Building a Calibration UI | Software Architecture | TouchDesigner

Here’s our first stop in a series about planning out part of a long term installation’s UI. We’ll focus on looking at the calibration portion of this project, and while that’s not very sexy, it’s something I frequently set up gig after gig – how you get your projection matched to your architecture can be tricky, and if you can take the time to build something reusable it’s well worth the time and effort. In this case we’ll be looking at a five sided room that uses five projectors. In this installation we don’t do any overlapping projection, so edge blending isn’t a part of what we’ll be talking about in this case study.

Big Ideas

Organization Matters

How you build a thing matters. Ask any architect, chef, crafts person, quilter, and on and on and on. The principles and ideas that drive how you’re building your network matter, and as a full disclaimer I am a misery to collaborate with when it comes to messy TouchDesigner networks and messy directories. “As long as it works, it doesn’t matter Matt!” Is the mantra I often hear as a push back to my requests for organized work. There’s a lot of truth in that, but if you ever have to work with another person (or work with your future self) then the organization of your work will matter. Cluttered, messy, or disorganized structures will make a world of misery for you and your collaborators. You can do whatever you want at the end of the day, but my strong recommendation is that you create some guiding principles for your organization structures, network layout, documentation, and pending todo items on a project.

Here are some of my simple suggestions:

Turn off node resizing for TOPs and COMPs, and don’t resize your nodes by hand:

What? Why? Those things might make perfect sense to you, and you might like them a lot – and that’s great. I hate them in my networks because they insert irregularities into the flow of the network that spoof importance. When I look at a network and there is a single node that’s larger, smaller, resized in anyway that’s different from the surrounding nodes  it implies to me that it has some significance or importance. It might well be that you just needed a closer look for a second and then forgot to change its size again, but for the person looking at your code for the first time that it is significant – even if it’s not. Time and again I’ve seen that kind of use of resizing throw off myself, and many of programmers that I respect.

If you need to use size as a defining characteristic in your networks, then use python to make nodes consistent sizes. It all goes back to being organized and consistent. Help your future self, or the other people you’re working with avoid as much confusion as possible… chances are the project is already confusing enough.

resizing

Align your ops:

I like the left bottom corner of my ops aligned with the network grid. I like to start new ops on new grid lines, and I like a full grid line of vertical space between ops. I also like to arrange ops (when possible) so that wires don’t cross unnecessarily. OCD much Matt? Sure, you can say that if you like. For me, the truth of the matter is that I like tidy networks where I can quickly see the flow of operations left to right. Too much space and things feel spread out all over creation, too little space and it can be difficult to see a network’s operation when you’re zoomed out too far. For me, this is the right kind of balance. It might well be different for you, and that’s wonderful. My only encouragement here is to be purposeful. Whatever you do, make sure it’s a choice you’re making not just the happenstance layout that emerged from the creative process. Be messy, be wild, place nodes every which way … but tidy up before you save and commit your work for the day.

alignment

Color code sparingly

I love me some color coding, but make sure it’s done purposefully and give yourself a key. This is another situation where color coding is often a great idea on the face of it, and then it quickly changes into something you can hardly keep track of. That’s okay, and my experience has taught me that less is better in this regard.

Leave those op names alone and only append after the op name

It took a lot to get me on board for this, but it’s now something that I’m whole wholeheartedly behind. Leaving the original operator name in place and only appending after is a tremendous help when it comes to quickly glancing at a network. It helps the viewer know quickly what an operator is doing without having to do any additional inspection.

“I don’t get it Matt.”

That’s okay. Let’s look at this example:

names_nightmare

In 2 seconds or less can you tell if the first operator with the banana is a select or a moviefilein TOP? Can you tell if the composited image is a comp TOP or a multiply TOP? Can you tell if the TOP labeled “done” is a null or an out TOP?

Compare that with:

names

To be fair, the names aren’t nearly as exciting, but they do make it much easier to understand what’s happening at a glance.

