In vector computer graphics, CAD systems, and geographic information systems, geometric primitive (or prim) is the simplest (i.e. 'atomic' or irreducible) geometric shape that the system can handle (draw, store). Sometimes the subroutines that draw the corresponding objects are called "geometric primitives" as well. The most "primitive" primitives are point and straight line segment, which were all that early vector graphics systems had.
Modern 2D computer graphics systems may operate with primitives which are curves (segments of straight lines, circles and more complicated curves), as well as shapes (boxes, arbitrary polygons, circles).
A common set of two-dimensional primitives includes lines, points, and polygons, although some people prefer to consider triangles primitives, because every polygon can be constructed from triangles. All other graphic elements are built up from these primitives. In three dimensions, triangles or polygons positioned in three-dimensional space can be used as primitives to model more complex 3D forms. In some cases, curves (such as Bézier curves, circles, etc.) may be considered primitives; in other cases, curves are complex forms created from many straight, primitive shapes.
In GIS, the terrain surface is often spoken of colloquially as "2 1/2 dimensional," because only the upper surface needs to be represented. Thus, elevation can be conceptualized as a scalar field property or function of two-dimensional space, affording it a number of data modeling efficiencies over true 3-dimensional objects. A shape of any of these dimensions greater than zero consists of an infinite number of distinct points. Because digital systems are finite, only a sample set of the points in a shape can be stored. Thus, vector data structures typically represent geometric primitives using a strategic sample, organized in structures that facilitate the software interpolating the remainder of the shape at the time of analysis or display, using the algorithms of Computational geometry.
A wide variety of vector data structures and formats have been developed during the history of Geographic information systems, but they share a fundamental basis of storing a core set of geometric primitives to represent the location and extent of geographic phenomena. Locations of points are almost always measured within a standard Earth-based coordinate system, whether the spherical Geographic coordinate system (latitude/longitude), or a planar coordinate system, such as the Universal Transverse Mercator. They also share the need to store a set of attributes of each geographic feature alongside its shape; traditionally, this has been accomplished using the data models, data formats, and even software of relational databases.
Early vector formats, such as POLYVRT, the ARC/INFO Coverage, and the Esri shapefile support a basic set of geometric primitives: points, polylines, and polygons, only in two dimensional space and the latter two with only straight line interpolation. TIN data structures for representing terrain surfaces as triangle meshes were also added. Since the mid 1990s, new formats have been developed that extend the range of available primitives, generally standardized by the Open Geospatial Consortium's Simple Features specification. Common geometric primitive extensions include: three-dimensional coordinates for points, lines, and polygons; a fourth "dimension" to represent a measured attribute or time; curved segments in lines and polygons; text annotation as a form of geometry; and polygon meshes for three-dimensional objects.
Frequently, a representation of the shape of a real-world phenomenon may have a different (usually lower) dimension than the phenomenon being represented. For example, a city (a two-dimensional region) may be represented as a point, or a road (a three-dimensional volume of material) may be represented as a line. This dimensional generalization correlates with tendencies in spatial cognition. For example, asking the distance between two cities presumes a conceptual model of the cities as points, while giving directions involving travel "up," "down," or "along" a road imply a one-dimensional conceptual model. This is frequently done for purposes of data efficiency, visual simplicity, or cognitive efficiency, and is acceptable if the distinction between the representation and the represented is understood, but can cause confusion if information users assume that the digital shape is a perfect representation of reality (i.e., believing that roads really are lines).
In CAD software or 3D modelling, the interface may present the user with the ability to create primitives which may be further modified by edits. For example, in the practice of box modelling the user will start with a cuboid, then use extrusion and other operations to create the model. In this use the primitive is just a convenient starting point, rather than the fundamental unit of modelling.
Various graphics accelerators exist with hardware acceleration for rendering specific primitives such as lines or triangles, frequently with texture mapping and shaders. Modern 3D accelerators typically accept sequences of triangles as triangle strips.