To translate a vector by 10 unit in the X direction, why do we have to use a matrix?

enter image description here

We can just add 10 to the mat[0][0], and we got the same result too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There seem to be two different questions here: (1) why are they 4x4 instead of 3x3? and (2) why are there matrices at all? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 10:57

6 Answers 6


Yes, you can add a vector in the case of translation. The reason to use a matrix boils down to having a uniform way to handle different combined transformations.

For example, rotation is usually done using a matrix (check @MickLH comment for other ways to deal with rotations), so in order to deal with multiple transformations (rotation/translation/scaling/projection...etc) in a uniform way, you need to encode them in a matrix.

Well, more technically speaking; a transformation is mapping a point/vector to another point/vector.

p` = T(p); 

where p` is the transformed point and T(p) is the transformation function.

Given that we don't use a matrix we need to do this to combine multiple transformations:

p1= T(p);

pfinal = M(p1);

Not only can a matrix combine multiple types of transformations into a single matrix (e.g. affine, linear, projective).

Using a matrix gives us the opportunity to combine chains of transformations and then batch multiply them. This saves us a ton of cycles usually by the GPU (thanks to @ChristianRau for pointing it out).

Tfinal = T * R * P; // translaterotateproject

pfinal = Tfinal*p;

It's also good to point out that GPUs and even some CPUs are optimized for vector operations; CPUs using SIMD and GPUs being data driven parallel processors by design, so using matrices fits perfectly with hardware acceleration (actually, GPUs were designed to fit matrix/vector operations).

  • \$\begingroup\$ yes, i know that matrix is useful for rotation. but every tutorial guide me using matrix to do such simple calculation :D \$\endgroup\$
    – ngoaho91
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 10:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Saying rotation can "only" be done with a matrix is incorrect, off the top of my head Quaternions and Trigonometry would work just fine also \$\endgroup\$
    – MickLH
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ And even more than that, once you have rotation and translation both as 4x4 matrices, you can just multiply them and have the combined transformation in one single matrix without the need to transform every vertex by a thousands of different transformations using different constructs. The fact that a 4x4 matrix is overkill for a single translation or a single rotation is outweight by the fact that you usually don't just transform a vertex by single translation or a single rotation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @concept3d Yeah, I know, the answer is good. Yet the even bigger advantage gained from the uniform way of using a matrix is not only uniformity, but representation of an entire chain of transformations in a single operation. While that might have been implied, I found it unclear and important enough to mention it explicitly. But the answer was still good anyway, it wasn't a critique. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 17:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, trig calculates the rotational matrix, but vector math actually "rotates" the points using the trig-infused dataset. When I said trigonometry, I was implying using it directly, not through a matrix, to generate some simple things. \$\endgroup\$
    – MickLH
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 0:15

3x3 matrices cannot represent 3D translations, but 4x4 matrices can

A simple argument why 3D translations are not possible with 3x3 matrices is that translation can take the origin vector:


away from the origin, say to x = 1:


But that would require a matrix such that:

| a b c |   |0|   |1|
| d e f | * |0| = |0|
| g h i |   |0|   |0|

But that is impossible.

A "more overkill"/"more elegant" argument is the singular Value Decomposition theorem, which says that every matrix can be made up with two rotations and one scaling operation:

  • rotate to align with eignevectors
  • scale with the eigenvectors
  • rotate to the final desired position

No translations there.

Why is it possible to use matrices to represent rotations?

Many modeled objects (e.g. a car chassis) or part of modeled objects (e.g. a car tire, a driving wheel) are solids: the distances between vertexes never change.

The only transformations we want to do to on them are rotations and translations.

Matrix multiplication can encode both rotations (NxN matrix) and translations (we need one extra dimension).

Rotation matrices have explicit formulas, e.g.: a 2D rotation matrix for angle a is of form:

cos(a) -sin(a)
sin(a)  cos(a)

There are analogous formulas for 3D, but note that 3D rotations take 3 parameters instead of just 1.

Translations are less trivial and will be discussed later. They are the reason we need 4D matrices.

As a cultural fact, the set of all rotation matrices in a dimension is called the special orthogonal group (SO(n)), which is also a Lie group, and has fundamental applications in particle physics.