Like it or not, you’re an engineer now

As much as we all might like to fancy ourselves Artists with capital letter As and a filigree flourish, the truth is that right now you’re an engineer.  That’s not to say that you’re not an artist too, you are; but some problems don’t need artful solutions, they need thoughtfully engineered solutions based on a complex understanding of computation and computer science. The more you work in TouchDesigner, the more you’ll find that you’re as much engineer as you are artist – that’s not only okay, that’s an important realization to make about your own work. It can be a bifurcating moment to feel at conflict with the art, and the mechanics of a given network – “this approach is beautiful and it works but costs 20 milliseconds” is probably not a viable solution. It’s especially not a viable solution for something like a calibration pipeline that needs to have as little computational overhead as possible. The work that goes into an efficient process isn’t always glamorous, or much to show off; instead, it makes room for the art with a capital A to take more cycles and be more expressive.

Lucky for us, there’s room to be both engineer and artist in our work. Remember to embrace both of those roles, even when faced with the frustration of complex logic problems, or when faced with the questions of aesthetics.

Externalizing Files

So we should externalize files? Yes. For the love of god, yes. If you believe in a world where you don’t tear your hair out, yes. In case you still are wondering, the answer is yes – you should always look for ways to externalize files.

Why? That seems silly.

Once upon a time I didn’t externalize any components, and my projects lived as complete toe files and the world was beautiful. Then I crashed my project because I did something silly, and then it took me hours to track down where the problem was… even opening the crashautosave.toe left me slowly moving through networks in networks trying to figure out what I had done where to make everything crash. Worse yet, because it was just a single toe file there was no way to unit test any of the smaller modules. Open, change, save, open crash… repeat. If you haven’t had this experience yet, it’s only a matter of time.You too will crash one day, and mightily. You’ll wonder why you ever wanted to work with computers in the first place, and why you don’t just open up a bar in on a sandy beach somewhere.

Snark aside, externalizing components in your network has several benefits. For starters, it moves you away from having a single toe file black box that’s difficult to test or debug. Separating out smaller modules allows for more portability between the applications that you build, and it means that you can test just that module. It also means that you can update just that module and not your entire toe file.

Externalizing modules, extensions, and the like also lets you more easily compare files over time if you’re using a piece of version control software – don’t worry, we’ll talk about git in just a second. It also makes it easier to work with text files in something like sublime (my favorite) or Visual Studio Code. That might not seem like a big deal now, but the more you work with extensions and python, the more you’ll want robust text editing tools at your finger tips.

Externalizing files also reduces bloat in your toe file. If you’ve ever locked a texture in your toe file you know all to well that it your slim file size can quickly balloon. External files also makes it easier to save and try multiple configurations. We’re going to work on a building a calibration UI, we might want to be able to save a calibration configuration and then try another calibration. The same goes for configuration files. Rather than a configuration that’s locked into your toe file, an external file can make it easy to load lots of different configurations or other settings.

It might well seem like I’m belaboring this point, and I’m doing that on purpose. Working with external files is more work, takes more organization, takes better planning, and requires a more meticulous approach – but if you want to grow as a developer and programmer, you’ll wrestle with this challenge sooner or later. I’d encourage you to do that sooner rather than later.

git

What is git? Direct from the git website :

Git is a free and open source distributed version control system designed to handle everything from small to very large projects with speed and efficiency.

Git is easy to learn and has a tiny footprint with lightning fast performance. It outclasses SCM tools like Subversion, CVS, Perforce, and ClearCase with features like cheap local branching, convenient staging areas, and multiple workflows.

But what does that mean?! Unlike working with art where a tool like Dropbox would be helpful, when we’re developing software it’s often more helpful to be have some specific means of specifying when a file needs to be saved (probably with the same name), along with a message about what our changes have done. Let’s say we’re working on our calibration UI, we’ve made a change that now allows us to save out our calibration configuration. That’s great, but it’s come at the cost of changing a piece of how our UI works. We know for sure that the old way works 100% of the time, and we’re pretty sure that our new way works at least 80% of the time. Git allows us to check in the new version of our software, commit it to our working directory structure, and make a note of what we did.

