.

Calculating the offset

As each pixel needs to sample eight surrounding pixels, it needs to offset the UV look up when sampling the scene depth. Because the screen coordinates are aligned from zero to one and not zero to resolution width / height, the shader needs to calculate the relative pixel step. By adjusting the offset step, it is possible to control the final edge size. To have the best results ResolutionX and ResolutionY should be set to the current resolution.


Using the offset

After calculating the sample steps, it needs to be used. To do this a Vector2 is created by using the Append material node. The resultant Vector2 is then added to the relative screen position. The resultant relative screen position is clamped between 0.f and 1.f. This is to prevent depth look up leaking due to the wrapping. There is no need to normalize the scene depth as it is useful to have the entire range of values. This is done for all of the possible combinations, which are:

  • UV02 (X = +offset, Y = -offset)
  • UV12 (X = +offset, Y = 0)
  • UV22 (X = +offset, Y = +offset)
  • UV01 (X = 0, Y = -offset)
  • UV21 (X = 0, Y = +offset)
  • UV00 (X = -offset, Y = -offset)
  • UV10 (X = -offset, Y = 0)
  • UV20 (X = -offset, Y = +offset)


Calculating the X value

The formula to calculate the x value is, 0 - UV00 - (UV01 * 2) - UV02 + UV20 + (UV21 * 2) + UV22.


Calculating the Y value

The formula to calculate the y value is, 0 - UV00 + UV02 - (UV10 * 2) + (UV12 * 2) - UV20 + UV22.


Calculating the distance squared

The formula to calculate the distance squared is (X * X) + (Y * Y). The distance squared value can then be used to detect edges.


Comparing the distance squared value

From here a comparision between the distance and a scalar parameter is done. When an abrupt change in the scene depth occurs, the distance squared value will be larger. Thus, a simple comparision is used to detect where an edge is and where it isn't.


Contrast pass

Using the contrast helps to increase the upper end of the values while decreasing the lower end. This can be helpful when you are needing to improve the 'sharpness' of the edge detection. This is help for slopes which have a slow differentiating depth value.


Minimum intensity pass

Even after the contrast pass, you will still get gradients. To remove the gradients, pixel values above a certain value are set to one while everything else is set to zero. This removes all the gradients, but may produce other kinds of artifacts such as aliasing or large areas of black.


Depth exclusion pass

Up to now, this shader can produce artifacts on sky domes or objects that are very far away. Also given that you know that edges would never occur within the sky dome, it is faster to just skip these pixels.


Composite pass

After all of the passes, a gray scale texel is produced. Simply multiply this with the scene texture will add the edges.



Click to view the shader in full.


Here's a screenshot of a level being rendered with the sobel edge post process effect.


Tweaking the post process effect

Disabling the composite pass

Disabling the composite pass skips the step where the shader multiplies the results of the sobel edge detection with the scene sample texture node. This may be desirable for non photo realistic rendering.


Disabling the minimum intensity pass

Disabling the minimum intensity pass skips the step where the shader removes pixel values below a input value. This may be desirable in non photo realistic rendering where you want to add more depth to the scene.


Disabling the contrast pass

Disabling the contrast pass skips the step where the shader exponentially adjusts the pixel values. This may be desirable when you want to use the raw values, instead of pushing values out from the mid point.


Disabling the depth exclusion pass

Disabling the depth exclusion pass skips the step where the shader skips past pixels where their depth value is larger than a input value. Normally you would want to have this pass so that sky domes do not produce artifacts.


Adjusting the depth exclusion distance

Adjusting this value allows you skip pixels where their depth value is larger than the input value. Setting this value too low will cause the shader to skip past too many pixels, but setting this value too high may produce artifacts in other places. You will need to find the right value that best suits your scene or game art style.


Adjusting the contrast strength

Adjusting this value allows you push pixel values outwards from the mid point which is usually 0.5f. Thus if a value is closer towards 0.f, the value will be pushed in this direction where as if a value is closer towards 1.f, it will be pushed in that direction.


Adjusting the minimum intensity

Adjusting this value allows you to include or exclude pixel values that are below this input value. Thus if you wish to have crisper lines, set the minimum intensity to a smaller value, but if you wish to have darker patches; increase the value.


Adjusting the ambient brightness and darkness

Adjusting these values allows you tighten or relax the overall brightness/darkness of the scene.



Adjusting the sobel pixel offset

Adjusting this value allows you to sample pixels further away from the current pixel coordinate. This leads to thicker or thinner edges effectively.


How to use

This is material is to be used within the MaterialEffect node within the Post Process Chain. For more information on how to use materials as a post process effect, see Post Process Materials.

Related Topics


Through the use of the Material Editor you can create some very different rendering styles for your game.


  • Download the content used for this gem. (SobelEdgeContent.zip)