xModels Info

Computer-generated graphics images are usually constructed in two stages: modeling followed by rendering. In the modeling stage, a geometric representation of the objects in the scene is constructed. The rendering stage produces the actual images, based on information in the model.

The xModels Applet lets you describe scenes in a simple scene description language. Scenes are rendered as wireframe models, a very minimal kind of rendering which shows just the edges of all the objects in the scene -- even edges that are behind other objects. The main point of the applet is not to produce fancy images; the point is to learn some of the basic ideas of geometric modeling.

This file contains fairly complete information about the xModels Applet and about the scene description language that it uses. Also available on a separate page are some tutorial examples.

I invented xModels to use as an example in The Most Complex Machine, a book that surveys the field of computer science. The xModels applet is based on two similar programs that I wrote for Macintosh computers (one for two-dimensional and one for three-dimensional graphics). These programs are among several that I wrote for use with The Most Complex Machine. All the Macintosh programs are available for downloading. I am in the process of porting all the Macintosh programs to Java.

The xModels Applet

The xModels applet is designed to be easy to use, so the major thing you need to learn about is the scene description language, which is discussed below.

The applet has two modes. In its program mode, it displays a text area where you can type and edit scene descriptions. There is a row of control buttons along the bottom that can be used to render the scene, to load a program from a file, to save the current program in a file, and to clear out all the text from the text area. The applet is in this mode when it first starts up. You can only switch to graphics mode by rendering a legal program.

If you click the "Render" button, the computer will examine the program contained in the text area to see whether it is a legal scene description. If the computer finds an error, it will report it in a box at the top of the text area. (You can make this box go away by clicking on it, if you like.) If there are no errors, the applet will switch to graphics mode and the scene will be displayed.

The second mode is a graphics mode in which the applet displays the rendered scene. In this mode, there is a column of controls along the right edge of the applet. This column contains:

At the very top of the applet, there is another pop-up menu. This menu is available in both programming mode and graphics mode, and you can use it to switch between modes and among all the programs that the applet knows about. The first item in this pop-up menu is "Graphics". When the applet is in programming mode, selecting "Graphics" from the pop-up menu is exactly the same as clicking on the "RENDER" button. That is, the applet will check the current program for errors and, if no errors are found, will switch to graphics mode and display the rendered scene.

The second item in the pop-up menu is "[New]". Choosing this item will let you write a new program, starting with an empty text area. (This is the same as clicking the New button while in graphics mode.) The new program will have the name "Untitled 1" or "Untitled 2" or....

The remaining items in the menu are names of programs. Selecting one of these names will take you directly to that program. If you do this while the program is in graphics mode, it will switch back to programming mode.

The Scene Description Language

Scenes in xModels are described in terms of three coordinates, x, y, and z. The computer's screen is the xy-plane, with the origin (0,0) at the center of the graphics display area. The positive y-axis extends upwards from this point, and the positive x-axis points to the right. The z-axis points directly out from the screen towards the viewer, so that points in front of the screen have positive z-values, and points behind the screen have negative z-values. This is a standard coordinate system for three-dimensional computer graphics.

The graphics display area includes the square region with -10 < x <10 and -10 < y <10. Since the display area might not be square, it can actually extend beyond this range in one direction. There is no way to increase or decrease the basic square region that is displayed, so scenes must be sized to fit into this region. (It is easy to scale objects up or down in size to fit.)

The three-dimensional world is projected onto the xy-plane from a point on the positive z-axis. The z-coordinate of this point is called the viewDistance, and its value can be specified as part of a scene description. (This name is somewhat deceptive. Since the display area always shows the same square region, objects on the xy-plane don't look smaller as the viewDistance increases. They just look more squashed in the z-direction.) The viewDistance can be set to "infinity" to give what is called a parallel projection.

Fundamentally, a scene description for xModels is a list of objects that appear in the screen, plus a few special commands. Special commands are used to specify colors, view distance, and animation parameters. There are a few basic named objects, such as circle and cone. There is also a command for defining new named objects. Geometric transformations such as rotate and scale can be applied to objects to specify their size, position, and orientation. You can make complex, hierarchical objects that contain other objects, which can have their own transformations. Animation is done by letting parameters, such as the scaling factor in a scale transformation, vary through a range of values as the animation proceeds from frame to frame. The rest of this file gives the details of the scene description language.

I should note that a scene description can contain comments. A comment begins with a semicolon (;) and continues until the end of the line. For multiline comments, a semicolon is required on each line. A comment doesn't have to start at the beginning of a line.

Except in the case of comments, xModels doesn't pay attention to ends-of-line. They are treated just like spaces. You can lay out your program any way you like on the page.

The xModels language is not case-sensitive: Upper and lower case letters are considered to be equivalent. Names can consist of letters, digits, and the underscore character (_). A name must begin with a letter or with an underscore. Names can be of any length. A word with a predefined meaning, such as square or animate, cannot be reused as the name of a defined object.

