Unidentified Flying Objects

In this tutorial, we’re going to cover a more advanced feature of ECMAScript. You already know about the simple data types, number, boolean, and so on. Now we introduce objects, which are simply collections of other variables that you can use as if they are single variables. If you think of the basic types as bits of paper that you can write information on, then you can imagine an object as a box that can hold a number of these papers. You can pass the box around just as you would a single bit of paper, but you can pass a lot more information at once, because you can have lots of papers in the box. There is also the fact that you can group together related variables into a single object. So, if you wanted to store a vector, rather than having three numeric variables for the X Y and Z values, you would declare a Vector object that had three numeric values inside it. The vector is now one object, and is much easier to handle in your program. See?

There are various things you can store in your objects, and we’re going to start by looking at the bits of paper, the properties.


A property is simply a variable that lives inside an object, so is equivalent to one of the bits of paper on which you can store information. To access the properties of an object, you use the following notation. If myObject is an object and x is one of its properties, to use the variable x inside myObject you would write:


You can then use this in assignments, calculations or whatever. For instance:

myObject.x = 3;

would print out the value 3. All pretty simple so far, right?


Now, properties are not the only things you can have inside your objects. They can also contain methods. Now, these are exactly the same as normal ECMAScript functions, except they exist only as part of an object. You can’t use a method of an object if you don’t have an instance of that object. You could imagine methods as pixies that sit on the edge of the box, if you like. Each pixie has a particular function. One might convert the bits of paper in the box into a String for you and then give it back, or whatever. The main thing is that you can ask them to do stuff for you. They disappear into the box for a minute (looking at the paper) and then come back with results for you. You can pass parameters to these methods in the same way as you did with normal functions.

Now, can anyone guess how to use methods of an object? Yep, you’ve got it. The same as using properties (which makes sense). If myObject has a method called multiply(num) which multiplies x by num, we can do the following:

myObject.x = 3;
result = myObject.multiply(4);

This will print the value 12. Don’t forget, you can always chuck around entire object like they are normal variables as well, so we could also do something like this, assuming we have two objects and the appropriate code inside the multiply() method:

myObject.x = 3;
myOtherObject.x = 4;
result = myObject.multiply(myOtherObject);

This would take the entire object as a parameter and then get the appropriate information from it inside the function. And again, it would print out 12.

Creating Objects

So, where do these objects come from? Well, objects are created using a special type of function called a constructor. This is used to create an object of a certain type for you. Let’s continue with our Vector object. If we want to create a new object type called Vector, we need to write a constructor for it. This is what it would look like:

function Vector(x, y, z) {
   this.x = x;
   this.y = y;
   this.z = z;

This is a constructor that takes some parameters, but you can have them without, like so:

function Vector() {
   this.x = 0;
   this.y = 0;
   this.z = 0;

Lets take a closer look at this constructor thing. First thing to notice is that the function name is the same as your object. That’s how the interpreter knows which function to use. The second thing is that inside the function we use the keyword this. This (or this) is a very important word, in that it always refers to the current object. Also, notice that the constructor doesn’t return anything. Because we are modifying the object’s properties, we don’t need to return any values.

So how do we create these objects inside our programs? Well, we use another keyword, new, like so:

myVector1 = new Vector();
myVector2 = new Vector(1,2,3);

The new keyword tells the interpreter that we are creating a new object, so it calls the function after it as a constructor. You can see from the above code that myVector1 will have all its properties set to 0, because it use the constructor with no parameters, while myVector2 has the values x=1, y=2, z=3.

