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SVG Circle Decomposition To Paths

dreamt up by webguru in Uncategorized | Comments Off on SVG Circle Decomposition To Paths

SVG Circle Decomposition To Paths

SVG Circle Decomposition To Paths

Bryan Rasmussen



This article starts with a confession: I like to hand-code SVG. It’s not always the case but often enough it could seem peculiar to people who do not share my predilection. There are a good number of benefits in being able to write SVG by hand, such as optimizing SVGs in ways a tool can’t (turning a path into a simpler path or shape), or by simply understanding how libraries like D3 or Greensock work.

With that said, I’d like to look more closely at circular shapes in SVG and things we can do with them when we move past a basic circle. Why circles? Well, I love circles. They’re my favorite shape.

First off (hopefully you’ve seen a basic circle in SVG before), here’s a pen that shows one:

See the Pen circle by Bryan Rasmussen.

A lot of things can be done with a circle: it can be animated and it can have different colors applied to it. Still, there are two very nice things that you cannot have a circle do in SVG 1.1: You cannot make another graphical element move along the circle’s path (using the animateMotion element) and you cannot have shape a text along a circle’s path (this will only be allowed after SVG 2.0 is released).

Turning Our Circle Into A Path

There is a little online tool that can help you create paths out of circles (you can try it out here), but we’re going to do be creating everything from scratch so we can find out what’s really going on behind the scenes.

To make a circular path, we’re going to actually make two arcs, i.e. semicircles that complete the circle in one path. As you’ve probably noticed in the SVG above, the attributes CX, CY, and R respectively define where the circle is drawn along the X and Y axis, while R defines the radius of the circle. The CX and CY create the center of the circle, so the circle is drawn around that point.

Replicating that circle could look like this:

<path
    d="
      M (CX - R), CY
      a R,R 0 1,0 (R * 2),0
      a R,R 0 1,0 -(R * 2),0
    "
/>

Note that CX is the same as the cx attribute of the circle; the same goes for CY and the cy attribute of the circle, as well as R and the r attribute of the circle. The small a character is used to define a segment of an elliptical arc. You can use an optional Z (or z) to close the path.

The lowercase letter a denotes the beginning of an elliptical arc drawn relatively to the current position — or in our specific case:

<path
  d="
    M 25, 50
    a 25,25 0 1,1 50,0
    a 25,25 0 1,1 -50,0
  "
/>

You can see the magic happening in this pen:

See the Pen circle from path by Bryan Rasmussen.

Hidden underneath the path is a circle with a red fill. As you play around with values of the path, you’ll see that circle as long as the path totally covers the circle (the path itself is a circle of the same size), and we’ll know that we’re doing things right.

One thing you should also know is that as long as you are drawing relative arcs, you don’t need to repeat the a command for each arc you draw. When your first 7 inputs are done for your arc, the second 7 inputs will be taken for the next arc.

You can try this out with the pen above by removing the second a in the path:

a 25,25 0 1,1 50,0

25,25 0 1,1 -50,0

This may look the same, but I prefer to leave it in until I am ready to finish a drawing, and this also helps me to keep track of where I am.

How This Path Works

First, we move to an absolutely positioned X,Y coordinate in the image. It does not draw anything there — it just moves there. Remember that for a circle element CX, CY denotes the center of the circle; but as it happens in the elliptical arc, the true CX and CY of the arc will be calculated from the other properties of that arc.

In other words, if we want our CX to be at 50 and our radius is 25, then we need to move to 50 - 25 (if we are drawing from left to right, of course). This means that our first arc is drawn from 25 X, 50 Y which results to our first arc being 25,25 0 1,0 50,0.

Let’s break down what the value 25,25 0 1,0 50,0 of our arc actually means:

  • 25: The relative X radius of the arc;
  • 25: The relative Y radius of the arc;
  • 0 1,0: I’m not going to talk about the three middle values (rotation, large-arc-flag, and the sweep-flag properties) because they are not very important in the context of the current example as long as they are the same for both arcs;
  • 50: The ending X coordinate (relative) of the arc;
  • 0: The ending Y coordinate (relative) of the arc.

The second arc is a 25,25 0 1,0 -50,0. Keep in mind that this arc will start drawing from wherever the last arc stopped drawing. Of course, the X and Y radius are the same (25), but the ending X coordinate is -50 of where the current one is.

Obviously this circle could have been drawn in many different ways. This process of turning a circle into a path is known as decomposition. In the SVG 2 spec decomposition of a circle will be done with 4 arcs, however, the method it recommends is not possible to use yet, as it currently depends on a feature named segment-completing close path which has not yet been specified.

In order to show you that we can draw the circle in a lot of ways, I have prepared a little pen with various examples:

See the Pen all circles by Bryan Rasmussen.

If you take a closer look, you’ll see our original circle along with five different examples of how to draw paths on top of that circle. Each path has a child desc element describing the use of CX, CY and R values to build the circle. The first example is the one we discussed here while three others use variations that should be comprehensible from reading the code; the last examples uses four semicircular arcs instead of two, replicating somewhat the process described in the SVG 2 spec linked above.

The circles are layered on top of each other using SVG’s natural z-indexing of placing elements that come later in the markup on top of the ones that come earlier.

If you click on the circular paths in the pen, the first click will print out how the path is structured to the console and add a class to the element so that you will see the stroke color of how the circle is drawn (you can see that the first circle is drawn with a starting wedge from the stroke). The second click will remove the circle so you have the ability to interact with the circle below.

Each circle has a different fill color; the actual circle element is yellow and will say “You clicked on the circle” to the console whenever it is clicked on. You can also, of course, simply read the code as the desc elements are quite straightforward.

Going From A Path To A Circle

I suppose you’ve noticed that while there are many different ways to draw the circle, the paths used still look pretty similar. Often — especially in SVGs output from a drawing program — circles will be represented by paths. This is probably due to optimization of the graphics program code; once you have the code to draw a path you can draw anything, so just use that. This can lead to somewhat bloated SVGs that are hard to reason about.

Recommended reading: “Tips For Creating And Exporting Better SVGs For The Web” by Sara Soueidan

Let’s take the following SVG from Wikipedia as an example. When you look at the code for that file, you will see that it has a lot of editor cruft once you’ve run it through Jake Archibald’s SVGOMG! (which you can read more about here). You’ll end up with something like the following file which has been pretty optimized, but the circles in the document are still rendered as paths:

See the Pen Wikipedia Screw Head Clutch Type A by Bryan Rasmussen.

So, let’s see if we can figure out what those circles should be if they were actual circle elements given what we know about how paths work. The first path in the document is obviously not a circle while the next two are (showing just the d attribute):

M39 20a19 19 0 1 1-38 0 19 19 0 1 1 38 0z
M25 20a5 5 0 1 1-10 0 5 5 0 1 1 10 0z

So remembering that the second a can be left out, let’s rewrite these to make a little more sense. (The first path is the big circle.)

