Development Rules

Vrui application developers have to follow certain rules to create correct, portable, and usable applications. Many of these rules are enforced by the Vrui API itself, but others have to be willingly obeyed by developers. This document attempts to spell out all those additional rules, and explain the reasoning behind them.

Correctness Rules

As every developer should strive to create correct applications, the rules in this category must be followed to ensure that applications function in a predictable and replicatable manner.

One important, and Vrui-specific, component of correctness is cluster consistency. As Vrui applications can be run in single-system or cluster mode depending on environment setup, applications that fail to work correctly in a cluster environment must be considered incorrect. In cluster mode, Vrui employs a split-first paradigm, where an application is executed independently on each cluster node, and application instances are synchronized by broadcasting input device data. As a result, applications must be implemented such that their internal state deterministically follows from the input data stream; if individual application instances run "out of synch," the application ceases to function as a whole.

Cluster consistency can pose problems for applications using pseudo-randomness, wall clock-based processing, or multithreading. These features need to be implemented carefully, and Vrui contains support for each of these areas. Specifically, while Vrui itself uses a split-first paradigm, applications are free to implement a split-middle approach as they see fit, by using the explicit cluster communication interfaces provided by Vrui and its underlying libraries. For applications using time-based computing or parallelism, explicit communication is often required to ensure cluster consistency. For example, an application that does background computations might employ cluster communication to only do computations on the cluster's head node – which often has more processing power anyway – and then broadcast the results to all other nodes.

Do not use srand()

Vrui calls srand() itself, with the current wall-clock time, at the beginning of its own initialization. It ensures that all nodes in a cluster use the same random number seed, so that it is safe to use random numbers in the main thread of a Vrui application without breaking cluster consistency. Unfortunately, it is not possible to use random numbers from background threads, or multiple threads in parallel. If an application requires this, it is the developer's responsibility to explicitly communicate any generated random numbers from a cluster's head node to all slave nodes using per-thread cluster pipes.

Do not use clock(), clock_gettime(), etc.

The clocks on individual cluster nodes might not be synchronized, and due to random delays, using values returned by any time functions will break cluster consistency. Vrui provides several methods of querying process or wall-clock times in a cluster-transparent manner. Developers wanting to use native time functions must take care of cluster synchronization explicitly.

Do not change application state asynchronously

Vrui is designed to support application-level concurrency. It does not enforce a static split into exactly one "simulation thread" and one "rendering thread" like some other toolkits, but instead makes extensive use of threading internally to the toolkit, and allows applications to do the same. However, concurrency brings its own set of rules.

Most importantly, background threads must not directly change application state. In a cluster environment, asynchronous changes will break cluster consistency due to slight timing or scheduling differences between nodes. In multi-display or multi-view environments, asynchronous updates will break view consistency, which can lead to severe ill effects for the user, such as eye strain, headaches, or nausea.

The correct approach for background processing is multi-buffering of any state affected by background threads (or explicit message passing, for the same effect), and only updating application state during the synchronous frame method, or its equivalent methods for tools or vislets. The implicit synchronization points provided by a sequential main loop are the main reason why Vrui uses one. It is a common misunderstanding that Vrui is single-threaded due to its sequential frame loop; on the contrary, that loop is intended to be merely a synchronization point for massively concurrent processing happening in any number of background threads.

Do not change application or toolkit state during rendering

Any rendering code, both for graphics using OpenGL and sound using OpenAL, must not have any side effects on application state, and this includes initialization code executed in the initContext methods declared by classes GLObject and ALObject (obviously, rendering code is allowed to change per-context state). Due to differing window and multi-view setups, an application's display and context initialization methods will be called an unspecified number of times per application frame, including not at all, and potentially concurrently from multiple threads. It is therefore imperative that rendering code does not change application state or toolkit state. The Vrui::Application class enforces part of this by declaring the display method as const, and GLObject/ALObject do the same with the initContext method. However, this does not apply to toolkit state, and to devious developers who use const casts to change object members from within const methods. If particular functionality absolutely requires changing application state during rendering, the developer is responsible for using proper mutual exclusion, and being extremely careful.

Vrui and its supporting libraries are carefully designed to indicate whether any class methods change state using the const modifier. The Vrui kernel API in Vrui/Vrui.h, for legacy reasons, is not implemented as a class, and can therefore not do that. However, it should be fairly obvious from its name and description whether any given kernel function call changes toolkit state or not.

