In all the explanations I've seen of gimbal lock, they always refer to the fact that when performing a series of rotations on all axes, it is possible that one rotation might end up aligning an axis with another which causes us to lose a degree of freedom. This never made sense to me since a rotation around e.g. the LOCAL_RIGHT axis will rotation the whole LOCAL_BASIS, no alignment happens. The only explanation I've seen that made sense was this one by DMGregory where it clearly explains that gimbal lock occurs when we e.g. change the yaw using the local basis and the pitch using a world basis.

My question is: Is that the only scenario where gimbal lock occurs or am I missing something? I also thought that quaternions help avoid gimbal lock but again, I'm missing something here because it seems to occur regardless of the rotation representation method (euler/quaternion).


1 Answer 1


Gimbal lock occurs when your internal structure for storing/composing rotations uses a gimbal model:

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Image via Wikipedia, attributed: "By Lookang many thanks to Fu-Kwun Hwang and author of Easy Java Simulation = Francisco Esquembre - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0"

That is, when you construct your orientation as a sequence of component rotations with their own persistent angle, composed together.

When you do that, the resulting axis that a component rotates around depends on where it sits in the composition sandwich, and how the other components are twisting its local frame of reference.

Your rotations don't need to be "global" or "local" per se, but rather "composed" where you track and update a persistent value for two or more separate rotations - in any coordinate space at all - then combine them together. The value of the outer one changes the effect of the inner one.

When you use Euler angles / Tait-Bryan angles, the gimbal model is almost automatic. It's built right into the coordinate conventions you're using.

For example, in Unity, a rotation formed with angles (pitch, yaw, roll) is equivalent to the following three-step composition:

Quaternion rotation = Quaternion.AngleAxis(yaw, Vector3.up)        // Outer gimbal.
                    * Quaternion.AngleAxis(pitch, Vector3.right)   // Middle gimbal.
                    * Quaternion.AngleAxis(roll, Vector3.forward); // Inner gimbal.

So if pitch is +- 90, then the inner gimbal's axis (local z) is turned until it's parallel to the outer gimbal's axis (parent y), and you have gimbal lock.

The angle triplet presentation misleads us into thinking these three angles are independent, like the three components of a translation vector. But they aren't truly. So if we store our rotation as 3 angles and add/subtract increments from them, they can eventually wander into a gimbal configuration where those increments do something very different than we intuitively expect!

Note that the gimbal lock is still there, even though we rephrased the multiplication in terms of quaternions. So that's the sense in which "quaternions don't avoid gimbal lock": they don't retroactively erase gimbals that you already baked into your model for how your application stores/updates its rotations.

But there is a sense in which quaternions do help avoid gimbal lock. That is: they don't make us construct our rotations from stacked yaw pitch and roll components, the way that Euler/Tait-Bryan angle approaches lure us into.

Instead of storing three persistent angles and adding to them separately (gimbals), we can store one persistent orientation and update it all at once.

Quaternion newWorldOrientation = oldWorldOrientation * localIncrement;

Now we're not relying on three separate angle variables (gimbals) tracking a persistent state. Our state is represented by a single quaternion, which treats all rotations uniformly - it is "gimbal-free".

Note that here, we sill have a combination of local and world rotations, but without creating gimbal lock.

We can do the same thing with Euler angles even - it's just a bit more convoluted:

// Encode the angles into a form that we can compose "gimbal-free".
oldRotationMatrix = MatrixFromEuler(currentEulerAngles);

// Do the composition as a whole, rather than one sequenced step per gimbal.
newRotationMatrix = oldRotationMatrix * localIncrementMatrix;

// Decode back to a (potentially *very* different) angle triplet.
currentEulerAngles = newRotationMatrix.eulerAngles;    

We can even use angles to compute our local increment:

localIncrement = Quaternion.Euler( Input.GetAxis("Vertical") * -rotationSpeed * Time.deltaTime,
                                   Input.GetAxis("Horizontal") * rotationSpeed * Time.deltaTime,

Just note that here again, we're not storing a persistent yaw and adding/subtracting an increment to it each frame. Instead, we're composing-together just our incremental angle changes (which is reasonably safe since the increment on any single frame will be close to zero), then applying that change as a whole to our persistent rotation state - not composing it one gimbal at a time.

  • \$\begingroup\$ so you're saying that whenever we construct a rotation from a sequence of pitch, yaw, roll we always end up with a gimbal type of system? Or is it that Unity for example and all these engines have gimbal like implementations. My understanding was that if a rotation is always applied in the local frame, then the frame itself rotates which means the axes always remain orhogonal thus no gimbal alignments \$\endgroup\$
    – PentaKon
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 16:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ If what you store from frame to frame is "I have this much yaw and this much pitch and this much roll" and you update those by saying "I'll increase my pitch in isolation" - then you have gimbals. You're pretending these are three independent variables when really they influence each other. It is not unique to any particular engine. If you apply a rotation to a local frame all at once, not by layering multiple rotations about their own axes (gimbals) in sequence, then you can avoid the problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 16:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ But in the coffwe cup example you give in your other answer (the one with the animations) there are no gimbal issues when rotating it 90 degrees around x and y. The whole basis gets rotated after each individual rotation \$\endgroup\$
    – PentaKon
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 17:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right, because that example was NOT tracking a total angle around x and a total angle around y, incrementing them individually, and then composing the totals to make a result. It's not using a gimbal model, so it does not experience gimbal lock. Each of those motions the coffee cup goes through are applied as local increments as I show in the latter part of the answer above, to an orientation that is stored as a quaternion, not as three angle totals I'm incrementing independently. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 17:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, so if I understand it properly, it is possible to not use a gimbal model but that's not really the case in 3D programming right? We use Euler angles with intrinsic rotations \$\endgroup\$
    – PentaKon
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 17:21

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