There are two major modes of terrain rendering: top-down and perspective rendering. Top-down terrain rendering has been known for centuries in the way of cartographic maps. Perspective terrain rendering has also been known for quite some time. However, only with the advent of computers and computer graphics perspective rendering has become mainstream.
Perspective terrain rendering is described in this article.
A typical terrain rendering application consists of a terrain database, a central processing unit (CPU), a dedicated graphics processing unit (GPU), and a display. A software application is configured to start at initial location in the world space. The output of the application is screen space representation of the real world on a display. The software application uses the CPU to identify and load terrain data corresponding to initial location from the terrain database, then applies the required transformations to build a mesh of points that can be rendered by the GPU, which completes geometrical transformations, creating screen space objects (such as polygons) that create a picture closely resembling the location of the real world.
There are a number of ways to texture the terrain surface. Some applications benefit from using artificial textures, such as elevation coloring, checkerboard, or other generic textures. Some applications attempt to recreate the real-world surface to the best possible representation using aerial photography and satellite imagery.
There are a great variety of methods to generate terrain surfaces. The main problem solved by all these methods is managing number of processed and rendered polygons. It is possible to create a very detailed picture of the world using billions of data points. However such applications are limited to static pictures. Most uses of terrain rendering are moving images, which require the software application to make decisions on how to simplify (by discarding or approximating) source terrain data. Virtually all terrain rendering applications use level of detail to manage number of data points processed by CPU and GPU. There are several modern algorithms for terrain surfaces generating.
One important application of terrain rendering is in synthetic vision systems. Pilots flying aircraft benefit greatly from the ability to see terrain surface at all times regardless of conditions outside the aircraft.