Immediate Mode GUI Programming

The initial focus of the Gio project was to create a simple cross-platform Go library for creating user interfaces for mobile and the desktop, avoiding the platform bound and often complex native toolkits. This is also the apparent selling point of Gio.

However, as work progressed it became clear that the immediate mode programming model is a key driver for longer term adoption of Gio. After all, there are plenty of cross-platform GUI toolkits available, but very few attempt the direct and stateless programming model of immediate mode libraries.

This article is an introduction to immediate mode programming, comparing Gio’s approach with popular retained mode toolkits.

What is immediate mode?

In traditional retained mode UI toolkits, the state of the user interface is owned by the toolkit, and event handling, layout and animation is handled internally. The application can only indirectly manipulate the UI state, and responding to user input happen in callbacks.

The following JavaScript program implements a button and a click event handler:

var count = 0;

var root = document.getElementById("clickcounter");

var label = document.createElement("h3");
label.innerText = "Number of clicks: 0";
root.appendChild(label);

var btn = document.createElement("button");
btn.innerText = "Click Me!";
btn.addEventListener("click", function() {
	count++;
	label.innerText = "Number of clicks:" + count;
});
root.appendChild(btn);

In retained mode the label and button must explicitly be created, added to a widget hierrarchy (the HTML DOM) and the click handler must be registered. The handler callback is invoked at the discretion of the UI library, not when convenient for the program.

In the immediate mode model, library owned state is minimized, and the program is responsible for drawing, layout and event handling, supported by the facilities offered by the UI library.

A complete Gio version of the click counter is reproduced below (import statements omitted).

func main() {
	go func() {
		w := app.NewWindow()
		loop(w)
	}()
	app.Main()
}

func loop(w *app.Window) {
	gofont.Register()
	th := material.NewTheme()
	gtx := layout.NewContext(w.Queue())

	// UI state.
	var btn widget.Button
	var count int

	for e := range w.Events() {
		if e, ok := e.(system.FrameEvent); ok {
			gtx.Reset(e.Config, e.Size)

			for btn.Clicked(gtx) {
				count++
			}

			layout.W.Layout(gtx, func() {
				layout.Flex{Axis: layout.Vertical}.Layout(gtx,
					layout.Rigid(func() {
						th.H5(fmt.Sprintf("Number of clicks: %d", count)).Layout(gtx)
					}),
					layout.Rigid(func() {
						th.Button("Click me!").Layout(gtx, &btn)
					}),
				)
			})

			e.Frame(gtx.Ops)
		}
	}
}

If your browser supports WebAssembly and WebGL, you can run the program by clicking the run button. It may take a little while to load.



Notice the differences: the program is in control of the main event loop, user input is handled as part of program flow, and the program state is both minimal and cleanly separated. The counter doesn’t respond to user input, and so is reduced to a (high-level) drawing command. The same applies to layout; both the aligning and listing of the two widgets are stateless.

Drawing

If a user interface is a form of I/O system, drawing is the output part. Mixing custom drawing and animation with higher level widgets is where the retained model typically struggles.

Here’s a program that displays a bouncing ball, controlled by a button.

type state struct {
	btn         widget.Button
	ballVisible bool
	time        time.Time
}

var programState state

func (s *state) layout(gtx *layout.Context, th *material.Theme) {
	for s.btn.Clicked(gtx) {
		s.ballVisible = !s.ballVisible
		s.time = gtx.Now()
	}

	if s.ballVisible {
		s.drawBall(gtx)
	}
	layout.Center.Layout(gtx, func() {
		label := "Throw ball"
		if s.ballVisible {
			label = "Hide ball"
		}
		th.Button(label).Layout(gtx, &s.btn)
	})
}

func (s *state) drawBall(gtx *layout.Context) {
	var st op.StackOp
	st.Push(gtx.Ops)
	const size = 50

