presets and cue building – a beyond basics checklist | TouchDesigner 099

from the facebook help group

Looking for generic advice on how to make a tox loader with cues + transitions, something that is likely a common need for most TD users dealing with a playback situation. I’ve done it for live settings before, but there are a few new pre-requisites this time: a looping playlist, A-B fade-in transitions and cueing. Matthew Ragan‘s state machine article (https://matthewragan.com/…/presets-and-cue-building-touchd…/) is useful, but since things get heavy very quickly, what is the best strategy for pre-loading TOXs while dealing with the processing load of an A to B deck situation?

https://www.facebook.com/groups/touchdesignerhelp/permalink/835733779925957/

I’ve been thinking about this question for a day now, and it’s a hard one. Mostly this is a difficult question as there are lots of moving parts and nuanced pieces that are largely invisible when considering this challenge from the outside. It’s also difficult as general advice is about meta-concepts that are often murkier than they may initially appear. So with that in mind, a few caveats:

  • Some of suggestions below come from experience building and working on distributed systems, some from single server systems. Sometimes those ideas play well together, and sometimes they don’t. Your mileage may vary here, so like any general advice please think through the implications of your decisions before committing to an idea to implement.
  • The ideas are free, but the problems they make won’t be. Any suggestion / solution here is going to come with trade-offs. There are no silver bullets when it comes to solving these challenges – one solution might work for the user with high end hardware but not for cheaper components; another solution may work well across all component types, but have an implementation limit. 
  • I’ll be wrong about some things. The scope of anyone’s knowledge is limited, and the longer I work in ToiuchDesigner (and as a programmer in general) the more I find holes and gaps in my conceptual and computational frames of reference. You might well find that in your hardware configuration my suggestions don’t work, or something I suggest won’t work does. As with all advice, it’s okay to be suspicious.

A General Checklist

Plan… no really, make a Plan and Write it Down

The most crucial part of this process is the planning stage. What you make, and how you think about making it, largely depends on what you want to do and the requirements / expectations that come along with what that looks like. This often means asking a lot of seemingly stupid questions – do I need to support gifs for this tool? what happens if I need to pulse reload a file? what’s the best data structure for this? is it worth building an undo feature? and on and on and on. Write down what you’re up to – make a checklist, or a scribble on a post-it, or create a repo with a readme… doesn’t matter where you do it, just give yourself an outline to follow – otherwise you’ll get lost along or forget the features that were deal breakers.

Data Structures

These aren’t always sexy, but they’re more important than we think at first glance. How you store and recall information in your project – especially when it comes to complex cues  – is going to play a central role in how your solve problems for your endeavor. Consider the following questions:

  • What existing tools do you like – what’s their data structure / solution?
  • How is your data organized – arrays, dictionaries, etc.
  • Do you have a readme to refer back to when you extend your project in the future?
  • Do you have a way to add entries?
  • Do you have a way to recall entries?
  • Do you have a way to update entries?
  • Do you have a way to copy entries?
  • Do you have a validation process in-line to ensure your entries are valid?
  • Do you have a means of externalizing your cues and other config data

Time

Take time to think about… time. Silly as it may seem, how you think about time is especially important when it comes to these kinds of systems. Many of the projects I work on assume that time is streamed to target machines. In this kind of configuration a controller streams time (either as a float or as timecode) to nodes on the network. This ensures that all machines share a clock – a reference to how time is moving. This isn’t perfect and streaming time often relies on physical network connections (save yourself the heartache that comes with wifi here). You can also end up with frame discrepancies of 1-3 frames depending on the network you’re using, and the traffic on it at any given point. That said, time is an essential ingredient I always think about when building playback projects. It’s also worth thinking about how your toxes or sub-components use time.

When possible, I prefer expecting time as an input to my toxes rather than setting up complex time networks inside of them. The considerations here are largely about sync and controlling cooking. CHOPs that do any interpolating almost always cook, which means that downstream ops depending on that CHOP also cook. This makes TOX optimization hard if you’re always including CHOPs with constantly cooking foot-prints. Providing time to a TOX as an expected input makes handling the logic around stopping unnecessary cooking a little easier to navigate. Providing time to your TOX elements also ensures that you’re driving your component in relationship to time provided by your controller.

How you work with time in your TOXes, and in your project in general can’t be understated as something to think carefully about. Whatever you decide in regards to time, just make sure it’s a purposeful decision, not one that catches you off guard.

Identify Your Needs

What are the essential components that you need in modular system. Are you working mostly with loading different geometry types? Different scenes? Different post process effects? There are several different approach you might use depending on what you’re really after here, so it’s good start to really dig into what you’re expecting your project to accomplish. If you’re just after an optimized render system for multiple scenes, you might check out this example.

Understand / Control Component Cooking

When building fx presets I mostly aim to have all of my elements loaded at start so I’m only selecting them during performance. This means that geometry and universal textures are loaded into memory, so changing scenes is really only about scripts that change internal paths. This also means that my expectation of any given TOX that I work on is that its children will have a CPU cook time of less than 0.05ms and preferably 0.0ms when not selected. Getting a firm handle on how cooking propagates in your networks is as close to mandatory as it gets when you want to build high performing module based systems.