Numbers can include decimal points and exponential notation. For example: -17, 3.14, .5, 1.2e5. With just a few exceptions, anyplace where a number can appear in a program, a number range can also appear. Number ranges are used with animation, as described later in this file. Examples of number ranges are 1:10, -1:3:10, and 12::0. (The only places where number ranges cannot be substituted for numbers are in the animate command and for the first parameter of the lathe or extrude command.

As a final preliminary point, I will note that commas can be included in a program to help make it more readable by humans. However, the computer ignores commas. More specifically, it treats them exactly the same as spaces.

Special Commands

The special commands in xModels are animate, viewDistance, background, define, and various commands for specifying the color to be used for drawing.

If the animate command occurs at all in a program, it must be the first word in the program (not counting any comments the might precede it). This command, which is used to specify the number of frames in an animation, is defined below.

The viewDistance command specifies the point along the z-axis that is used as the center of projection. An (x,y,z) point is projected onto the xy-plane by drawing a line from the center of projection through the point (x,y,z) and finding the (x,y) point where it intersects the xy-plane. Objects behind the projection point are not displayed. The viewDistance command must be followed by a parameter that specifies the z-coordinate of the projection point. The parameter can be any positive number. If the scene is an animation, the parameter can be a number range. The parameter can also be the word infinity which specifies projection from infinity. A program can contain at most one viewDistance command. If none is specified, a default value of 20 is used. The viewDistance command does not have to come at the beginning of the program. However, it applies to the entire scene in any case.

The background command is used to specified the background color for the scene. This command must be followed by a color specification. The color can be specified by one of the specific color words listed below. It can also be given using the rgb or hsb color command. Since rgb and hsb can use number ranges as parameters, the background color can change from one frame of an animation to the next. The default background color is white. The background command does not have to appear at the beginning of the program.

The define is used to give a name to an object. Once a named object has been defined, it can be used in the same way as any of the built-in objects, including in the definitions of other named objects. The define must be followed by the name of the object, and then by the specification of the object itself. The object is generally a complex object, enclosed between [ and ], but that is not a requirement. Defining an object does not make the object appear in the scene. To do that, you have to include the object name as part of the scene description. The following example defines a "wheel" to consist of a circle and three lines:

              define wheel [
                   line rotate 60
                   line rotate -60

A color can be specified by one of the following color names: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow, black, white, gray, lightGray, or darkGray. Color can also be specified by the rgb command or the hsb command. The rgb command lets you specify a color by giving its red, blue, and green components. It requires three parameters to specify the three values. The values must be between 0 and 1, inclusive. For example:

         rgb  1, 0.5, 0.5    ;  specifies a pinkish color
         rgb  0:1 0 0        ;  specifies a range of colors from black to red

The hsb command is similar, except it specifies a color by giving its hue, brightness, and saturation components. Again, these values must be between 0 and 1. (You can look this up in a graphics textbook if you don't know what it means.)

When a color command is given, it sets the drawing color to be used for all subsequent objects, up until the next color change. Color changes inside complex objects, that is between [ and ], have no effect past the closing ]. The default drawing color is black.


There are six predefined objects in xModels: line, square, circle, cube, cone, and cylinder. These objects are sized so that each object just fits inside a 1-by-1-by-1 cube, centered at the origin. The line object stretches along the x-axis from (-0.5,0) to (0.5,0). The square object has vertices at (-0.5,-0.5), (0.5,-0.5), (0.5,0.5), and (-0.5,0.5). The circle has center (0,0) and radius 0.5. The cone is oriented to point upwards along the y-axis. The cylinder also has a vertical orientation. To include one of these objects, just list its name in the scene description. Usually, the name will be followed by a transformation that affects the size, position, and orientation of the object.

There are also four commands for creating an object out of a list of points. These commands are polygon, polygon_3d, lathe, and extrude. The polygon command takes a list of parameters that specify a sequence of (x,y) points. The polygon consists of these points joined by lines. Note that there must be an even number of parameters, since there are two parameters per point. For example, the following command creates a triangle:

             polygon  0,0 4,0 2,2

It's legal to have a polygon command with just two points. In that case, it specifies a line. The polygon-3d is similar, except that it takes a list of (x,y,z) points.

The lathe command takes a list of (x,y) points, joins those points with line segments, and then rotates the resulting curve about the y-axis to obtain a three-dimensional object. The original curve is actually copied several times, at different angles of rotation. These copies are then joined with further line segments. The number of copies must be specified as the first parameter to the lathe command. The remaining parameters specify the (x,y) points. For example, the following command makes four rotated copies of the line segment from (0,5) to (3,0) and then connects them with lines to produce a pyramid:

             lathe 4  0,5  3,0

It is legal to have a lathe command with just one point. The result will be a regular n-sided polygon lying in the xz-plane.