	// Animate bounce.
	const (
		v0 = 50.0
		g  = -9.81
	)
	now := gtx.Now()
	t := now.Sub(s.time).Seconds()
	t *= 10
	t1 := -v0 / (.5 * g)
	t = math.Mod(t, t1)
	y := v0*t + .5*g*t*t

	// Position.
	bottom := float32(gtx.Constraints.Height.Max)
	op.TransformOp{}.Offset(f32.Point{X: 20, Y: bottom - size - float32(y)}).Add(gtx.Ops)

	// Draw.
	paint.ColorOp{Color: color.RGBA{A: 0xff, G: 0xff}}.Add(gtx.Ops)
	clip.Rect{
		Rect: f32.Rectangle{Max: f32.Point{X: size, Y: size}},
		NE:   size * .5, NW: size * .5, SE: size * .5, SW: size * .5,
	}.Op(gtx.Ops).Add(gtx.Ops)
	paint.PaintOp{
		Rect: f32.Rectangle{Max: f32.Point{X: size, Y: size}},
	}.Add(gtx.Ops)
	st.Pop()

	// Request immediate redraw.
	op.InvalidateOp{}.Add(gtx.Ops)
}



See how the high-level button and its centering is naturally mixed with the low-level animation and drawing of the sphere. There is no separate animation system; rather, the program draws and requests redrawing as long as the ball is bouncing, and simply stops when it is not. The required state is minimized to just the ballVisible boolean and the throwing time.

Compare the retained mode version:

var root = document.getElementById("bounce");
root.style = "display: flex; position: relative; height: 200px";

var ball = document.createElement("div");
ball.style = "background-color: green; position: absolute; width: 40px; height: 40px; border-radius: 50%";
ball.style.bottom = 0;

var btn = document.createElement("button");
btn.style = "margin: auto";
btn.innerText = "Throw ball";
root.appendChild(btn);

var ballVisible = false;
var now;
var animHandle;

btn.addEventListener("click", function() {
	ballVisible = !ballVisible;
	if (ballVisible) {
		root.appendChild(ball);
		now = performance.now();
		btn.innerText = "Hide ball";
		animate(now);
	} else {
		cancelAnimationFrame(animHandle);
		btn.innerText = "Throw ball";
		ball.remove();
	}
});

function animate(time) {
	var v0 = 50.0;
	var g = -9.81;
	var t = (time - now)/1000;
	t *= 10;
	var t1 = -v0 / (.5 * g);
	var t = t % t1;
	var y = v0*t + .5*g*t*t;

	ball.style.bottom = y+"px";

	animHandle = window.requestAnimationFrame(animate);
}

Several redundant state variables appear in the program: the innerText property, the ball object, the callback handle animHandle. As a result, the click listener must reset the extra state and remember to unregister the callback. A lingering callback may be invoked when the program is unprepared or leak memory.

Layout

The examples so far demonstrate some advantages of immediate mode layouts such as centering, aligning and listing interface elements: operations are stateless, and they’re specified and controlled with regular programming constructs such as functions, loops and conditions.

However, state for static layout is about as harmless as having extra program constants in your program; the advantages are clearer for dynamic layouts.

This program implements a scrollable list of many rows, with a button to modify their content.

var root = document.getElementById("list");

var list = document.createElement("div");
list.style = "overflow-y: scroll; max-height: 200px;"
root.appendChild(list);

var factor = 1;

function addRows() {
	for (var i = 0; i < 1000; i++) {
		var row = document.createElement("p");
		row.innerText = "Row #" + i*factor;
		list.appendChild(row);
	}
}
addRows()

var btn = document.createElement("button");
btn.innerText = "Multiply by 10";
btn.addEventListener("click", function() {
	while (list.firstChild) {
		list.firstChild.remove();
	}
	factor *= 10;
	addRows();
});
root.appendChild(btn);

Because every row has a persistent representation to the UI in the form of <p> elements, the program is left with two options for updating the elements: either go through them one by one, or remove them all and recreate them. Both options perform worse as the number of elements grows1.

