Monday, 18 July 2016

The Procedure Authoring Process

Being a visual tool where all content is created within the editor it is of paramount importance that the authoring process is a smooth one.  The tools and UI are being developed to be a low friction and intuitive experience, and I am always thinking about ways to improve them.  Let's take a look at the procedure authoring process.

Managing Procedures

The first step is to add a new procedure to the procedure browser.  Pressing Alt+N creates one called "new procedure".  It will inherit the category of the currently selected procedure.  Single click to select a procedure (highlighted in yellow) and you will see its properties appear in the property panel.  Here you can change its name from the default to something suitable.  If you want, you can change its category too.  As you rename or re-categorise a procedure it will move to the appropriate place in the procedure browser.  Scroll around or use the filter box at the top of the panel to find it.
Creating a new procedure

Procedure Files

A procedure is stored as XML data in a .proc file on disk, along-side this lives a .procedit file containing any data that is only needed in the editor such as visual graph layout and element descriptions.
Procedure files and their editor data companions
Each category has its own folder on disk.  As you rename/recategorise a procedure, these files are renamed and moved around accordingly.

Viewing & Editing

When you are working on a procedure you will probably want to see the results in the 3D view, to make a procedure the subject of this view select it and press the View button at the top of the browser panel.
To edit the procedure content, either select it and click the Edit button or just double-click on it and it will open in the procedure graph which we will look at next.
Editing and Viewing a new procedure

Procedure graph

The main part of the editing window is dedicated to viewing and editing the procedure graph.  A procedure has a perimeter surrounding it's content as well as hosting the input and output connections for it.  The procedures title appears at the top of this area, inputs on the left, and outputs on the right.
The viewing area can be panned around by holding the right mouse button and dragging, and zoomed in and out using the mouse wheel.  Normally the view is fully zoomed in and you will only need to zoom as you work on larger procedures.

Operator Instances

The most important part of creating a procedure is the adding of operator instances into it.  This is done by dragging an operator from the procedure or operator browser panel onto the procedure.
Placing operators by dragging onto procedure
New instances are unconnected and have default values for all of their inputs.  Operators can be removed by selecting them and pressing Delete.

Selection & Manipulation

Operators (and procedures) placed in your procedure can be singly or multiply selected to allow movement, and input value editing.  Shift+Click to add to the selection, and Control+Click to toggle inclusion.  You can also drag a marquee (from an empty part of the window) around operators to select them.  Click on the empty background to deselect.
Selected procedures can be dragged around to be repositioned, both individually and in multiselected groups.  If you move operators near to the edge of the procedure the boundary will be expanded to accommodate it.

Wiring

To use an operator it needs to be connected up with the visual wiring metaphor we use to show where inputs should get their values from.  Each input and output has a name label and a connection point.  Hovering over a connection point and dragging creates a wire attached to that point.  You can now interactively choose the appropriate connection point you want to connect to.  Compatible connection points (same type) are highlighted during this process.  Hover over the target connection point and release the mouse button to make the connection.
Connecting operators together
Existing wires can be moved around easily by grabbing one end and dragging it to somewhere else.  As you hover over a wire it will highlight, both the whole wire (thicker) and one of the ends (white).  This helps you see what a wire is used for in a complex procedure, as well as allowing you to specify an end to be reconnected.  If you drag a wire and drop it away from any connection points the wire will be removed.  Any disconnected inputs will revert to their previously set constant value.
Highlighting and disconnecting wires

Constants

Operator instances with unconnected inputs assume a constant value.  To specify this value simply select the operator and the property panel will list its inputs and values for editing.
Editing an operator instances input values
Connected inputs can't have their value set as they implicitly get their value from another output which is evaluated at synthesis time.

Procedure IO

Procedure inputs (along the left edge) and outputs (along the right edge) are created by starting a new wire on an operator output or input and dragging it outside the procedure boundary.
Creating procedure inputs and outputs
By default this new input/output assumes the name and type of the operator connection point you start from but they can be edited in the property panel by selecting the whole input or output area.
Editing procedure inputs
Editing procedure outputs
Procedure inputs and outputs can also be selected individually for editing, or removal (press Delete).
Once created, procedure inputs and outputs remain present and can be connected/disconnected/reconnected the same way as operator instance inputs and outputs.  In fact; procedure outputs behave exactly like operator instance inputs and procedure inputs behave exactly like operator instance outputs.