Do not store OpenGL or OpenAL per-context state in application state

Due to differing window setups, there is no one-to-one relationship between applications and OpenGL and OpenAL contexts. An application might have to render to any number of contexts at the same time; the number of contexts might even change dynamically as windows are created and destroyed at runtime. It might not be possible for these contexts to share per-context state such as display lists, texture objects, vertex or frame buffers, etc. An application must therefore be capable of handling any number of independent copies of its per-context states. To simplify managing multiple copies of per-context data, Vrui provides the GLObject/GLContextData mechanism for OpenGL state, and the analogous ALObject/ALContextData mechanism for OpenAL state.

Do check whether third-party libraries mix application and per-context state

Many third-party graphics or sound libraries work under the implicit assumption of running in standard desktop environments, with only a single OpenGL/OpenAL context per application, or the assumed ability to share per-context state between multiple contexts. These libraries will freely intermix application and per-context states, and sometimes this might be completely hidden underneath the API. Using such libraries without special care will either not work at all, or lead to unpredictable results. For example, many libraries will assume that there is a current OpenGL context when a library data structure is created or initialized. However, Vrui applications will typically initialize their data structures in the application constructor, before any windows or OpenGL contexts are created. Libraries querying or setting OpenGL state at that time will crash, or retain bogus state.

Any data structures that intermix application and per-context states must either be completely treated as per-context state in Vrui, leading to some potential redundancy and consistency problems as their application states are replicated, or must be split by the developer into per-application and per-context pieces, if that is possible.

Do check whether third-party libraries clean up after themselves

Similarly to the previous rule, some third-party graphics or sound libraries -- typically higher-level libraries such as scene graph toolkits or full game engines -- will assume that they are the only parties rendering to windows or OpenGL or OpenAL contexts. These libraries might clear the display buffer before they start, mess with the projection and/or modelview matrices, assume that their state changes will be retained from one frame to the next, and so forth. It is the developer's responsibility to ensure that these libraries play nice with Vrui by following other, previously stated rules about handling rendering contexts.

Portability Rules

Vrui aims to support portable applications, i.e., applications that function in any kind of VR environments from standard PCs to fully-immersive cluster-based multi-screen visualization facilities. For example, since most software development will happen on the desktop, and almost all developers learned their trade in the desktop paradigm, it is easy to let desktop-dependent assumptions or behavior, such as the assumption that an application uses a single OpenGL window, or has access to a keyboard and a mouse, slip into an application and limit its portability to other types of environments.

Do not perform OpenAL or OpenGL context setup

A Vrui application is not the only party rendering to its graphics or sound contexts in the Vrui runtime environment. Other parties include the tool graph, the GUI widget manager, any loaded vislets, etc. It is the responsibility of the Vrui toolkit, not the developer, to set up and initialize OpenGL or OpenAL contexts at the beginning of the rendering cycle. Application rendering code is called when all rendering contexts are already set up properly, and other 3D geometry or sound might already have been rendered into them. It is the developer's responsibility not to change context state permanently, and not to destroy what has already been rendered, or will be rendered. Concretely, applications must never change the projection matrix, clear the color or depth buffers, change the viewport or depth range, leave texture objects or buffers bound, etc. If some functionality requires to do any of these, it is the developer's responsibility to ensure that the larger Vrui runtime enviroment is not affected, and that all state changes are properly restored before an application's rendering functions return.

Do not assume context state persistence

For the same reason as the previous rule, an application must not assume that changes to a rendering context will be retained between frames, or even between multiple rendering passes into the same context. If an application needs a rendering context in a certain state, it has to set it up accordingly every time its rendering functions are called.

Do aim to always use the highest possible abstraction level offered by the toolkit

Vrui is intentionally designed to allow low-level and bare-metal programming to offer maximum performance and interoperability between it and second- or third-party code; it does not force developers to use any toolkit APIs besides the (small) Vrui kernel API. However, Vrui offers a comprehensive set of lower-level abstractions, which are designed to integrate well with the rest of the toolkit. Developers are encouraged to use these abstractions whenever possible. The main benefits of using Vrui-provided abstractions are increased possibility of code reuse between multiple applications or multiple developers; additional features such as built-in cluster transparency; often improved performance; and hopefully fewer bugs because toolkit-provided functionality is used and checked by more people.