M39 20
a19 19 0 1 1-38 0
a19 19 0 1 1 38 0z

Those arcs are then obviously the following:

aR R 0 1 1 - (R * 2) 0
aR R 0 1 1 (R * 2) 0

This means that our circle radius is 19, but what are our CX and CY values? I think our M39 is actually CX + R, which means that CX is 20 and CY is 20 too.

Let’s say you add in a circle after all the paths like this:

<circle
 fill="none"
 stroke-width="1.99975"
 stroke="red"
 r="19"
 cx="20"
 cy="20"
/>

You will see that is correct, and that the red stroked circle covers exactly the large circle. The second circle path reformulated looks like this:

M25 20
a5 5 0 1 1-10 0 
5 5 0 1 1 10 0z

Obviously, the radius is 5, and I bet our CX and CY values are the same as before: - 20.

Note: If CX = 20, then CX + R = 25. The circle is sitting inside the bigger one at the center, so obviously it should have the same CX and CY values.

Add the following circle at the end of the paths:

<circle
 fill="yellow"
 r="5"
 cx="20"
 cy="20"
/>

You can now see that this is correct by taking a look at the following pen:

See the Pen Wikipedia Screw Head Clutch Type A_ with example circles by Bryan Rasmussen.

Now that we know what the circles should be, we can remove those unneeded paths and actually create the circles — as you can see here:

See the Pen Wikipedia Screw Head Clutch Type A optimized by Bryan Rasmussen.

Using Our Circular Path For Wrapping Text

So now that we have our circles in paths, we can wrap text on those paths. Below is a pen with the same paths as our previous “All Circles” pen, but with text wrapped on the path. Whenever you click on a path, that path will be deleted and the text will be wrapped on the next available path, like so:

See the Pen all circles wrapped Text by Bryan Rasmussen.

Looking at the different paths, you’ll see tiny differences between each one (more on that in a bit), but first there is a little cross-browser incompatibility to be seen — especially noticeable in the first path:

Firefox Developer
Chrome
Microsoft Edge

The reason why the starting “S” of “Smashing” is sitting at that funny angle in the Firefox solution is that it is where we actually started drawing our path at (due to the v-R command we used). This is more obvious in the Chrome version where you can clearly see the first pie-shaped wedge of our circle that we drew:

Chrome does not follow all the wedges, so this is the result when you change the text to be “Smashing Magazine”.

The reason is that Chrome has a bug regarding inheritance of the textLength attribute declared on the parent text element. If you want them both to look the same, put the textLength attribute on the textPath element as well as the text. Why? Because it turns out that Firefox Developer has the same bug if the textLength attribute is not specified on the text element (this has been the case for some years now).

Microsoft Edge has a totally different bug; it can’t handle whitespace in between the Text and the child TextPath element. Once you have removed whitespace, and put the textLength attribute on both the text and textPath elements, they will all look relatively the same (with small variations due to differences in default fonts and so forth). So, three different bugs on three different browsers — this is why people often prefer to work with libraries!

The following pen shows how the problems can be fixed:

See the Pen all circles wrapped Text fixed TextLength by Bryan Rasmussen.

I’ve also removed the various fill colors because it makes it easier to see the text wrapping. Removing the fill colors means that my little function to allow you to cycle through the paths and see how they look won’t work unless I add a pointer-events="all" attribute, so I’ve added those as well.

Note: You can read more about the reasons for that in “Managing SVG Interaction With The Pointer Events Property” explained by Tiffany B. Brown.

We’ve already discussed the wrapping of the multiarc path, so let’s now look at the others. Since we have one path we are wrapping on, the text will always move in the same direction.

Image Path Explanation
M CX, CY
a R, R 0 1,0 -(R * 2), 0
a R, R 0 1,0 R * 2, 0
and uses the translate function to move +R on the X axis.
The starting position for our textPath (since we have not specified it in any way) is determined by our first ending arc -(R * 2), given the radius that the arc itself has.
M (CX + R), CY
a R,R 0 1,0 -(R * 2),0
a R,R 0 1,0 (R * 2),0
Same applies as the previous path.
M CX CY
m -R, 0
a R,R 0 1,0 (R * 2),0
a R,R 0 1,0 -(R * 2),0
Since we are ending at (R * 2 ) in our first arc, we will obviously be starting at the opposite position. In other words, this one starts where our previous two paths ended.
M (CX - R), CY
a R,R 0 1,1 (R * 2),0
a R,R 0 1,1 -(R * 2),0
This starts in the same position as the last one due to (R * 2), but it is running clockwise because we have set the sweep-flag property (marked in yellow) to 1.

We‘ve seen how to wrap text on a single path in a circle. Let’s now take a look at how we can break up that path into two paths and the benefits you can get from that.

Breaking Our Paths Into Parts

There are a lot of things you can do with the text in your path, i.e. achieving stylistic effects with tspan elements, setting the offset of the text, or animating the text. Basically, whatever you do will be constrained by the path itself. But by breaking up our multiarc paths into single arc paths, we can play around with the direction of our text, the z-indexing of different parts of our text, and achieving more complex animations.

First, we are going to want to use another SVG image to show some of the effects. I will be using the diamond from the article on pointer events which I mentioned earlier. First, let’s show what it will look like with a single path circular text laid on top of it.

Let’s assume that our circle is CX 295, CY 200, R 175. Now, following the Circular path method, we now see the following:

M (CX - R), CY
a R,R 0 1,1 (R * 2),0
a R,R 0 1,1 -(R * 2),0

See the Pen SVG Amethyst by Bryan Rasmussen.

I’m not going to talk about the path or the text size, fill or stroke color. We should all understand that by now, and be able to make it be whatever we want it to be. But by looking at the text, we can see some downsides or limitations right away:

  • The text all runs in one direction;
  • It might be nice to have some of the text go behind the amethyst, especially where it says MAGAZINE. In order to make the ‘M’ and ‘E’ line up on the circle, the ‘A’ has to be on the side lower point of the amethyst, which feels sort of unbalanced in another way. (I feel like the ‘A’ should be precisely positioned and pointing down at that point.)

If we want to fix these issues, we need to split our single path into two. In the following pen, I have separated the path into two paths, (and placed them into the defs area of the SVG for our textPaths to reference):

See the Pen SVG Amethyst two paths by Bryan Rasmussen.

Again, assuming our CX is 295, CY 200, R 175, then the two paths are in the format of the following (for the top semicircular path):

M (CX - R), CY
a R,R 0 1,1 (R * 2),0

And the following for the bottom:

M (CX + R), CY
a R,R 0 1,1 -(R * 2),0

However, we still have circular text that moves all in the same direction. To fix that for everything but Edge, all you have to do is to add the side="right" attribute to the text element that holds the ‘MAGAZINE’ textPath.