We’re smart programmers, so we’ve also started to externalize our files. This means that we’ve separated out parts of our network responsible for different tasks. With git we’re now able to check in only the single tox that’s changed while we’ve been working. Better yet, we can even work with another person. Developer 1 might be working on one part of our project, while Developer 2 is working on another. Both developers are saving their respective tox files, and git allows us to track that progress and merge work seamlessly. If we do end up editing the same files, we end up with a merge conflict… which means what Matt? A merge conflict means just that, two files are competing for the same place in our directory, and we need to review them in order to decide which file to keep.

Git also allows us to work in multiple branches on our project.

Huh?

Let’s imagine that we find a bug, we might want to create a branch in our code to deal with resolving this bug.

Why?

Well, let us imagine a situation familiar to us all. We find a bug, squash it mightily. Only to discover that our fix has created another problem… maybe a much bigger problem. The little bug that we killed we could have worked with, but now we have a show stopper bug running a muck, that we don’t know how to stop, and the show starts in 45 minutes. Trouble shooting in another branch allows you to make fixes and then integrate them back into your project when you’re confident that they don’t create other problems.

Best of all, git creates a history that let’s us step back through each one of our commits. At any point we can return to a past state of our project. Taking advantage of modular design and externalized files makes this even more powerful because it means that with a little work we can resurrect ideas that might otherwise have been lost or discarded.

That’s a big commercial for git so far, but no cautionary tales – an cautionary tales there are plenty of. While git is a phenomenal tool, it can be a bit beastly to wrangle when  you’re first starting – know that you’ll get frustrated, know that you’ll curse it, know that you’ll want to give up on using it, then count to 10 and give it another go. Like all things you’re unfamiliar with, take your time to get used to it as a tool set. You might choose to start by using a GUI tool, but at some point you should learn some of the commands to run directly from the command line. You’ll also want to avoid checking in any of your assets. These days I divide up my projects and separate my assets from my code. I have a few exceptions for this practice, but I try to keep them few and far between – only really allowing for template files, or grids. Essentially, I try to make sure that it’s only files that are going to change in frequently.

If you’re going to use git, you’ll probably also use something like github or bitbucket. These are great services and host your code online so you can get to it from anywhere. These services also come with some great tools for making action items, bug tracking, and maintaining documentation for your project. Take advantage of these tools.

learn more about git at https://git-scm.com/
start using git with github or bitbucket

See more comics from XKCD at https://xkcd.com/

Extensions Everywhere

I’ve talked plenty of about extensions, how to use them, and what they’re good for. I’ve had some spirited discussions about when to use Extensions vs. Modules, and there’s a healthy conversation to be had there for those who want to really get into the weeds of it all. The place I’ve finally landed is this – I use extensions anytime I want to extend the capabilities of a given component. Case to case the degree of extension varies – sometimes I take fuller advantage of using classes than others, and that’s okay. To me, it’s okay if I don’t always take complete advantage of the difference between Extensions and Modules. Sticking with extensions means choosing an approach that works for 99% of the use cases where I need more flexibility in my programming. For mean that means a little bit of stability from the Touch paradigm where there are almost always at least a handful of different ways to solve the same problem. You might like Modules better, and that’s okay. In this case study, however, we’ll see the use of Extensions.

We’ll also see a move away from fragmenting our code across our network. It’s often tempting to use a button deep down in a UI somewhere to perform a logical operation. The only catch is that now that script is buried deep down in your project somewhere, and should it ever give you problems, good luck finding it. For the most part, on large projects I aim to keep the lion share of my operations focused in an extension. This takes a little more time to write, but it means that things are more organized, easier to diff between check ins, that I can change my code in a single place, and that I’m writing functions that are callable from other parts of the network. In my experience so far, this little amount of extra work makes for a larger savings across the whole project.

More about Extensions
Python in TouchDesigner | Extensions
Understanding Extensions

documenting your code – what are docstrings?

I’m a broken record. I know, but really – leave yourself notes, voluminous ones. Better yet, when using extensions make sure to add some docstrings.