Do not change Vrui display environment layout programmatically

While it is possible to change certain aspects of the layout of a Vrui display environment, such as viewer or screen posititions, this must never be done by applications. Environments are configured by the user or a dedicated environment administrator such that Vrui's notion of an environment's layout exactly matches reality. Any changes performed by an application will lead to discrepancies between virtual and real layout, which can cause severe ill effects for the user, including eye strain, headaches, and nausea. As an important example, this means that it is impossible for an application to change a display's field of view programmatically. In VR, field of view is fully determined by physical layout; to change the field of view, the user has to move towards or away from the display.

The only exception to this rule are, obviously, dedicated calibration utilities whose sole purpose it is to guide a user in configuring an environment in the first place.

Do understand the relationship between physical and navigational space

Vrui works in two coordinate spaces: physical space and navigational space. Navigational space plays the same role as model space in other 3D toolkits; it is the space in which application-specific data lives. Navigation space can have arbitrary, application-defined orientations and measurement units. Physical space, on the other hand, is bound to the display hardware of a particular VR environment; it is the space in which a user lives. It can still have arbitrary orientations and measurement units, but it expresses the layout of a VR environment in the real world.

The mapping between physical space and navigational space is expressed by the navigation transformation, which has a similar purpose as the modelview matrix in typical OpenGL applications. The navigation transformation is also the means how Vrui changes viewpoints, or how users navigate through their 3D data (hence the name). Any changes to the viewpoint in Vrui applications are expressed by changes to the navigation transformation. This is typically done by dedicated navigation tools, which are generalizations of the viewpoint manipulation metaphors typically used in desktop 3D applications, such as virtual trackballs.

The introduction of a third rendering matrix, on top of OpenGL's projection and modelview matrices, was necessary because the projection and modelview matrices are based on a camera model, where the position and the orientation of the camera are programmatically controlled by applications. In VR, on the other hand, there is no camera. It is the user himself who observes the 3D scene, and the user can change his position and orientation outside of any application's control, by physically moving through the VR display environment. While this additional freedom can be expressed through the canonical two-matrix setup (after all, the product of two matrices is a matrix), and many other VR toolkits do just that, it is much more straightforward and intuitive, for both users and developers, to use the concept of navigational space. It is not the camera that moves, but it is the entire physical display environment that moves through navigational space, and the virtual 3D model defined therein.

In a nutshell, applications use their own, arbitrary navigational space to position their 3D models, and let Vrui and the user worry about how to map that space to Vrui's physical space. The rendering, modelling, simulation, etc. aspects of an application will typically never reference anything but navigational space. User interaction, on the other hand, is often expressed at least partially in physical space, because that is the space in which the display environment is defined, and through which the user moves.

Do not make assumptions about physical space

In Vrui, the layout of physical space is not defined by the toolkit, but by whoever configured a particular environment. Applications should therefore never make any assumptions about physical space. In particular, developers must not assume that... There is only one safe assumption about physical space: just like navigational space, physical space is always right-handed.

Do not directly reference screens, viewers, windows, or input devices

Unlike in the desktop world, there is no canonical keyboard/video/mouse input/output model in VR. VR environments have multiple screens, multiple views per screen, moving screens, potentially multiple head tracked viewers, and multiple input devices of widely varying capabilities and layouts. Vrui is carefully designed to shield application developers from this extremely diverse design space, but developers have to cooperate and use the abstraction mechanisms Vrui provides.

Display abstraction is achieved relatively easily; Vrui applications simply render into graphics or sound rendering contexts that have already been properly set up by the toolkit, including their projection and modelview matrices. Only very specific applications will ever need to know anything about a VR environment's display layout.

Input abstraction is harder to get used to for developers, because it is the area where VR differs most from the desktop world, and unlike 3D rendering it is still an active research area. It is also the area in which Vrui differs most from other VR toolkits. Vrui's general approach is to completely decouple applications from input devices. Other VR toolkits offer "virtualized input devices," which effectively hide differences in hardware implementations between different models of the same type of device (such as different brands of data gloves), but that do not hide differences between completely different device types, such as a mouse and a position-tracked data glove. A VR device driver might successfully manage to cast those two into the same data structure, but that does not mean that they should be treated the same by an application. Boldly speaking, an application that does not distinguish between a mouse and a data glove will be unusable on both.