Making The Text Go Another Direction

If we want to support as many browsers as we can, we have to alter the path and not rely on the side attribute which is not fully supported. What we can do is to copy our top semicircle path, but change the sweep from 1 to 0:

Before:

M 120, 200
a 175,175 0 1,1 350,0

After:

M 120, 200
a 175,175 0 1,0 350,0

But our text is now drawn on the inner circle defined by the sweep and it won’t look so nice in different browsers. This means that we’re going to have to move the position of our path to align with the ‘S’ of ‘Smashing’, make the ending X of the path greater, and set some offset to the text. As you can see, there is also a little text difference between Firefox and the others which we can improve by increasing the textLength attribute on the text element, as well as removing whitespace from the textPath (since Firefox evidently thinks whitespace is meaningful).

The solution:

See the Pen SVG Amethyst two paths fixed by Bryan Rasmussen.

Change The Z-Index Of Part Of Our Circular Text

Finally, we want to make our text goes both in front and behind the amethyst. Well, that’s easy. Remember that SVG’s z-indexing of element is based by where they are in the markup? So if we have two elements, element 1 will be drawn behind element 2. Next, all we have to do is to move a text element up in our SVG markup so it is drawn before the amethyst.

You can see the result below in which parts of the word ‘MAGAZINE’ are hidden by the lower point of the amethyst.

See the Pen SVG Amethyst two paths z-index by Bryan Rasmussen.

If you take a look at the markup, you can see that the lower semicircle of text has been moved to be before the path that draws the amethyst.

Animating The Parts Of Our Circle

So now we have the ability to make circular text by completely controlling the directionality of the parts of our text by putting the text into two semicircles. This can, of course, also be exploited to make animations of the text. Making cross-browser SVG animations is really the subject of another article (or a lot more articles). These examples will only work in Chrome and Firefox because of using the SMIL-animations syntax instead of CSS keyframes or tools like Greensock. But it gives a good indicator of the effects you can achieve by animating the decomposed circle.

Take the following pen:

See the Pen SVG Amethyst two paths animated by Bryan Rasmussen.

Please press the ‘Rerun’ button on the codepen to see the animation in action. The two parts of our circular text begin animating at the same time, but have a different duration so they end at different times. Because we are animating the textLength attribute, we have put two animate directives under each text — one for the text element (so Firefox will work) and one for the textpath element (so Chrome will work).

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve seen how to turn a circle into a path and back again, in order to better understand when we need to optimize a path and when not. We’ve seen how turning the circle into a path frees us up to placing the text on the circular path, but also how to further split the circular path into semicircles and gain fuller control over directionality and animation of the component parts of our circular text.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Smashing Editorial
(dm, ra, yk, il)

Source: Smashing Magazine, SVG Circle Decomposition To Paths

How To Make A Speech Synthesis Editor

dreamt up by webguru in Uncategorized | Comments Off on How To Make A Speech Synthesis Editor

How To Make A Speech Synthesis Editor

How To Make A Speech Synthesis Editor

Knut Melvær



When Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh in 1984, it said “Hello” to us from the stage. Even at that point, speech synthesis wasn’t really a new technology: Bell Labs developed the vocoder as early as in the late 30s, and the concept of a voice assistant computer made it into people’s awareness when Stanley Kubrick made the vocoder the voice of HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

It wasn’t before the introduction of Apple’s Siri, Amazon Echo, and Google Assistant in the mid 2015s that voice interfaces actually found their way into a broader public’s homes, wrists, and pockets. We’re still in an adoption phase, but it seems that these voice assistants are here to stay.

In other words, the web isn’t just passive text on a screen anymore. Web editors and UX designers have to get accustomed to making content and services that should be spoken out loud.

We’re already moving fast towards using content management systems that let us work with our content headlessly and through APIs. The final piece is to make editorial interfaces that make it easier to tailor content for voice. So let’s do just that!

What Is SSML

While web browsers use W3C’s specification for HyperText Markup Language (HTML) to visually render documents, most voice assistants use Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) when generating speech.

A minimal example using the root element <speak>, and the paragraph (<p>) and sentence (<s>) tags:

<speak>
  <p>
    <s>This is the first sentence of the paragraph.</s>
    <s>Here’s another sentence.</s>
  </p>
</speak>
Press play to listen to the snippet:

Where SSML gets existing is when we introduce tags for <emphasis> and <prosody> (pitch):

<speak>
  <p>
    <s>Put some <emphasis strength="strong">extra weight on these words</emphasis></s>
    <s>And say <prosody pitch="high" rate="fast">this a bit higher and faster</prosody>!</s>
  </p>
</speak>
Press play to listen to the snippet:

SSML has more features, but this is enough to get a feel for the basics. Now, let’s take a closer look at the editor that we will use to make the speech synthesis editing interface.

The Editor For Portable Text

To make this editor, we’ll use the editor for Portable Text that features in Sanity.io. Portable Text is a JSON specification for rich text editing, that can be serialized into any markup language, such as SSML. This means you can easily use the same text snippet in multiple places using different markup languages.


Sanity.io’s default editor for Portable Text
Sanity.io’s default editor for Portable Text (Large preview)

Installing Sanity

Sanity.io is a platform for structured content that comes with an open-source editing environment built with React.js. It takes two minutes to get it all up and running.

Type npm i -g @sanity/cli && sanity init into your terminal, and follow the instructions. Choose “empty”, when you’re prompted for a project template.

If you don’t want to follow this tutorial and make this editor from scratch, you can also clone this tutorial’s code and follow the instructions in README.md.

When the editor is downloaded, you run sanity start in the project folder to start it up. It will start a development server that use Hot Module Reloading to update changes as you edit its files.

How To Configure Schemas In Sanity Studio

Creating The Editor Files

We’ll start by making a folder called ssml-editor in the /schemas folder. In that folder, we’ll put some empty files:

/ssml-tutorial/schemas/ssml-editor
                        ├── alias.js
                        ├── emphasis.js
                        ├── annotations.js
                        ├── preview.js
                        ├── prosody.js
                        ├── sayAs.js
                        ├── blocksToSSML.js
                        ├── speech.js
                        ├── SSMLeditor.css
                        └── SSMLeditor.js

Now we can add content schemas in these files. Content schemas are what defines the data structure for the rich text, and what Sanity Studio uses to generate the editorial interface. They are simple JavaScript objects that mostly require just a name and a type.

We can also add a title and a description to make a bit nicer for editors. For example, this is a schema for a simple text field for a title:

export default {
  name: 'title',
  type: 'string',
  title: 'Title',
  description: 'Titles should be short and descriptive'
}

Sanity Studio with a title field and an editor for Portable Text
The studio with our title field and the default editor (Large preview)

Portable Text is built on the idea of rich text as data. This is powerful because it lets you query your rich text, and convert it into pretty much any markup you want.

