This is a rewrite; the original article can be found here: https://www.longor.net/articles/voxel-palette-compression-reddit
When writing a voxel engine, eventually you will come to realize that storing your voxels as 32-bit integers (or worse: as individual heap-allocated objects!) is eating a lot more memory than you'd like, potentially slowing down your game without any obvious reason as to why, and doing bit-twiddling to pack your data into a smaller space, is probably giving you quite a headache, so you might be thinking: There has to be a better way! Right...?
And there is!
All we have to do, (un)surprisingly, is look at Minecraft...
With the release of Minecraft 1.13, Mojang added a form of lossless compression for voxel-data to their game, based upon the basic concept of color palettes.
Think of it like a GIF image: By limiting ourselves to a small set of colors and arranging the picture elements in various patterns, we can create an image that appears to have more colors than it actually contains, but with fraction of the memory consumption!
|GIF image of a parrot.
|The resulting palette.
Normally, palettes are used to improve image quality in the presence of hardware and/or software constraints (and sometimes for artistic reasons), but they can also be used for compressing more complex data, as long as most elements can share the same underlying data!
In our case, what is being compressed is voxel data, which lends itself perfectly for this method.
Pro & Contra
By using palette compression for voxel data, we gain numerous advantages, like...
Massively reducing the memory footprint of voxels: With palette compression, it is possible to decrease the size of individual voxels so far, that they only take a single bit of memory in the best case.
Smaller serialized size: By using the same principle for transporting voxels over a network or storing them on disk, we can reduce the amount of bandwidth used and waste less hard-drive space!
Practically infinite material types and states: Because the types and states of voxels are separate from the actual voxels, we can have as many types and as much complex state as we want, without increasing memory consumption exponentially!
Overlapping voxel data: And at last, using palette compression makes it viable to have several layers of voxels occupying the same location, thus allowing things like fluids (eg: water) to flow into other (solid) voxels, or making snow-cover something applicable for any and all materials!
As for disadvantages...
The palette is a dynamic structure, that grows and shrinks with the number of differing types/states contained within it, which can be a problem in memory or allocation constrained environments (like say, the GPU). There are some optimizations that mitigate this, allowing one to amortize the read-write-performance to effectively
O(1) in the majority of cases.
Also, if one doesn't pay close attention to the layout of data in memory, it is very easy to simultaneously cause pointer chasing and utterly trash CPU caches, which is... bad.
There are a variety of optimizations that can be applied to make palette compression even better...
The first (and most impactful) optimization to implement for palettes is the use of bit-buffers.
That is, by reducing the bit-size of the voxels to the minimum amount of bits needed (eg: the amount of unique indices, which equates to the amount of palette entries), the amount of memory needed to store large low-entropy voxel volumes is massively reduced.
One Single Type
When you think about it, a palette with only a single entry, doesn't need to have a voxel volume allocated for it... which leads to a rather simple optimization, for when there are a lot of chunks filled with, say, only air!
Tagged-Pointer Palette Entries
Here's a question: How many bits does a single type of voxel (eg: a palette entry) take?
With palettes, it doesn't really matter! Since every palette entry represents all instances of a type in the associated voxel volume, it's perfectly fine to put them on the heap as their own objects... but, what if you wanted to not incur the cost of a heap allocation and the pointer-access?
The solution is to use tagged pointers! A single bit can be used to indicate if a palette entries information is either A) stored on the heap as object or B) stored right in the pointer.
Given a 32-bit architecture which aligns allocations on 32-bit/4-byte boundaries (basically all 32-bit CPU's!), the two lowest bits in a pointer will always be zero (on 64-bit arch's it'll be the last three bits), meaning we can store whatever we want in these bits, as long as we mask them out when actually using the pointer as a pointer!
This gives you at minimum 31 bits to encode a voxel type in (63 bits on a 64-bit CPU!), which should be way more than enough for terrain (which tends to make up the majority of a voxel world by sheer volume), thus eliminating a ton of allocations and pointers!