While Vrui uses the same virtualized device model to hide minor implementation differences, this is just a starting point for the real abstraction, which is the tool model. In Vrui, tools are smallish objects that map from physical (albeit virtualized) input devices to application functionality. Tools increase functionality and portability by being an independent intermediate layer between input devices and applications. For example, Vrui contains about two dozen navigation tools, which implement different metaphors how users can use devices to move through an application's 3D space. Why does it need so many, when desktop 3D applications can typically make do with one or two? The answer is that the tools have to account for both the capabilities of available input devices, and also for personal preferences of the user, which can change between and even within applications. For example, there are multiple navigation tools for mice, implementing different functionality. One allows free 3D navigation, while another constrains navigation to an application-defined surface. Typical users will use both in turn, depending on what they want to do at any given moment. On the other hand, there are multiple navigation tools which implement basically the same functionality, but for different devices.

The bottom line for application developers is that they don't have to worry about this, as it is taken care of by the toolkit. They can just develop their application to react to higher-level events, such as a change in the navigation transformation effected by any navigation tool, and leave the details to a given VR environment's users or administrator. Of course, this requires that developers don't punch through this useful abstraction layer by talking directly to the devices themselves. This will forbid users to adapt the application to their particular environment, and to their liking. In Vrui, tools are bound to input devices not programmatically, but dynamically and interactively by the users.

Usability Rules

Vrui itself strives to be as usable as possible on any environment in which it is run. While Vrui and Vrui applications are, or should be, written with no particular target environment in mind, ideally, a Vrui application running on a desktop system should be exactly as usable as a native desktop application, and a Vrui application running in a CAVE should be as usable as a native CAVE application.

In Vrui, across-environment usability is addressed by the tool system, which decouples application or toolkit functionality from input device hardware present in a given environment. Therefore, understanding and properly using the tool infrastructure is essential for developing effective Vrui applications.

Do not block Vrui's foreground thread

As a corollary to the previous rule, it follows that longer-running operations must never be performed synchronously in the frame loop. In desktop environments, it is not a big problem if an application's display freezes for a few seconds; in VR environments, which need to render frames rapidly in response to head-tracked users to support the illusion of holographic 3D objects, even very short delays cause severe degradations in user experience and potentially severe ill effects for the user.

Do mind your application's frame rate

Rendering frame rate is of paramount importance for VR applications. Unlike in desktop environments, VR applications have to display updated frames reflecting continuously changing viewing conditions upwards of 30 times per second, ideally upwards of 60 times per second, to avoid severe ill effects for users. VR applications typically require advanced deadline-driven rendering methods utilizing view-dependent and multi-resolution approaches to achieve the necessary frame rates independent of data sizes or hardware performance.

Desktop-based developers need to remember that VR environments will often have reduced rendering performance compared to desktops, because they might have more and/or higher-resolution displays, or need to render everything multiple times per frame to achieve stereoscopy. It is therefore imperative to test applications often, either in real VR environments, or in simulated ones using multiple windows and/or multiple views per window on a desktop system.

Do not mess with the navigation transformation

Changing the navigation transformation, i.e., changing the mapping from an application's model space into an environment's physical space, is the purview of dedicated navigation tools, which do so under direct control by the user. An application should generally not take navigation control away from the user. There is usually a single place in an application where it changes the navigation transformation: it has to set up the initial navigation transformation, which will typically map the entirety of an application's 3D data into the display space of a VR environment. This is usually done either during the application's initialization, or in a GUI callback as response to a main menu entry such as "reset navigation."

That said, there are mechanisms in Vrui to allow applications to constrain the navigation transformation, for example, keeping the user upright in a 3D model with arbitrary or changing "up" directions, letting a user "walk" on an application-defined surface, or implementing general collision handling. These mechanisms are implemented via hooks between an application and so-called surface navigation tools, and do not negatively affect user experience.