It is an array of objects called “blocks” which you can think of as the “paragraphs”. In a block, there is an array of children spans. Each block can have a style and a set of mark definitions, which describe data structures distributed on the children spans.

Sanity.io comes with an editor that can read and write to Portable Text, and is activated by placing the block type inside an array field, like this:

// speech.js
export default {
  name: 'speech',
  type: 'array',
  title: 'SSML Editor',
  of: [
    { type: 'block' }
  ]
}

An array can be of multiple types. For an SSML-editor, those could be blocks for audio files, but that falls outside of the scope of this tutorial.

The last thing we want to do is to add a content type where this editor can be used. Most assistants use a simple content model of “intents” and “fulfillments”:

  • Intents
    Usually a list of strings used by the AI model to delineate what the user wants to get done.
  • Fulfillments
    This happens when an “intent” is identified. A fulfillment often is — or at least — comes with some sort of response.

So let’s make a simple content type called fulfillment that use the speech synthesis editor. Make a new file called fulfillment.js and save it in the /schema folder:

// fulfillment.js
export default {
  name: 'fulfillment',
  type: 'document',
  title: 'Fulfillment',
  of: [
    {
      name: 'title',
      type: 'string',
      title: 'Title',
      description: 'Titles should be short and descriptive'
    },
    {
      name: 'response',
      type: 'speech'
    }
  ]
}

Save the file, and open schema.js. Add it to your studio like this:

// schema.js
import createSchema from 'part:@sanity/base/schema-creator'
import schemaTypes from 'all:part:@sanity/base/schema-type'
import fullfillment from './fullfillment'
import speech from './speech'

export default createSchema({
  name: 'default',
  types: schemaTypes.concat([
    fullfillment,
    speech,
  ])
})

If you now run sanity start in your command line interface within the project’s root folder, the studio will start up locally, and you’ll be able to add entries for fulfillments. You can keep the studio running while we go on, as it will auto-reload with new changes when you save the files.

Adding SSML To The Editor

By default, the block type will give you a standard editor for visually oriented rich text with heading styles, decorator styles for emphasis and strong, annotations for links, and lists. Now we want to override those with the audial concepts found in SSML.

We begin with defining the different content structures, with helpful descriptions for the editors, that we will add to the block in SSMLeditorSchema.js as configurations for annotations. Those are “emphasis”, “alias”, “prosody”, and “say as”.

Emphasis

We begin with “emphasis”, which controls how much weight is put on the marked text. We define it as a string with a list of predefined values that the user can choose from:

// emphasis.js
export default {
  name: 'emphasis',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Emphasis',
  description:
    'The strength of the emphasis put on the contained text',
  fields: [
    {
      name: 'level',
      type: 'string',
      options: {
        list: [
          { value: 'strong', title: 'Strong' },
          { value: 'moderate', title: 'Moderate' },
          { value: 'none', title: 'None' },
          { value: 'reduced', title: 'Reduced' }
        ]
      }
    }
  ]
}

Alias

Sometimes the written and the spoken term differ. For instance, you want to use the abbreviation of a phrase in a written text, but have the whole phrase read aloud. For example:

<s>This is a <sub alias="Speech Synthesis Markup Language">SSML</sub> tutorial</s>
Press play to listen to the snippet:

The input field for the alias is a simple string:

// alias.js
export default {
  name: 'alias',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Alias (sub)',
  description:
    'Replaces the contained text for pronunciation. This allows a document to contain both a spoken and written form.',
  fields: [
    {
      name: 'text',
      type: 'string',
      title: 'Replacement text',
    }
  ]
}

Prosody

With the prosody property we can control different aspects how text should be spoken, like pitch, rate, and volume. The markup for this can look like this:

<s>Say this with an <prosody pitch="x-low">extra low pitch</prosody>, and this <prosody rate="fast" volume="loud">loudly with a fast rate</prosody></s>
Press play to listen to the snippet:

This input will have three fields with predefined string options:

// prosody.js
export default {
  name: 'prosody',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Prosody',
  description: 'Control of the pitch, speaking rate, and volume',
  fields: [
    {
      name: 'pitch',
      type: 'string',
      title: 'Pitch',
      description: 'The baseline pitch for the contained text',
      options: {
        list: [
          { value: 'x-low', title: 'Extra low' },
          { value: 'low', title: 'Low' },
          { value: 'medium', title: 'Medium' },
          { value: 'high', title: 'High' },
          { value: 'x-high', title: 'Extra high' },
          { value: 'default', title: 'Default' }
        ]
      }
    },
    {
      name: 'rate',
      type: 'string',
      title: 'Rate',
      description:
        'A change in the speaking rate for the contained text',
      options: {
        list: [
          { value: 'x-slow', title: 'Extra slow' },
          { value: 'slow', title: 'Slow' },
          { value: 'medium', title: 'Medium' },
          { value: 'fast', title: 'Fast' },
          { value: 'x-fast', title: 'Extra fast' },
          { value: 'default', title: 'Default' }
        ]
      }
    },
    {
      name: 'volume',
      type: 'string',
      title: 'Volume',
      description: 'The volume for the contained text.',
      options: {
        list: [
          { value: 'silent', title: 'Silent' },
          { value: 'x-soft', title: 'Extra soft' },
          { value: 'medium', title: 'Medium' },
          { value: 'loud', title: 'Loud' },
          { value: 'x-loud', title: 'Extra loud' },
          { value: 'default', title: 'Default' }
        ]
      }
    }
  ]
}

Say As

The last one we want to include is <say-as>. This tag lets us exercise a bit more control over how certain information is pronounced. We can even use it to bleep out words if you need to redact something in voice interfaces. That’s @!%&© useful!

<s>Do I have to <say-as interpret-as="expletive">frakking</say-as> <say-as interpret-as="verbatim">spell</say-as> it out for you!?</s>
Press play to listen to the snippet:

// sayAs.js
export default {
  name: 'sayAs',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Say as...',
  description: 'Lets you indicate information about the type of text construct that is contained within the element. It also helps specify the level of detail for rendering
  the contained text.',
  fields: [
    {
      name: 'interpretAs',
      type: 'string',
      title: 'Interpret as...',
      options: {
        list: [
          { value: 'cardinal', title: 'Cardinal numbers' },
          {
            value: 'ordinal',
            title: 'Ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3th...)'
          },
          { value: 'characters', title: 'Spell out characters' },
          { value: 'fraction', title: 'Say numbers as fractions' },
          { value: 'expletive', title: 'Blip out this word' },
          {
            value: 'unit',
            title: 'Adapt unit to singular or plural'
          },
          {
            value: 'verbatim',
            title: 'Spell out letter by letter (verbatim)'
          },
          { value: 'date', title: 'Say as a date' },
          { value: 'telephone', title: 'Say as a telephone number' }
        ]
      }
    },
    {
      name: 'date',
      type: 'object',
      title: 'Date',
      fields: [
        {
          name: 'format',
          type: 'string',
          description: 'The format attribute is a sequence of date field character codes. Supported field character codes in format are {y, m, d} for year, month, and day (of the month) respectively. If the field code appears once for year, month, or day then the number of digits expected are 4, 2, and 2 respectively. If the field code is repeated then the number of expected digits is the number of times the code is repeated. Fields in the date text may be separated by punctuation and/or spaces.'
        },
        {
          name: 'detail',
          type: 'number',
          validation: Rule =>
            Rule.required()
              .min(0)
              .max(2),
          description: 'The detail attribute controls the spoken form of the date. For detail='1' only the day fields and one of month or year fields are required, although both may be supplied'
        }
      ]
    }
  ]
}

Now we can import these in an annotations.js file, which makes things a bit tidier.