Once you have an object, you can add new properties to it by simply assigning values to them. If you suddenly feel that myVector2 should have a name, you can give it one by writing:

myVector2.name = "bob";

Let’s now try to add a method to our object. This is quite a simple thing to do. If you have a function that you want to add, say a scalar multiply of your Vector, you write the function for it like so:

function vectorMultiply(scalar) {
   this.x *= scalar;
   this.y *= scalar;
   this.z *= scalar;

This is the function that will do the work. It will multiply each property of the object by the scalar value passed to it. Now, how do we make it a method? Well, back to the constructor again…

function Vector() {
   this.x = 0;
   this.y = 0;
   this.z = 0;
   this.multiply = vectorMultiply;

We have added the method multiply, which maps directly to the function vectorMultiply. So, if we call myVector2.multiply(2), it calls the vectorMultiply() function and does the business, altering the values in the object myVector2.

Take a look at this example and its code. This is an example of a script that uses a constructor to create a new object. The end result is that you have a texture displayed on a box which you can scale as you want by dragging the red sphere around on the image. The red sphere will always correspond to the top-right of the image.

As you can see, when the position of the sphere changes, the set_translation() method is called. First of all, this checks two of the properties of the object it has been passed (an SFVec3f) to make sure they never go to 0 (which would break the TextureTransform). A new SFVec2f object is then created, using values calculated from the properties of the object passed into the method. This is then sent out to the TextureTransform, where it updates the texture. This is an example of using a script to do elementary type-conversion, in this case using the 3D position input from a PlaneSensor to control a 2D scaling of a texture. Can you begin to see the possibilities that are available using scripts?

The SFVec3f and SFVec2f objects used in that script are built-in VRML/ECMAScript objects that should be provided in any VRML browser. We’ll discuss them in a minute, after briefly mentioning arrays.

Array Objects

I don’t want to spend long on these. After this tutorial you should be going out and finding a proper ECMAScript/javascript reference anyway, so I’ll just brush over them quickly. Arrays are normally a collection of variables that are all the same type. They are referenced by using the name of the array followed by the zero-based index of the variable you want in square brackets. So, if you had an array of numbers, myArray[0] would give you the first number, myArray[1] the second, and so on. Now, the reason for bringing this up now is that some of the VRML types are basically arrays, so I just thought I ought to tell you what they are and how they work. However, I think I’m going to leave it at that for now. If we need arrays later, I’ll explain then, otherwise I’ll leave it to you to look them up in a decent book or something. Now, we’re going to get on to the useful stuff, by seeing how VRML97 uses objects in ECMAScript.

VRML Objects

If you want to create scripts in VRML that do more than just add a couple of numbers, you’re going to need to use the built-in VRML ECMAScript Objects. These are ECMAScript objects that are built into your browser (though not all browsers have full functionality), which have as standard a selection of properties, constructors and methods that you might find useful. For instance, the SFVec3f object has various geometric operations within it that you can use, such as length, normalise, dot and cross products, and so on.

Most VRML data types have an equivalent binding in ECMAScript, so an SFVec3f value in VRML is equivalent to an SFVec3f object in ECMAScript. However, the simple types are mapped directly to ECMAScript’s built-in types:

All other VRML types map to ECMAScript objects, such as SFVec3f, SFColor, MFNode and so on. As well as the standard types, another couple of objects are provided in the browser. These are the Browser object, which can be used to get information from the Browser, and the VrmlMatrix object, which is a 4x4 matrix useful for serious 3D geometry. If you need to use this one, you’ll probably have a decent grounding in 3D geometry anyway, so will already know how to use it.

The SFxxx objects are all different, and have their own functions and behaviour as appropriate for that type. Because they are all different, I’m not going to cover them all here. For more information on what you can do with each type, I would refer you to the relevant section in the specification, Annex C, the ECMAScript scripting reference. This has full details of how all the built-in types work and what you can do with them.