Some considerations here are to make sure that you know how the selective cook type on null CHOPs works – there are up and downsides to using this method so make sure you read the wiki carefully.

Exports vs. Expressions is another important consideration here as they can often have an impact on cook time in your networks.

Careful use of Python also falls into this category. Do you have a hip tox that uses a frame start script to run 1000 lines of python? That might kill your performance – so you might need to think through another approach to achieve that effect.

Do you use script CHOPs or SOPs? Make sure that you’re being carefully with how you’re driving their parameters. Python offers an amazing extensible scripting language for Touch, but it’s worth being careful here before you rely too much on these op types cooking every frame.

Even if you’re confident that you understand how cooking works in TouchDesigner, don’t be afraid to question your assumptions here. I often find that how I thought some op behaved is in fact not how it behaves.

Plan for Scale

What’s your scale? Do you need to support an ever expanding number of external effects? Is there a limit in place? How many machines does this need to run on today? What about in 4 months? Obscura is often pushing against boundaries of scale, so when we talk about projects I almost always add a zero after any number of displays or machines that are going to be involved in a project… that way what I’m working on has a chance of being reusable in the future. If you only plan to solve today’s problem, you’ll probably run up against the limits of your solution before very long.

Shared Assets

In some cases developing a place in your project for shared assets will reap huge rewards. What do I mean? You need look no further than TouchDesigner itself to see some of this in practice. In ui/icons you’ll find a large array of moviefile in TOPs that are loaded at start and provide many of the elements that we see when developing in Touch:

icon_library.PNG

icon_library_example.PNG

Rather than loading these files on demand, they’re instead stored in this bin and can be selected into their appropriate / needed locations. Similarly, if your tox files are going to rely on a set of assets that can be centralized, consider what you might do to make that easier on yourself. Loading all of these assets on project start is going to help ensure that you minimize frame drops.

While this example is all textures, they don’t have to be. Do you have a set of model assets or SOPs that you like to use? Load them at start and then select them. Selects exist across all Op types, don’t be afraid to use them. Using shared assets can be a bit of a trudge to set up and think through, but there are often large performance gains to be found here.

Dependencies

Sometimes you have to make something that is dependent on something else. Shared assets are a kind of single example of dependencies – where a given visuals TOX wouldn’t operate correctly in a network that didn’t have our assets TOX as well. Dependencies can be frustrating to use in your project, but they can also impose structure and uniformity around what you build. Chances are the data structure for your cues will also become dependent on external files – that’s all okay. The important consideration here is to think through how these will impact your work and the organization of your project.

Use Extensions

If you haven’t started writing extensions, now is the time to start. Cue building and recalling are well suited for this kind of task, as are any number of challenges that you’re going to find. In the past I’ve used custom extensions for every external TOX. Each module has a Play(state) method where state indicates if it’s on or off. When the module is turned on it sets of a set of scripts to ensure that things are correctly set up, and when it’s turned off it cleans itself up and resets for the next Play() call. This kind of approach may or may not be right for you, but if you find yourself with a module that has all sorts of ops that need to be bypassed or reset when being activated / deactivated this might be the right kind of solution.

Develop a Standard

In that vein, cultivate a standard. Decide that every TOX is going to get 3 toggles and 6 floats as custom pars. Give every op access to your shared assets tox, or to your streamed time… whatever it is, make some rules that your modules need to adhere to across your development pipeline. This lets you standardize how you treat them and will make you all the happier in the future.

That’s all well and good Matt, but I don’t get it – why should my TOXes all have a fixed number of custom pars? Let’s consider building a data structure for cues let’s say that all of our toxes have a different number of custom pars, and they all have different names. Our data structure needs to support all of our possible externals, so we might end up with something like:

{
      "cues": {
           "cue1": {
                "Tox": "Swank",
                "Level_1": 0,
                "Noise": 1,
                "Level3": 4,
                "Blacklvl": 0.75
           },
           "cue2": {
               "Tox": "Curl",
               "Bouncy": 0.775,
               "Curve": 100.0,
               "Augment": 13,
               "Blklvl": 0.75
           },
           "cue3": {
               "Tox": "Boop",
               "Boopness": 0.775
           }
      }
}

That’s a bummer. Looking at this we can tell right away that there might be problems brewing at the circle k – what happens if we mess up our tox loading / targeting and our custom pars can’t get assigned? In this set-up we’ll just fail during execution and get an error… and our TOX won’t load with the correct pars. We could swap this around and include every possible custom par type in our dictionary, only applying the value if it matches a par name, but that means some tricksy python to handle our messy implementation.