The extrude command is similar to lathe in that it makes several copies of a curve that lies in the xy-plane, and it then joins those copies with lines. However, extrude makes the copies by translating the original curve along the z-axis. Each copy is separated from the next by one unit along the z-axis. The z-values are centered about 0. for example, for extrude 2, the two z-values are -0.5 and 0.5.

Besides all these basic objects, you can make complex objects. A complex object is a list of items enclosed between a left bracket, [, and a right bracket, ]. It can include objects and color specifications. Each object in a complex object can be followed by its own set of transformations, as described below. The objects can include basic objects, named objects created with the define command, and nested complex objects. Because of this ability to nest complex objects inside other complex objects, xModels is said to use hierarchical models.


Any object can be followed by a list of one or more transformations that affect the size, position, and orientation of that object. This includes complex objects. Any transformation applied to a complex object is applied to that object as a whole. If an object inside a complex object has its own transformations, they are applied first, followed by the overall transformation of the object as a whole.

A transformation consists of a word specifying the type of transformation, followed by one or more parameters. For example, the command rotate 30 specifies that the object is to be rotated through an angle of 30 degrees about the z-axis. Some transformations take a variable number of parameters. For example, scale 3 will magnify the object by a factor of 3 in all directions, while scale 2,6,0.5 will scale it by factors of 2 in the x-direction, 6 in the y-direction, and 0.5 in the z-direction.

When an object is followed by several transformations, they are applied in the order given. For example in,

           square  xtranslate 5  rotate 30

the square is first translated 5 units in the positive x-direction, and is then rotated by 30 degrees about the origin. Putting the transformations in the opposite order:

           square  rotate 30  xtranslate 5

gives a different result, since the square is first rotated and then translated.

Here is a list of the transformations used in xModels, where A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are numbers (or, in the case of an animation, number ranges):

Note that although xModels is a 3-dimensional graphics program, you can restrict yourself to two dimensions if you want. The names and semantics of the transformations were chosen so that all the two-dimensional transformations are available with reasonable names. This explains the otherwise odd rotate A about B C, for example.

It is important to understand what a list of transformation does to an object. All the transformations are applied to the object before it is displayed. So, square scale 2 5 is just a way of specifying a 2-by-5 rectangle, and circle translate 5 is just a way of specifying a circle centered at the point (5,0). You don't actually see the object moving or changing shape. For that, you have to use an animation and specify a range of values for the transformation. In that case, each frame of the animation gets its own transformation to specify the shape or position of the object in that frame. The object can change from one frame to the next, because a different transformation is used in each frame.


An animation is just a sequence of frames. Each frame contains a separate image. If the images don't change too much from one frame to the next, the viewer will perceive continuous motion as the frames are played back in rapid succession.

In xModels, a scene description that starts with the command animate N, where N is a positive number, is an animation with N+1 frames. The frames are numbered from 0 to N. (You should think of N as the number of intervals between frames.) Then, to get any kind of motion or change in the animation, you need to make some quantity change from frame to frame. This is done by using number range in place of a number. A number range consists of a starting value, followed by a colon, followed by a final value. In each frame of the animation, the number range represents a different value. For example, in an 11-frame animation, the number range 0:5 represents 0 in frame 0, 0.5 in frame 1, 1 in frame 2,... and 5 in frame 11. Thus, the scene description:

              animate 10
              circle scale 0:5

shows a circle that grows from a size of 0 in the first frame to a size of 5 in the last frame. And

             animate 30
             square scale 5 rotate 0:90

shows a 5-by-5 square pivoting through a 90-degree turn about the origin. Note that the value 5 in this example is the same in each frame. You don't need to use a number range for each value in an animation -- only for the values that you actually want to change during the animation.

By adding additional parameters to the animate command, you can make "segmented animations.". For example, the command animate 30 50 specifies an animation with two segments. The first segment has 31 frames, and the second segment has 51. The final frame of the first segment is also the first frame of the second segment, so there are 81 frames in all. (Remember that the numbers 30 and 50 actually specify the intervals between frames.) An animation can contain any number of segments. The first frame of the animation, the last frame, and any frame that is on the boundary between two segments are called key frames.

A number range used in a segmented animation must specify a value for each of the key frames. Thus, it must have exactly as many colons as there are segments in the animation. For example, the number range 10:5:7 could be used in a two-segment animation. During the first segment, the value ranges from 10 to 5, and during the second segment, it ranges from 5 to 7. The number range 0:0:10 has the constant value 0 throughout the first segment, and then its value ranges from 0 to 10 during the second segment. Sometimes, you want a quantity that changes at a constant rate during the whole animation, rather than at different rates in different segments. The notation for doing this is to use two or more colons in a row, with no numbers between. For example, 0::10 represents a quantity that varies evenly from 0 to 10 across both segments of a two-segment animation.

David Eck (eck@hws.edu), June 1997