“What are docstrings?” you ask.

I’m so glad you did! Docstrings are a feature in several programming languages that allow you to embed  comments or information into your code that can be inspected at run time. If you’re still scratching your head that’s okay. Let’s look at an example, this one is from the wikipedia page about docstrings:

"""
Assuming this is file mymodule.py, then this string, being the
first statement in the file, will become the "mymodule" module's
docstring when the file is imported.
"""

class MyClass(object):
    """The class's docstring"""

    def my_method(self):
        """The method's docstring"""

def my_function():
    """The function's docstring"""

“Great. But why are these useful?”

There useful in lots of ways but for me they have some special importance. For starters, they help ensure that I’m documenting my code as I go. The more tips you leave yourself along the way, the happier you’ll be in the long run. It does make your code longer, and it does take more time. But, if you’re really invested in building something reusable that you can come back to and refine over time, these are solid investments to make that process smoother in the future.

You can get to these notes from anywhere. This internal documentation can be called from anywhere in the network, so if you’ve forgotten how many arguments your method takes, or what it is supposed to return you can get some quick answers without having to track down the extension. When you start to write lots of complex methods this can become a real help. It’s probably not something you need when you’re first working on the project, but if you’re collaborating with someone else or coming back to your project over time it’ll be well worth the time and effort.

Finally worth considering is that docstrings are a part of the larger Python style guide. Like it or not you’re an engineer, and at this point you’re turning into a budding Python programmer. Learning about the best practices of other programmers outside of the TouchDesigner silo helps broaden your perspective and exposes you to how other people work. For better or worse I spent a lot of time in the liberal arts, and one of the core tenants of the ideology that underpins the arts is that exposure to other ideas and perspectives is important in its own right. I’ve carried this with me through life, and I think even in the cases of programming languages it’s worth considering. The conventions and practices of any community teaches you about how they think of the world – how it’s organized, how it aught to work, how that group values the world, or what they don’t value. The Python community is one that we participate in, even if only mostly from our gray network of operators.

learn more about docstrings
see google’s python style guide for docstrings

Mapping out our Project

You know the saying – measure twice, cut once.

Before digging in to a new project make sure you ask a lot of questions, map out as many details as possible, and make a plan.

Okay, so what about our project?

For starters

  • We know that we’ll have five projectors and one monitor that acts as a UI.
  • We know the resolution of all of our displays.
  • We know that we’ll externalize lots of files in our network.
  • We know that we’re going to use git as our version control system.
  • We know that we are going to work with other people.
  • We know that we need to document our work.
  • We know that we’ll need a way to control warping for the five different displays
  • We know that we’ll need a few other controls – both for the mapping, and also to make space for the future UI elements to control playback.
  • We know we need to previs the layout.
  • We know that we’re looking to build out a complete application with all of the features that you might expect from that kind of build.

Whew! Okay, so where do we start? Before we start throwing down ops let’s think through a plan.

We’ll need a container that holds our UI, we’ll also need a container for each of our displays. We know that it’s best to just use a single perform window that spans multiple monitors, so we should make sure we plan for that when we’re developing our project.

We also need to think about how we’re going to set up rendering our scene so we can previs it without turning on all the projectors. That will mean a multi camera set up and some live rendering.

We should also think about how we might ingest video to display for calibration and test playback. On top of that we should also build out a test module to help the creative programmer understand the correct formatting for how to work in the framework we’ve created.

We should also plan to make some space in our build to house assets that are needed across our network, as well as a place to keep our calibration data. We’ll take advantage of the stoner, so we better make some time to pull that apart and better understand how it works.

We’ll use a few set of extensions, so we should also make sure that we know how that works before we dig in too deep.

Finally, we should make sure we know how git works, since we’re going to use that along the way.

We’re bound to run into some other things we need to suss out as we go, but this should give us a solid starting point in terms of understanding the project from a distance.

Next we’ll take a closer look at the stoner to make sure we understand this component we’re going to use, then we’ll dig in and start building.