What if, instead, all of our custom TOXes had the same number of custom pars, and they shared a name space to the parent? We can rename them to whatever makes sense inside, but in the loading mechanism we’d likely reduce the number of errors we need to consider. That would change the dictionary above into something more like:

{
      "cues": {
           "cue1": {
                "Tox": "Swank",
                "Par1": 0,
                "Par2": 1,
                "Par3": 4,
                "Par4": 0.75
           },
           "cue2": {
               "Tox": "Curl",
               "Par1": 0.775,
               "Par2": 100.0,
               "Par3": 13,
               "Par4": 0.75
           },
           "cue3": {
               "Tox": "Boop",
               "Par1": 0.875,
               "Par2": None,
               "Par3": None,
               "Par4": None
           }
      }
}

Okay, so that’s prettier… So what? If we look back at our lesson on dictionary for loops we’ll remember that the pars() call can significantly reduce the complexity of pushing dictionary items to target pars. Essentially we’re able to store the par name as the key, and the target value as the value in our dictionary we’re just happier all around. That makes our UI a little harder to wrangle, but with some careful planning we can certainly think through how to handle that challenge. Take it or leave it, but a good formal structure around how you handle and think about these things will go a long way.

Cultivate Realistic Expectations

I don’t know that I’ve ever met a community of people with such high standards of performance as TouchDesigner developers. In general we’re a group that wants 60 fps FOREVER (really we want 90, but for now we’ll settle), and when things slow down or we see frame drops be prepared for someone to tell you that you’re doing it all wrong – or that your project is trash.

Waoh is that a high bar.

Lots of things can cause frame drops, and rather than expecting that you’ll never drop below 60, it’s better to think about what your tolerance for drops or stutters is going to be. Loading TOXes on the fly, disabling / enabling containers or bases, loading video without pre-loading, loading complex models, lots of SOP operations, and so on will all cause frame drops – sometimes big, sometimes small. Establishing  your tolerance threshold for these things will help you prioritize your work and architecture. You can also think about where you might hide these behaviors. Maybe you only load a subset of your TOXes for a set – between sets you always fade to black when your new modules get loaded. That way no one can see any frame drops.

The idea here is to incorporate this into your planning process – having a realistic expectation will prevent you from getting frustrated as well, or point out where you need to invest more time and energy in developing your own programming skills.

Separation is a good thing… mostly

Richard’s killer post about optimization in touch has an excellent recommendation – keep your UI separate. This suggestion is HUGE, and it does far more good than you might intentionally imagine.

I’d always suggest keeping the UI on another machine or in a seperate instance. It’s handier and much more scaleable if you need to fork out to other machines. It forces you to be a bit more disciplined and helps you when you need to start putting previz tools etc in. I’ve been very careful to take care of the little details in the ui too such as making sure TOPs scale with the UI (but not using expressions) and making sure that CHOPs are kept to a minimum. Only one type of UI element really needs a CHOP and that’s a slider, sometimes even they don’t need them.

I’m with Richard 100% here on all fronts. That said, be mindful of why and when you’re splitting up your processes. It might be temping to do all of your video handling in one process, that gets passed to process only for rendering 3d, before going to a process that’s for routing and mapping.

Settle down there cattle rustler.

Remember that for all the separating you’re doing, you need strict methodology for how these interchanges work, how you send messages between them, how you debug this kind of distribution, and on and on and on.

There’s a lot of good to be found how you break up parts of your project into other processes, but tread lightly and be thoughtful. Before I do this, I try to ask myself:

  • “What problem am I solving by adding this level of additional complexity?”
  • “Is there another way to solve this problem without an additional process?”
  • “What are the possible problems / issues this might cause?”
  • “Can I test this in a small way before re-factoring the whole project?”

Don’t Forget a Start up Procedures

How your project starts up matters. Regardless of your asset management process it’s important to know what you’re loading at start, and what’s only getting loaded once you need it in touch. Starting in perform mode, there are a number of bits that aren’t going to get loaded until you need them. To that end, if you have a set of shared assets you might consider writing a function to force cook them so they’re ready to be called without any frame drops. Or you might think about a way to automate your start up so you can test to make sure you have all your assets (especially if your dev computer isn’t the same as your performance / installation machine).

Logging and Errors

It’s not much fun to write a logger, but they sure are useful. When you start to chase this kind of project it’ll be important to see where things went wrong. Sometimes the default logging methods aren’t enough, or they happen to fast. A good logging methodology and format can help with that. You’re welcome to make your own, you’re also welcome to use and modify the one I made.

Unit Tests

Measure twice, cut once. When it comes to coding, unit tests are where it’s at. Simple proof of concept complete tests that aren’t baked into your project or code can help you sort out the limitations or capabilities of an idea before you really dig into the process of integrating it into your project. These aren’t always fun to make, but they let you strip down your idea to the bare bones and sort out simple mechanics first.

Build the simplest implementation of the idea. What’s working? What isn’t? What’s highly performant? What’s not? Can you make any educated guesses or speculation about what will cause problems? Give yourself some benchmarks that your test has to prove itself against before you move ahead with integrating it into your project as a solution.

Document

Even though it’s hard – DOCUMENT YOUR CODE. I know that it’s hard, even I have a hard time doing it – but it’s so so so very important to have a documentation strategy for a project like this. Once you start building pieces that depend on a particular message format, or sequence of events, any kind of breadcrumbs you can leave for yourself to find your way back to your original thoughts will be helpful.