Three-dimensional NURBS surfaces can have complex, organic shapes. Control points influence the directions the surface takes. The outermost square below delineates the X/Y extents of the surface.

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Non-uniform rational B-spline. Technical specifications

A NURBS curve is defined by its order, a set of weighted control points, and a knot vector. NURBS curves and surfaces are generalizations of both B-splines and Bézier curves and surfaces, the primary difference being the weighting of the control points which makes NURBS curves rational (non-rational B-splines are a special case of rational B-splines). Whereas Bézier curves evolve into only one parametric direction, usually called s or u, NURBS surfaces evolve into two parametric directions, called s and t or u and v.

By evaluating a NURBS curve at various values of the parameter, the curve can be represented in Cartesian two- or three-dimensional space. Likewise, by evaluating a NURBS surface at various values of the two parameters, the surface can be represented in Cartesian space.
NURBS curves and surfaces are useful for a number of reasons:
• They are invariant under affine as well as perspective transformations: operations like rotations and translations can be applied to NURBS curves and surfaces by applying them to their control points.
• They offer one common mathematical form for both standard analytical shapes (e.g., conics) and free-form shapes.
• They provide the flexibility to design a large variety of shapes.
• They reduce the memory consumption when storing shapes (compared to simpler methods).
• They can be evaluated reasonably quickly by numerically stable and accurate algorithms.
In the next sections, NURBS is discussed in one dimension (curves). It should be noted that all of it can be generalized to two or even more dimensions.
Control points
The control points determine the shape of the curve. Typically, each point of the curve is computed by taking a weighted sum of a number of control points. The weight of each point varies according to the governing parameter. For a curve of degree d, the weight of any control point is only nonzero in d+1 intervals of the parameter space. Within those intervals, the weight changes according to a polynomial function (basis functions) of degree d. At the boundaries of the intervals, the basis functions go smoothly to zero, the smoothness being determined by the degree of the polynomial.
As an example, the basis function of degree one is a triangle function. It rises from zero to one, then falls to zero again. While it rises, the basis function of the previous control point falls. In that way, the curve interpolates between the two points, and the resulting curve is a polygon, which is continuous, but not differentiable at the interval boundaries, or knots. Higher degree polynomials have correspondingly more continuous derivatives. Note that within the interval the polynomial nature of the basis functions and the linearity of the construction make the curve perfectly smooth, so it is only at the knots that discontinuity can arise.


The fact that a single control point only influences those intervals where it is active is a highly desirable property, known as local support. In modeling, it allows the changing of one part of a surface while keeping other parts equal.
Adding more control points allows better approximation to a given curve, although only a certain class of curves can be represented exactly with a finite number of control points. NURBS curves also feature a scalar weight for each control point. This allows for more control over the shape of the curve without unduly raising the number of control points. In particular, it adds conic sections like circles and ellipses to the set of curves that can be represented exactly. The term rational in NURBS refers to these weights.
The control points can have any dimensionality. One-dimensional points just define a scalar function of the parameter. These are typically used in image processing programs to tune the brightness and color curves. Three-dimensional control points are used abundantly in 3D modeling, where they are used in the everyday meaning of the word 'point', a location in 3D space. Multi-dimensional points might be used to control sets of time-driven values, e.g. the different positional and rotational settings of a robot arm. NURBS surfaces are just an application of this. Each control 'point' is actually a full vector of control points, defining a curve. These curves share their degree and the number of control points, and span one dimension of the parameter space. By interpolating these control vectors over the other dimension of the parameter space, a continuous set of curves is obtained, defining the surface.
The knot vector
The knot vector is a sequence of parameter values that determines where and how the control points affect the NURBS curve. The number of knots is always equal to the number of control points plus curve degree plus one. The knot vector divides the parametric space in the intervals mentioned before, usually referred to as knot spans. Each time the parameter value enters a new knot span, a new control point becomes active, while an old control point is discarded. It follows that the values in the knot vector should be in nondecreasing order, so (0, 0, 1, 2, 3, 3) is valid while (0, 0, 2, 1, 3, 3) is not.
Consecutive knots can have the same value. This then defines a knot span of zero length, which implies that two control points are activated at the same time (and of course two control points become deactivated). This has impact on continuity of the resulting curve or its higher derivatives; for instance, it allows the creation of corners in an otherwise smooth NURBS curve. A number of coinciding knots is sometimes referred to as a knot with a certain multiplicity. Knots with multiplicity two or three are known as double or triple knots. The multiplicity of a knot is limited to the degree of the curve; since a higher multiplicity would split the curve into disjoint parts and it would leave control points unused. For first-degree NURBS, each knot is paired with a control point.
The knot vector usually starts with a knot that has multiplicity equal to the order. This makes sense, since this activates the control points that have influence on the first knot span. Similarly, the knot vector usually ends with a knot of that multiplicity. Curves with such knot vectors start and end in a control point.
The individual knot values are not meaningful by themselves; only the ratios of the difference between the knot values matter. Hence, the knot vectors (0, 0, 1, 2, 3, 3) and (0, 0, 2, 4, 6, 6) produce the same curve. The positions of the knot values influences the mapping of parameter space to curve space. Rendering a NURBS curve is usually done by stepping with a fixed stride through the parameter range. By changing the knot span lengths, more sample points can be used in regions where the curvature is high. Another use is in situations where the parameter value has some physical significance, for instance if the parameter is time and the curve describes the motion of a robot arm. The knot span lengths then translate into velocity and acceleration, which are essential to get right to prevent damage to the robot arm or its environment. This flexibility in the mapping is what the phrase non uniform in NURBS refers to.
Necessary only for internal calculations, knots are usually not helpful to the users of modeling software. Therefore, many modeling applications do not make the knots editable or even visible. It's usually possible to establish reasonable knot vectors by looking at the variation in the control points. More recent versions of NURBS software (e.g., Autodesk Maya and Rhinoceros 3D) allow for interactive editing of knot positions, but this is significantly less intuitive than the editing of control points.
Order
The order of a NURBS curve defines the number of nearby control points that influence any given point on the curve. The curve is represented mathematically by a polynomial of degree one less than the order of the curve. Hence, second-order curves (which are represented by linear polynomials) are called linear curves, third-order curves are called quadratic curves, and fourth-order curves are called cubic curves. The number of control points must be greater than or equal to the order of the curve.
In practice, cubic curves are the ones most commonly used. Fifth- and sixth-order curves are sometimes useful, especially for obtaining continuous higher order derivatives, but curves of higher orders are practically never used because they lead to internal numerical problems and tend to require disproportionately large calculation times.