// annotations.js
export {default as alias} from './alias'
export {default as emphasis} from './emphasis'
export {default as prosody} from './prosody'
export {default as sayAs} from './sayAs'

Now we can import these annotation types into our main schemas:

// schema.js
import createSchema from "part:@sanity/base/schema-creator"
import schemaTypes from "all:part:@sanity/base/schema-type"
import fulfillment from './fulfillment'
import speech from './ssml-editor/speech'
import {
  alias,
  emphasis,
  prosody,
  sayAs
} from './annotations'

export default createSchema({
  name: "default",
  types: schemaTypes.concat([
    fulfillment,
    speech,
    alias,
    emphasis,
    prosody,
    sayAs
  ])
})

Finally, we can now add these to the editor like this:

// speech.js
export default {
  name: 'speech',
  type: 'array',
  title: 'SSML Editor',
  of: [
    {
      type: 'block',
      styles: [],
      lists: [],
      marks: {
        decorators: [],
        annotations: [
          {type: 'alias'},
          {type: 'emphasis'},
          {type: 'prosody'},
          {type: 'sayAs'}
        ]
      }
    }
  ]
}

Notice that we also added empty arrays to styles, and decorators. This disables the default styles and decorators (like bold and emphasis) since they don’t make that much sense in this specific case.

Customizing The Look And Feel

Now we have the functionality in place, but since we haven’t specified any icons, each annotation will use the default icon, which makes the editor hard to actually use for authors. So let’s fix that!

With the editor for Portable Text it’s possible to inject React components both for the icons and for how the marked text should be rendered. Here, we’ll just let some emoji do the work for us, but you could obviously go far with this, making them dynamic and so on. For prosody we’ll even make the icon change depending on the volume selected. Note that I omitted the fields in these snippets for brevity, you shouldn’t remove them in your local files.

// alias.js
import React from 'react'

export default {
  name: 'alias',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Alias (sub)',
  description: 'Replaces the contained text for pronunciation. This allows a document to contain both a spoken and written form.',
  fields: [
    /* all the fields */
  ],
  blockEditor: {
    icon: () => '🔤',
    render: ({ children }) => <span>{children} 🔤</span>,
  },
};
// emphasis.js
import React from 'react'

export default {
  name: 'emphasis',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Emphasis',
  description: 'The strength of the emphasis put on the contained text',
  fields: [
    /* all the fields */
  ],
  blockEditor: {
    icon: () => '🗯',
    render: ({ children }) => <span>{children} 🗯</span>,
  },
};

// prosody.js
import React from 'react'

export default {
  name: 'prosody',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Prosody',
  description: 'Control of the pitch, speaking rate, and volume',
  fields: [
    /* all the fields */
  ],
  blockEditor: {
    icon: () => '🔊',
    render: ({ children, volume }) => (
      <span>
        {children} {['x-loud', 'loud'].includes(volume) ? '🔊' : '🔈'}
      </span>
    ),
  },
};
// sayAs.js
import React from 'react'

export default {
  name: 'sayAs',
  type: 'object',
  title: 'Say as...',
  description: 'Lets you indicate information about the type of text construct that is contained within the element. It also helps specify the level of detail for rendering the contained text.',
  fields: [
    /* all the fields */
  ],
  blockEditor: {
    icon: () => '🗣',
    render: props => <span>{props.children} 🗣</span>,
  },
};


The customized SSML editor
The editor with our custom SSML marks (Large preview)

Now you have an editor for editing text that can be used by voice assistants. But wouldn’t it be kinda useful if editors also could preview how the text actually will sound like?

Adding A Preview Button Using Google’s Text-to-Speech

Native speech synthesis support is actually on its way for browsers. But in this tutorial, we’ll use Google’s Text-to-Speech API which supports SSML. Building this preview functionality will also be a demonstration of how you serialize Portable Text into SSML in whatever service you want to use this for.

Wrapping The Editor In A React Component

We begin with opening the SSMLeditor.js file and add the following code:

// SSMLeditor.js
import React, { Fragment } from 'react';
import { BlockEditor } from 'part:@sanity/form-builder';

export default function SSMLeditor(props) {
  return (
    <Fragment>
      <BlockEditor {...props} />
    </Fragment>
  );
}

We have now wrapped the editor in our own React component. All the props it needs, including the data it contains, are passed down in real-time. To actually use this component, you have to import it into your speech.js file:

// speech.js
import React from 'react'
import SSMLeditor from './SSMLeditor.js'

export default {
  name: 'speech',
  type: 'array',
  title: 'SSML Editor',
  inputComponent: SSMLeditor,
  of: [
    {
      type: 'block',
      styles: [],
      lists: [],
      marks: {
        decorators: [],
        annotations: [
          { type: 'alias' },
          { type: 'emphasis' },
          { type: 'prosody' },
          { type: 'sayAs' },
        ],
      },
    },
  ],
}

When you save this and the studio reloads, it should look pretty much exactly the same, but that’s because we haven’t started tweaking the editor yet.

Convert Portable Text To SSML

The editor will save the content as Portable Text, an array of objects in JSON that makes it easy to convert rich text into whatever format you need it to be. When you convert Portable Text into another syntax or format, we call that “serialization”. Hence, “serializers” are the recipes for how the rich text should be converted. In this section, we will add serializers for speech synthesis.

You have already made the blocksToSSML.js file. Now we’ll need to add our first dependency. Begin by running the terminal command npm init -y inside the ssml-editor folder. This will add a package.json where the editor’s dependencies will be listed.

Once that’s done, you can run npm install @sanity/block-content-to-html to get a library that makes it easier to serialize Portable Text. We’re using the HTML-library because SSML has the same XML syntax with tags and attributes.