Why is it nice to use matrices at all?

Because the composition of multiple matrices can be pre-calculated by matrix multiplication.

E.g., if we are going to translate one thousand vectors v of our car chassis with matrix T and then rotate with matrix R, instead of doing:

v2 = T * v

and then:

v3 = R * v2

for each vector, we can pre-calculate:

RT = R * T

and then do just one multiplication for every vertex:

v3 = RT * v

Even better: if we then want place the vertexes of tire and driving wheel relative to the car, we just multiply the previous matrix RT by the matrix relative to the car itself.

This naturally leads to maintaining a stack of matrices:

  • calculate chassis matrix
  • multiply by tire matrix (push)
  • remove tire matrix (pop)
  • multiply by driving wheel matrix (push)
  • ...

This stack was explicitly present in the older deprecated immediate mode OpenGL APIs such as glPushMatrix, but with the advent of shaders this responsibility was passed more directly to the shader authors.

How adding one dimension solves the problem

Let's consider the case from 1D to 2D which is easier to visualize.

A matrix in 1D is just one number, and as we've seen in 3D it can't do a translation, only a scaling.

But if we add the extra dimension as we get:

| 1 dx | * |x|  = | x + dx * y |
| 0  1 |   |y|    | y          |

Now, since we added this extra dimension ourselves, we are free to choose a fixed value for y that suites our needs, so we choose y == 1 to get:

| x + dx |
| 1      |

And finally, if we forget about this new extra dimension, we get:

x + dx

as we wanted.

This 2D transformation is so important that it has a name: shear transformation.

It is cool to visualize this transformation:

Image source.

Note how every horizontal line (fixed y) is just translated (larger y being translated more).

We just happened to take the line y = 1 as our new 1D line, and translate it with a 2D matrix.

Things are analogous in 3D, with 4D shear matrices of the form:

| 1 0 0 dx |   | x |   | x + dx |
| 0 1 0 dy | * | y | = | y + dy |
| 0 0 1 dz |   | z |   | z + dz |
| 0 0 0  1 |   | 1 |   |      1 |

And our old 3D rotations / scaling are now of form:

| a b c 0 |
| d e f 0 |
| g h i 0 |
| 0 0 0 1 |

This Jamie King video tutorial is also worth watching.

Affine space

Affine space is the space generated by all our 3D linear transformations (matrix multiplications) together with the 4D shear (3D translations).

If we multiply a shear matrix and a 3D linear transformation, we always get something of the form:

| a b c dx |
| d e f dy |
| g h i dz |
| 0 0 0  1 |

This is the most general possible affine transformation, which does 3D rotation / scaling and translation.

One important property is that if we multiply 2 affine matrices:

| a b c dx |   | a2 b2 c2 dx2 |
| d e f dy | * | d2 e2 f2 dy2 |
| g h i dz |   | g2 h2 i2 dz2 |
| 0 0 0  1 |   |  0  0  0   1 |

we always get another affine matrix of form:

| a3 b3 c3 (dx + dx2) |
| d3 e3 f3 (dy + dy2) |
| g3 h3 i3 (dz + dz2) |
|  0  0  0          1 |

Mathematicians call this property closure, and is required to define a space.

For us, it means that we can keep doing matrix multiplications to pre-calculate final transformations happily, which is why use used matrices in the first place, without ever getting more general 4D linear transformations which are not affine.

Frustum projection

But wait, there is one more important transformation that we do all the time: glFrustum, which makes an object 2x further, appear 2x smaller.

First get some intuition about glOrtho vs glFrustum at: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/2571402/explain-the-usage-of-glortho/36046924#36046924

As a quick reminder, a projection is the act of taking 3D points and plotting them on the 2D camera plane, possibly taking into account perspective if we want to be realistic. This is the key step to translate between the 3D world of vertex shaders and the 2D world of fragment shaders: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/17789575/what-are-shaders-in-opengl-and-what-do-we-need-them-for/36211337#36211337

glOrtho can be done just with translations + scaling , but how can we implement glFrustum with matrices?