Do not force a particular scale factor

Many applications, such as architecture walk-throughs or video games, have an inherent scale and should typically be displayed at the correct 1:1 scale factor. For example, if an application's navigation space is measured in meters, it is often desirable to scale navigational space such that one meter in the model corresponds exactly to one meter in the displaying environment's physical space. However, an application should never limit the user to this 1:1 scale, or any other fixed scale factor. Applications are free to display their models at any desired scale when initially started, but they should not artificially constrain the user to that scale during interactions. The navigation tools typically used in fixed-scale applications do not change scale; therefore, any scale changes will have been requested by the user explicitly and should not be denied. Instead, applications should do two things:
  1. They should tell Vrui's coordinate manager what unit of measurement is used within their navigational space. This will make Vrui's scale bar work as intended, and will allow users to go to 1:1 scale (or any other desired scale) by interacting with the scale bar. Additionally, this will make Vrui's measurement tools report measurements in the correct unit.
  2. They should offer a user interface mechanism to quickly move to the most appropriate scale, typically 1:1, for example via a button in the application's main menu. The callback hooked into this button should scale the current navigation transformation such that the resulting scale factor is the desired one. Applications need to calculate the proper scale factor by querying the length of some unit of measurement in physical space, and then dividing by the length of the same unit in navigational space. The Vrui kernel offers the functions Vrui::getInchFactor() and Vrui::getMeterFactor() to query the length of an inch and a meter, respectively, in physical space. Here is some example code to go to 1:1 scale while keeping the center point of the environment fixed, assuming that the navigational space unit is 1 meter:
    /* Get the current navigation transformation: */
    Vrui::NavTransform nav=Vrui::getNavigationTransformation();
    /* Calculate the new scale factor (assuming nav space unit is 1 meter): */
    Vrui::Scalar newScale=Vrui::getMeterFactor()/Vrui::Scalar(1);
    /* Change scale by scaling around the center of the environment: */
    /* Apply the new navigation transformation: */

Do express all user interactions in physical space

As mentioned before, in Vrui environments, users live in physical space. Therefore, any calculations affecting users or user interaction must also be performed in physical space. For example, a picking radius for 3D object selection must not be set in navigational space, where it would change with the scale factor between navigational and physical space as users zoom in or out. Depending on the current zoom factor, a fixed value might either be too small to be usable, or too large to be useful. Instead, user-related parameters such as font or glyph sizes, interaction distances, etc. must be defined and manipulated in physical space, and be converted to navigational space based on the current navigation transformation's scale factor as needed.

For this reason, Vrui tools, which are meant to interact with users, are set up in physical space. Unlike application rendering code, which is executed in navigational space, tool code renders in physical space, and receives any input device data in physical space as well.

Do not hardcode interaction parameters

Even if user-related parameters are expressed in physical space, in accordance with the previous rule, they must still not be hardcoded. Depending on a particular environment's physical layout, sizes that work well in one, don't in another. A font that looks the right size on a 20" desktop monitor will be tiny and unreadable in a 10'x10' CAVE. More importantly, physical space can use arbitrary units of measurement. A constant of 5 might mean 5 inches in one environment, and 5 meters in another. While the Vrui kernel offers functions to query physical measurement units (by returning the length of one meter or one inch in physical units), user-related physical-space sizes must still never be hardcoded, but always be based on layout parameters provided by Vrui itself. For example, Vrui provides functions to query base sizes for UI components, fonts, glyphs, and interaction distances (both point distances and ray angles). Applications can use hard-coded multipliers for those toolkit-provided variables to achieve desired object sizes.

Do not hardcode tool bindings

The bindings from tools to input devices described in the previous rule are not only environment-specific, but also user-specific (an assignment ideal for a right-handed user might not work for a left-handed user). For this reason, in addition to never talking to input devices directly, applications must also never programmatically bind tools to particular input devices, unless this is in turn driven by user interaction. It might be tempting to hardcode tool bindings during development do shave off the extra ten seconds it takes to set up a tool environment when an application is run (and then crashes) repeatedly during debugging, but it kills portability and usability. Vrui offers the ability to save and load complete input graphs for exactly this purpose.

Do not implement custom tool classes that require configuration

Vrui's tool system allows anyone – users, developers, or third parties – to create their own custom tools, which are then managed by Vrui exactly like standard tools. Application-specific custom tools are an important mechanism to expose application functionality to the rest of the Vrui tool stack, to enable useful new interaction methods. However, there are some common pitfalls to avoid.

Tool classes, and particular tool instances, are typically configured at creation time via Vrui's configuration files. However, tool classes must not require a configuration file section to be present; they must contain default configurations that make tools function in any VR environment. This is particularly important for third-party or application-specific tools, where users cannot be expected to know how to configure a tool that is only used for an obscure function inside a particular application, but that makes the application crash or not work if it is not properly set up.

If certain tool settings cannot have reasonable defaults (such as the host name of a server to connect to, the name of a file to load, or the name of a particular hardware device on the host computer), the tool must offer a way to select proper values interactively when a tool object is instantiated, for example by opening a file selection dialog. If this still is not possible, then the intended functionality should not be implemented as a tool, but as another mechanism, probably a vislet, or the combination of a vislet and an associated tool.