This is a bunch of code, so do feel free to copy-paste it. I’ll explain the pattern right below the snippet:

// blocksToSSML.js
import blocksToHTML, { h } from '@sanity/block-content-to-html'

const serializers = {
  marks: {
    prosody: ({ children, mark: { rate, pitch, volume } }) =>
      h('prosody', { attrs: { rate, pitch, volume } }, children),
    alias: ({ children, mark: { text } }) =>
      h('sub', { attrs: { alias: text } }, children),
    sayAs: ({ children, mark: { interpretAs } }) =>
      h('say-as', { attrs: { 'interpret-as': interpretAs } }, children),
    break: ({ children, mark: { time, strength } }) =>
      h('break', { attrs: { time: '${time}ms', strength } }, children),
    emphasis: ({ children, mark: { level } }) =>
      h('emphasis', { attrs: { level } }, children)
  }
}

export const blocksToSSML = blocks => blocksToHTML({ blocks, serializers })

This code will export a function that takes the array of blocks and loop through them. Whenever a block contains a mark, it will look for a serializer for the type. If you have marked some text to have emphasis, it this function from the serializers object:

emphasis: ({ children, mark: { level } }) =>
      h('emphasis', { attrs: { level } }, children)

Maybe you recognize the parameter from where we defined the schema? The h() function lets us defined an HTML element, that is, here we “cheat” and makes it return an SSML element called <emphasis>. We also give it the attribute level if that is defined, and place the children elements within it — which in most cases will be the text you have marked up with emphasis.

{
    "_type": "block",
    "_key": "f2c4cf1ab4e0",
    "style": "normal",
    "markDefs": [
        {
            "_type": "emphasis",
            "_key": "99b28ed3fa58",
            "level": "strong"
        }
    ],
    "children": [
        {
            "_type": "span",
            "_key": "f2c4cf1ab4e01",
            "text": "Say this strongly!",
            "marks": [
                "99b28ed3fa58"
            ]
        }
    ]
}

That is how the above structure in Portable Text gets serialized to this SSML:

<emphasis level="strong">Say this strongly</emphasis>

If you want support for more SSML tags, you can add more annotations in the schema, and add the annotation types to the marks section in the serializers.

Now we have a function that returns SSML markup from our marked up rich text. The last part is to make a button that lets us send this markup to a text-to-speech service.

Adding A Preview Button That Speaks Back To You

Ideally, we should have used the browser’s speech synthesis capabilities in the Web API. That way, we would have gotten away with less code and dependencies.

As of early 2019, however, native browser support for speech synthesis is still in its early stages. It looks like support for SSML is on the way, and there is proof of concepts of client-side JavaScript implementations for it.

Chances are that you are going to use this content with a voice assistant anyways. Both Google Assistant and Amazon Echo (Alexa) support SSML as responses in a fulfillment. In this tutorial, we will use Google’s text-to-speech API, which also sounds good and support several languages.

Start by obtaining an API key by signing up for Google Cloud Platform (it will be free for the first 1 million characters you process). Once you’re signed up, you can make a new API key on this page.

Now you can open your PreviewButton.js file, and add this code to it:

// PreviewButton.js
import React from 'react'
import Button from 'part:@sanity/components/buttons/default'
import { blocksToSSML } from './blocksToSSML'

// You should be careful with sharing this key
// I put it here to keep the code simple
const API_KEY = '<yourAPIkey>'
const GOOGLE_TEXT_TO_SPEECH_URL = 'https://texttospeech.googleapis.com/v1beta1/text:synthesize?key=' + API_KEY

const speak = async blocks => {
  // Serialize blocks to SSML
  const ssml = blocksToSSML(blocks)
  // Prepare the Google Text-to-Speech configuration
  const body = JSON.stringify({
    input: { ssml },
    // Select the language code and voice name (A-F)
    voice: { languageCode: 'en-US', name: 'en-US-Wavenet-A' },
    // Use MP3 in order to play in browser
    audioConfig: { audioEncoding: 'MP3' }
  })
  // Send the SSML string to the API
  const res = await fetch(GOOGLE_TEXT_TO_SPEECH_URL, {
    method: 'POST',
    body
  }).then(res => res.json())
  // Play the returned audio with the Browser’s Audo API
  const audio = new Audio('data:audio/wav;base64,' + res.audioContent)
  audio.play()
}

export default function PreviewButton (props) {
  return <Button style={{ marginTop: '1em' }} onClick={() => speak(props.blocks)}>Speak text</Button>
}

I’ve kept this preview button code to a minimal to make it easier to follow this tutorial. Of course, you could build it out by adding state to show if the preview is processing or make it possible to preview with the different voices that Google’s API supports.

Add the button to SSMLeditor.js:

// SSMLeditor.js
import React, { Fragment } from 'react';
import { BlockEditor } from 'part:@sanity/form-builder';
import PreviewButton from './PreviewButton';

export default function SSMLeditor(props) {
  return (
    <Fragment>
      <BlockEditor {...props} />
      <PreviewButton blocks={props.value} />
    </Fragment>
  );
}

Now you should be able to mark up your text with the different annotations, and hear the result when pushing “Speak text”. Cool, isn’t it?

You’ve Created A Speech Synthesis Editor, And Now What?

If you have followed this tutorial, you have been through how you can use the editor for Portable Text in Sanity Studio to make custom annotations and customize the editor. You can use these skills for all sorts of things, not only to make a speech synthesis editor. You have also been through how to serialize Portable Text into the syntax you need. Obviously, this is also handy if you’re building frontends in React or Vue. You can even use these skills to generate Markdown from Portable Text.

We haven’t covered how you actually use this together with a voice assistant. If you want to try, you can use much of the same logic as with the preview button in a serverless function, and set it as the API endpoint for a fulfillment using webhooks, e.g. with Dialogflow.

If you’d like me to write a tutorial on how to use the speech synthesis editor with a voice assistant, feel free to give me a hint on Twitter or share in the comments section below.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Smashing Editorial
(dm, ra, yk, il)

Source: Smashing Magazine, How To Make A Speech Synthesis Editor

How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 3)

dreamt up by webguru in Uncategorized | Comments Off on How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 3)

How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 3)

How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 3)

Alvin Wan



And so our journey continues. In this final part of my series on how to build an endless runner VR game, I’ll show you how you can synchronize the game state between two devices which will move you one step closer to building a multiplayer game. I’ll specifically introduce MirrorVR which is responsible for handling the mediating server in client-to-client communication.

Note: This game can be played with or without a VR headset. You can view a demo of the final product at ergo-3.glitch.me.

To get started, you will need the following.

  • Internet access (specifically to glitch.com);
  • A Glitch project completed from part 2 of this tutorial. You can start from the part 2 finished product by navigating to https://glitch.com/edit/#!/ergo-2 and clicking “Remix to edit”;
  • A virtual reality headset (optional, recommended). (I use Google Cardboard, which is offered at $15 a piece.)