Suppose that:

  • our eye is at the origin, looking at -z
  • the screen (near plane) is at z = -1 that is a square of length 2
  • the far plane of the frustum is at z = -2

If only we allowed more general 4-vectors of type:

(x, y, z, w)

with w != 0, and in addition we identify every (x, y, z, w) with (x/w, y/w, z/w, 1), then a frustum transformation with the matrix would be:

| 1 0  0 0 |   | x |   |  x |               | x / -z |
| 0 1  0 0 | * | y | = |  y | identified to | y / -z |
| 0 0  1 0 |   | z |   |  z |               |     -1 |
| 0 0 -1 0 |   | w |   | -z |               |      1 |

If we throw away:

  • z because projection means to take a 3D point and place it in a 2D plane
  • w because it is just a mathematical calculation artifact we invented

we get:

  • x_proj = x / -z
  • y_proj = y / -z

which is exactly what we wanted! We can verify that for some values, e.g.:

  • if z == -1, exactly on the plane we're projecting to, x_proj == x and y_proj == y.
  • if z == -2, then x_proj = x/2: objects are half size.

Note how the glFrustum transform is not of affine form: it cannot be implemented just with rotations and translations.

The mathematical "trickery" of adding the w and dividing by it is called homogeneous coordinates

enter image description here

Image source.


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    \$\begingroup\$ @Downvoters, please explain so I can learn and improve. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 14:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Personally I think this is just long and rambling, the part that addresses the original question isn't anything new (that isn't well covered by other answers) and the rest of it is irrelevant, making it really hard to wade through. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1430
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 16:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I appreciated the attention to detail. To address the previous user's concern, the answer should be rearranged to start at "Translations cannot be represented by 3D matrices". This answers the immediate question posed and the OP can continue on to the further well written and enthusiastic details provided; those finer details being what I'm interested in here so I may be biased, but this is certainly not "rambling". \$\endgroup\$
    – dskinner
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 17:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ As someone who wanted to understand what is really going on when transforming a point using a 4x4 matrix, this is the best explanation I've read so far. Not sure if it exactly targets the original question, but you get my upvote, sir. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 10:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ hey thanks for this answer. I found it very helpful, especially the walk thru from a 1d perspective! writing out the math really helped me grasp why it works mathematically... still kinda blows my mind haha maybe just ignore user1430 \$\endgroup\$
    – ELI7VH
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 18:33

To succinctly answer the "why" question, it's because a 4x4 matrix can describe rotation, translation, and scaling operations all at once. Being able to describe any of these in a consistent manner simplifies a lot of things.

Different kinds of transformations can be more simply represented with a different mathematical operations. As you note, translation can be done just by adding. Uniform scaling by multiplying by a scalar. But an appropriately crafted 4x4 matrix can do anything. So using 4x4's consistently makes code and interfaces much simpler. You pay some complexity in understanding these 4x4's, but then lots of things get easier and faster because of it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This should have been the selected answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Engineer
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ A 4x4 can also concatenate projection to the transforms, so you can do the entire MVP in a single matrix - try doing that with a quaternion! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 12:55

If all you are ever going to do is move along a single axis and never apply any other transformation then what you are suggesting is fine.

The real power of using a matrix is that you can easily concatenate a series of complex operations together, and apply the same series of operations to multiple objects.

Most cases aren't that simple and if you rotate you object first, and want to transform along its local axes instead of the world axes you'll find you can't simply add 10 to one of the numbers and have it work out correctly.


the reason to use a 4x4 matrix is so that the operation is a linear transformation. this is an example of homogeneous coordinates. The same thing is done in the 2d case (using a 3x3 matrix). The reason for using homogeneous coordinates is so that all 3 geometric tansformations can be done using one operation; otherwise one would need to do a 3x3 matrix multiply and a 3x3 matrix addition (for the translation). this link from cegprakash is useful.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You should elaborate. A succinct explanation is better than only linking to wikipedia. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 2, 2014 at 12:04

See this video to understand the concepts of model, view and projection.

4x4 matrices are not just used for translating a 3D object. But also for various other purposes.

See this to understand how the vertices in the world are represented as 4D Matrices and how they are transformed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't actually answer the OP question. \$\endgroup\$
    – concept3d
    Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 7:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Edited. Sounds good? \$\endgroup\$
    – cegprakash
    Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 7:43

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