Notes

To help document procedures, visual notes can be added.  These are rectangular panels with a title and description text you can adorn a procedure with to explain what is going on.  You can also use them to surround operators to group them such that they can be moved around as a unit.  To include/exclude an operator from a group just drag it into or out of the note boundary.

3D view

The currently viewed procedure is submitted for synthesis and the resulting models displayed in the 3D renderer view-port.
The output of our procedure shown in the 3D view
As edits are made to the procedure structure and constants it is regularly re-submitted so that the models update to reflect these changes providing interactive feedback for your design.
Interactive editing of procedure data

Camera

The 3D view provides a standard range of camera controls including:
  • FPS style navigation - right mouse button to look around, WASD to move forward/strafe plus QE to raise/lower.
  • Modelling camera - Middle mouse button to pan, with Alt to orbit, with Control to raise/lower (Z axis), with Shift to move around the XY plane.  The mouse wheel can be used to adjust the orbit distance.
  • Auto-rotate - left click to toggle a carousel style orbit mode.

Grid

By default, the 3D scene includes a ground-plane grid and an axis indicator at the origin to help visualise the 3D space and scale of objects modelled.  This can be disabled and adjusted if needed by clicking the Grid tab at the top.
Drawing aids and their settings

Expanded View

The normal 3D view is fairly small but fine for a lot of modelling needs.  For cases where more detail is needed though you can toggle it to large size by pressing the Space bar.  In this view you only have the 3D view and the property panel visible.  This is a great mode to tweak values in.
Toggling expanded 3D view

Property Editing

Many elements in the editor can, when selected, have their properties displayed in the property panel for review and editing.  This used for operator input constants, procedure properties, synthesis and rendering statistics, and grid and view-port diagnostics settings.

Types 

Most data types are view-able and editable in the property panel, including; integer, floating point, boolean, colour, string, vector, and even frames have basic editing control.

Controls 

Some types have specialised controls, for example, numerical values have a slider control to aid interactive adjustment.  The minimum and maximum range of the slider is editable too, and stored with the procedure so it is there for convenient editing of the value next time the procedure is opened.
Integer inputs can also be set up in the operator definition to have enumerated values.  This can be presented as a drop-down selection or a series of buttons.  Inputs that represent a set of flags can have independant toggle buttons for each flag as well as some composite value buttons, e.g. All, for convenience.

General

A few of the more general features of the editor are worth mentioning.

Undo

Most editing operations, including property changes are command based and enable full undo/redo support.  The usual Ctrl+Z/Ctrl+Shift+Z keys are used to navigate the command history. 

Save & Load 

Procedures with unsaved changes show in bold font in the procedure browser.
Unsaved procedures appear in bold
Pressing Ctrl+S or the Save button at the top of the browser will save all unsaved work in one go.  The save process is two stage and uses temporary intermediate files to protect your data from problems during the save process.  All procedure and editing files are also kept in a back-up history.  This is stored in a backup folder alongside the procedure files.
All procedures are loaded at startup by default.  This makes managing them much simpler.

Updates

It's worth mentioning how procedure updates are propagated and applied to the models in the 3D view.  Any time you perform an editing operation on a procedure, it can potentially affect the generated output.  By following the dependency graph back from the edited procedure a list of all potentially affected procedures can be built.  This is then used to determine if the procedure you are viewing needs to be re-synthesised.
If you are adjusting a slider and potentially generating lots of edits in a short space of time the engine will try to update as fast as it can without swamping the synthesisers.

Summary

The functionality described here corresponds to the current state of play.  This is the tool set I am currently using to build and test procedures.  There is lots of scope for improvement and I have a large wish-list of features and tweaks to add.  Usually these are implemented when I am building more involved demonstration procedures and find bottlenecks in the process.

Next

I am going to be away for a couple of weeks so the next few blog updates may not be as regular as they have been so far.

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