Step 1: Display Score

The game as-is functions at a bare minimum, where the player is given a challenge: avoid the obstacles. However, outside of object collisions, the game does not provide feedback to the player regarding progress in the game. To remedy this, you will implement the score display in this step. The score will be large text object placed in our virtual reality world, as opposed to an interface glued to the user’s field of view.

In virtual reality generally, the user interface is best integrated into the world rather than stuck to the user’s head.

Score display
Score display (Large preview)

Start by adding the object to index.html. Add a text mixin, which will be reused for other text elements:

<a-assets>
  ...
  <a-mixin id="text" text="
     font:exo2bold;
     anchor:center;
     align:center;"></a-mixin>
  ...
</a-assets>

Next, add a text element to the platform, right before the player:

<!-- Score -->
<a-text id="score" value="" mixin="text" height="40" width="40" position="0 1.2 -3" opacity="0.75"></a-text>

<!-- Player -->
...

This adds a text entity to the virtual reality scene. The text is not currently visible, because its value is set to empty. However, you will now populate the text entity dynamically, using JavaScript. Navigate to assets/ergo.js. After the collisions section, add a score section, and define a number of global variables:

  • score: the current game score.
  • countedTrees: IDs of all trees that are included in the score. (This is because collision tests may trigger multiple times for the same tree.)
  • scoreDisplay: reference to the DOM object, corresponding to a text object in the virtual reality world.
/*********
 * SCORE *
 *********/

var score;
var countedTrees;
var scoreDisplay;

Next, define a setup function to initialize our global variables. In the same vein, define a teardown function.

...
var scoreDisplay;

function setupScore() {
  score = 0;
  countedTrees = new Set();
  scoreDisplay = document.getElementById('score');
}

function teardownScore() {
  scoreDisplay.setAttribute('value', '');
}

In the Game section, update gameOver, startGame, and window.onload to include score setup and teardown.

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

function gameOver() {
    ...
    teardownScore();
}

function startGame() {
    ...
    setupScore();
    addTreesRandomlyLoop();
}

window.onload = function() {
    setupScore();
    ...
}

Define a function that increments the score for a particular tree. This function will check against countedTrees to ensure that the tree is not double counted.

function addScoreForTree(tree_id) {
  if (countedTrees.has(tree_id)) return;
  score += 1;
  countedTrees.add(tree_id);
}

Additionally, add a utility to update the score display using the global variable.

function updateScoreDisplay() {
  scoreDisplay.setAttribute('value', score);
}

Update the collision testing accordingly in order to invoke this score-incrementing function whenever an obstacle has passed the player. Still in assets/ergo.js, navigate to the collisions section. Add the following check and update.

AFRAME.registerComponent('player', {
  tick: function() {
    document.querySelectorAll('.tree').forEach(function(tree) {
      ...
      if (position.z > POSITION_Z_LINE_END) {
        addScoreForTree(tree_id);
        updateScoreDisplay();
      }
    })
  }
})

Finally, update the score display as soon as the game starts. Navigate to the Game section, and add updateScoreDisplay(); to startGame:

function startGame() {
  ...
  setupScore();
  updateScoreDisplay();
  ...
}

Ensure that assets/ergo.js and index.html match the corresponding source code files. Then, navigate to your preview. You should see the following:

Score display (Large preview)

This concludes the score display. Next, we will add proper start and Game Over menus, so that the player can replay the game as desired.

Step 2: Add Start Menu

Now that the user can keep track of the progress, you will add finishing touches to complete the game experience. In this step, you will add a Start menu and a Game Over menu, letting the user start and restart games.

Let’s begin with the Start menu where the player clicks a “Start” button to begin the game. For the second half of this step, you will add a Game Over menu, with a “Restart” button:

Start and game over menus (Large preview)

Navigate to index.html in your editor. Then, find the Mixins section. Here, append the title mixin, which defines styles for particularly large text. We use the same font as before, align text to the center, and define a size appropriate for the type of text. (Note below that anchor is where a text object is anchored to its position.)

<a-assets>
   ...
   <a-mixin id="title" text="
       font:exo2bold;
       height:40;
       width:40;
       opacity:0.75;
       anchor:center;
       align:center;"></a-mixin>
</a-assets>

Next, add a second mixin for secondary headings. This text is slightly smaller but is otherwise identical to the title.

<a-assets>
   ...
   <a-mixin id="heading" text="
       font:exo2bold;
       height:10;
       width:10;
       opacity:0.75;
       anchor:center;
       align:center;"></a-mixin>
</a-assets>

For the third and final mixin, define properties for descriptive text — even smaller than secondary headings.

<a-assets>
   ...
   <a-mixin id="copy" text="
       font:exo2bold;
       height:5;
       width:5;
       opacity:0.75;
       anchor:center;
       align:center;"></a-mixin>
</a-assets>

With all text styles defined, you will now define the in-world text objects. Add a new Menus section beneath the Score section, with an empty container for the Start menu:

<!-- Score -->
...

<!-- Menus -->
<a-entity id="menu-container">
  <a-entity id="start-menu" position="0 1.1 -3">
  </a-entity>
</a-entity>

Inside the start menu container, define the title and a container for all non-title text:

...
  <a-entity id="start-menu" ...>
    <a-entity id="start-copy" position="0 1 0">
    </a-entity>
    <a-text value="ERGO" mixin="title"></a-text>
  </a-entity>
</a-entity>

Inside the container for non-title text, add instructions for playing the game:

<a-entity id="start-copy"...>
  <a-text value="Turn left and right to move your player, and avoid the trees!" mixin="copy"></a-text>
</a-entity>

To complete the Start menu, add a button that reads “Start”:

<a-entity id="start-copy"...>
  ...
  <a-text value="Start" position="0 0.75 0" mixin="heading"></a-text>
  <a-box id="start-button" position="0 0.65 -0.05" width="1.5" height="0.6" depth="0.1"></a-box>
</a-entity>

Double-check that your Start menu HTML code matches the following:

<!-- Menus -->
<a-entity id="menu-container">
  <a-entity id="start-menu" position="0 1.1 -3">
    <a-entity id="start-copy" position="0 1 0">
      <a-text value="Turn left and right to move your player, and avoid the trees!" mixin="copy"></a-text>
      <a-text value="Start" position="0 0.75 0" mixin="heading"></a-text>
      <a-box id="start-button" position="0 0.65 -0.05" width="1.5" height="0.6" depth="0.1"></a-box>
    </a-entity>
    <a-text value="ERGO" mixin="title"></a-text>
  </a-entity>
</a-entity>

Navigate to your preview, and you will see the following Start menu:


Image of Start menu
Start menu (Large preview)

Still in the Menus section (directly beneath the start menu), add the game-over menu using the same mixins:

<!-- Menus -->
<a-entity id="menu-container">
  ...
  <a-entity id="game-over" position="0 1.1 -3">
    <a-text value="?" mixin="heading" id="game-score" position="0 1.7 0"></a-text>
    <a-text value="Score" mixin="copy" position="0 1.2 0"></a-text>
    <a-entity id="game-over-copy">
      <a-text value="Restart" mixin="heading" position="0 0.7 0"></a-text>
      <a-box id="restart-button" position="0 0.6 -0.05" width="2" height="0.6" depth="0.1"></a-box>
    </a-entity>
    <a-text value="Game Over" mixin="title"></a-text>
  </a-entity>
</a-entity>

Navigate to your JavaScript file, assets/ergo.js. Create a new Menus section before the Game section. Additionally, define three empty functions: setupAllMenus, hideAllMenus, and showGameOverMenu.