I will just mention the MFxxx types, though, as they are all very similar. They are all basically arrays of the appropriate SF type, and have very few functions. They all have one property, length, which is the number of items currently in the list. They have one method, toString(), which does exactly what it says on the tin. They also have only one constructor, which takes a list of SF objects to put in the new MF object. This can be empty if you want to make an empty array. You can access SF objects inside an MF object in the same way as you would access any array, by using the square brackets with the index inside. So, vectors[0] gives the first element in the MFVec3f object vectors, and vectors[7] gives the eighth. If you want to write to an SF object in an MF object, you use the same notation. So: var vectors = new MFVec3f(); vectors[5] = new SFVec3f(0,1,0); assigns the new SFVec3f(0,1,0) to the sixth element in vectors. If you write into a position past the end of an MFxxx array, the object will expand to allow you to write to it. So, you can create an empty array as above and then write into it wherever you like.

This example shows how you can use the many methods of the VRML97 built-in types to create some great effects. This is a simple geometry tutorial world, which shows you how the cross product of two vectors behaves when you move the vectors. You can imagine this sort of thing being very useful in online maths courses and things like that. Anyway, what do we have? For a start, there are two cylinders (red and green) which represent the two unit vectors. They are both attached to SphereSensors, so you can drag them around. The third (blue) cylinder represents the cross product of the two vectors, i.e. red x green. The cross product is the vector that is orthogonal to both vectors, and its length is dependent on the angle between them. You can’t move the blue cylinder, because it is generated by a Script, based on the positions of the other two cylinders. Play with the example for a while until you understand what it does, and then have a look at the code to see how we get the effect.

To generate the cross product, we need two vectors. However, what we get from the SphereSensors are rotations, so we first have to convert them into vectors. This is done in the two event handlers by creating a unit vector and rotating it by the new rotation value of the eventIn using the multVec() method of the SFRotation object. The result is stored in a SFVec3f object for use when calculating the cross product. So, each time an event is received (or when the world is loaded), we want to recalculate the cross product and output it. This is done very simply in the calc_cross_product function. The first line actually does the hard work of calculating the product. The rest converts it into a form we can use. So, first we calculate the product of vector1 and vector2, giving us our result, crossVec. However, to get this vector into our VRML world, we need to convert it into a rotation about the origin (to get the current orientation) and a length (to use as a scale factor). These can then be applied to the blue cylinder in our world for a perfect result.

OK, let’s deal with the scale factor first. We can get the length by simply using the length() method of the SFVec3f type. However, we can’t have a scale factor of 0, so we just need to make sure it never gets there with an if statement. Now, we want to scale by this amount in the Y direction, so we create a new SFVec3f to use as a scale eventOut with 1s in the X and Z, and our new scale factor in the Y. Now, we need to set the rotation correctly. What we’ll do is use one of the constructors of the SFRotation type. It allows you to create a new rotation using two vectors, one from, and one to. The rotation created will be the one that rotates the from vector to the to vector. So, we create a unit vector in the Y direction (the default position for our cylinder) and create a rotation using that and our cross product vector. This is then the rotation we need to use as our output. Clever, eh?

You can see from this example that there are all sorts of useful methods available in the standard VRML97 objects, and I can’t possibly cover them all here. It’s certainly worth sitting down for a while and reading through the descriptions of the objects before you actually do any programming, otherwise you might miss something that would make you life ten times easier!

Fallen Angel

Well, now you’re really ready to rock and roll as far as scripting with ECMAScript is concerned. If you need a handy reference to the VRML97 ECMAScript Objects, there is a handy cheat sheet available on the specs page. This has a quick summary of all the properties, constructors and methods for all the VRML97 Objects. If you’re programming scripts in ECMAScript, it’s a very handy thing to have by your side. I would also suggest you now go and look at some javascript references, and learn a little more about the other built-in objects, such as Date, Math, Array, and so on.

Now, I know the last few have been a bit harsh, with a lot to take in, but teaching people how to program in four tutorials isn’t a simple thing. If you’ve made it this far, though, you’ll be fine! We’ve covered all the concepts you need to create scripts, and from now on it’s plain sailing. Until we convert to Java, of course…

Next time out, we’re going to cover how to use the Browser object. This is a special object that gives you all sorts of useful information, and also allows you to muck about with your world at a really low level. Should be fun!

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