The equivalent Gio program has just two variables: the integer factor adjusted by the button, and the list object that tracks the scroll position. There is no need for a persistent representation of each row and the list spans a million rows without impacting performance.

type state struct {
	btn    widget.Button
	factor int
	list   layout.List
}

var programState state

func (s *state) layout(gtx *layout.Context, th *material.Theme) {
	for s.btn.Clicked(gtx) {
		s.factor *= 10
	}

	layout.Flex{Axis: layout.Vertical}.Layout(gtx,
		layout.Flexed(1, func() {
			const numRows = 1e6 // A million rows.
			s.list.Layout(gtx, numRows, func(i int) {
				txt := fmt.Sprintf("Row #%d", i*s.factor)

				th.Body1(txt).Layout(gtx)
			})
		}),
		layout.Rigid(func() {
			layout.S.Layout(gtx, func() {
				th.Button("Multiply by 10").Layout(gtx, &s.btn)
			})
		}),
	)
}



User input

Perhaps the most useful effect of state minimization is the elimination of event callbacks. Callbacks are the retained mode answer to the question: given an input event such as a mouse click, where and how should it be delivered? In Gio’s approach filters and unique handler keys replace callbacks for convenient distribution of events among widgets.

The following implementation of a basic checkbox demonstrates low-level input handling:

type checkbox struct {
	checked bool
}

var boxes [10]checkbox

func draw(gtx *layout.Context) {
	var children []layout.FlexChild
	for i := range boxes {
		box := &boxes[i]
		children = append(children,
			layout.Rigid(func() {
				layout.UniformInset(unit.Dp(10)).Layout(gtx, func() {
					box.layout(gtx)
				})
			}),
		)
	}
	layout.Flex{}.Layout(gtx, children...)
}

func (c *checkbox) layout(gtx *layout.Context) {
	const size = 50

	// Process events using the key, c.
	for _, e := range gtx.Events(c) {
		if e, ok := e.(pointer.Event); ok {
			if e.Type == pointer.Press {
				c.checked = !c.checked
			}
		}
	}

	var st op.StackOp
	st.Push(gtx.Ops) // Save operation state.

	// Confine input to the area covered by the checkbox.
	pointer.Rect(image.Rectangle{Max: image.Point{
		X: size,
		Y: size,
	}}).Add(gtx.Ops)
	// Declare the filter with the key, c.
	pointer.InputOp{Key: c}.Add(gtx.Ops)

	col := color.RGBA{A: 0xff, R: 0xff} // Red.
	if c.checked {
		col = color.RGBA{A: 0xff, G: 0xff} // Green.
	}

	// Draw checkbox. Red for unchecked, green for checked.
	paint.ColorOp{Color: col}.Add(gtx.Ops)
	paint.PaintOp{Rect: f32.Rectangle{Max: f32.Point{
		X: size,
		Y: size,
	}}}.Add(gtx.Ops)

	st.Pop() // Restore operation state.

	// Specify layout dimensions.
	gtx.Dimensions = layout.Dimensions{
		Size: image.Point{
			X: size, Y: size,
		},
	}
}



First, notice the simple interface of the checkbox; input handling, drawing and layout are all contained in a single method.

Second, the input protocol. To separate events belonging to different widgets, handler keys that uniquely identify the handlers are used. Keys must be declared in the previous frame, along with any predicates on the input (hit area for pointer input).

Finally, the convenience. The program is free to process events anywhere during the frame, and there is no callback or state to unregister. Key declarations are automatically discarded before the beginning of each frame.

Resources


  1. Some toolkits such as the Android SDK use list adaptors similar to the function passed to Gio’s List.Layout. However, Android list children must be instantiated and their representations carefully cached and reused to avoid excessive memory allocation during scrolling.

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