/********
 * MENU *
 ********/

function setupAllMenus() {
}

function hideAllMenus() {
}

function showGameOverMenu() {
}

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

Next, update the Game section in three places. In gameOver, show the Game Over menu:

function gameOver() {
    ...
    showGameOverMenu();
}
```

In `startGame`, hide all menus:

```
function startGame() {
    ...
    hideAllMenus();
}

Next, in window.onload, remove the direct invocation to startGame and instead call setupAllMenus. Update your listener to match the following:

window.onload = function() {
  setupAllMenus();
  setupScore();
  setupTrees();
}

Navigate back to the Menu section. Save references to various DOM objects:

/********
 * MENU *
 ********/

var menuStart;
var menuGameOver;
var menuContainer;
var isGameRunning = false;
var startButton;
var restartButton;

function setupAllMenus() {
  menuStart     = document.getElementById('start-menu');
  menuGameOver  = document.getElementById('game-over');
  menuContainer = document.getElementById('menu-container');
  startButton   = document.getElementById('start-button');
  restartButton = document.getElementById('restart-button');
}

Next, bind both the “Start” and “Restart” buttons to startGame:

function setupAllMenus() {
  ...
  startButton.addEventListener('click', startGame);
  restartButton.addEventListener('click', startGame);
}

Define showStartMenu and invoke it from setupAllMenus:

function setupAllMenus() {
  ...
  showStartMenu();
}

function hideAllMenus() {
}

function showGameOverMenu() {
}

function showStartMenu() {
}

To populate the three empty functions, you will need a few helper functions. Define the following two functions, which accepts a DOM element representing an A-Frame VR entity and shows or hides it. Define both functions above showAllMenus:

...
var restartButton;

function hideEntity(el) {
  el.setAttribute('visible', false);
}

function showEntity(el) {
  el.setAttribute('visible', true);
}

function showAllMenus() {
...

First populate hideAllMenus. You will remove the objects from sight, then remove click listeners for both menus:

function hideAllMenus() {
  hideEntity(menuContainer);
  startButton.classList.remove('clickable');
  restartButton.classList.remove('clickable');
}

Second, populate showGameOverMenu. Here, restore the container for both menus, as well as the Game Over menu and the ‘Restart’ button’s click listener. However, remove the ‘Start’ button’s click listener, and hide the ‘Start’ menu.

function showGameOverMenu() {
  showEntity(menuContainer);
  hideEntity(menuStart);
  showEntity(menuGameOver);
  startButton.classList.remove('clickable');
  restartButton.classList.add('clickable');
}

Third, populate showStartMenu. Here, reverse all changes that the showGameOverMenu effected.

function showStartMenu() {
  showEntity(menuContainer);
  hideEntity(menuGameOver);
  showEntity(menuStart);
  startButton.classList.add('clickable');
  restartButton.classList.remove('clickable');
}

Double-check that your code matches the corresponding source files. Then, navigate to your preview, and you will observe the following behavior:

Start and Game Over menus (Large preview)

This concludes the Start and Game Over menus.

Congratulations! You now have a fully functioning game with a proper start and proper end. However, we have one more step left in this tutorial: We need to synchronize the game state between different player devices. This will move us one step closer towards multiplayer games.

Step 3: Synchronizing Game State With MirrorVR

In a previous tutorial, you learned how to send real-time information across sockets, to facilitate one-way communication between a server and a client. In this step, you will build on top of a fully-fledged product of that tutorial, MirrorVR, which handles the mediating server in client-to-client communication.

Note: You can learn more about MirrorVR here.

Navigate to index.html. Here, we will load MirrorVR and add a component to the camera, indicating that it should mirror a mobile device’s view where applicable. Import the socket.io dependency and MirrorVR 0.2.3.

Next, add a component, camera-listener, to the camera:

<a-camera camera-listener ...>

Navigate to assets/ergo.js. In this step, the mobile device will send commands, and the desktop device will only mirror the mobile device.

To facilitate this, you need a utility to distinguish between desktop and mobile devices. At the end of your file, add a mobileCheck function after shuffle:

/**
 * Checks for mobile and tablet platforms.
 */
function mobileCheck() {
  var check = false;
  (function(a){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino|android|ipad|playbook|silk/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))) check = true;})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera);
  return check;
};

First, we will synchronize the game start. In startGame, of the Game section, add a mirrorVR notification at the end.

function startGame() {
  ...
  if (mobileCheck()) {
    mirrorVR.notify('startGame', {})
  }
}

The mobile client now sends notifications about a game starting. You will now implement the desktop’s response.

In the window load listener, invoke a setupMirrorVR function:

window.onload = function() {
  ...
  setupMirrorVR();
}

Define a new section above the Game section for the MirrorVR setup:

/************
 * MirrorVR *
 ************/

function setupMirrorVR() {
  mirrorVR.init();
}

Next, add keyword arguments to the initialization function for mirrorVR. Specifically, we will define the handler for game start notifications. We will additionally specify a room ID; this ensures that anyone loading your application is immediately synchronized.

function setupMirrorVR() {
  mirrorVR.init({
    roomId: 'ergo',
    state: {
      startGame: {
        onNotify: function(data) {
          hideAllMenus();
          setupScore();
          updateScoreDisplay();
        }
      },
    }
  });
}

Repeat the same synchronization process for Game Over. In gameOver in the Game section, add a check for mobile devices and send a notification accordingly:

function gameOver() {
  ...
  if (mobileCheck()) {
    mirrorVR.notify('gameOver', {});
  }
}

Navigate to the MirrorVR section and update the keyword arguments with a gameOver listener:

function setupMirrorVR() {
  mirrorVR.init({
    state: {
      startGame: {...
      },
      gameOver: {
        onNotify: function(data) {
          gameOver();
        }
      },
    }
  }) 
}

Next, repeat the same synchronization process for the addition of trees. Navigate to addTreesRandomly in the Trees section. Keep track of which lanes receive new trees. Then, directly before the return directive, and send a notification accordingly:

function addTreesRandomly(...) {
  ...
  var numberOfTreesAdded ...
  var position_indices = [];
  trees.forEach(function (tree) {
    if (...) {
      ...
      position_indices.push(tree.position_index);
    }
  });

  if (mobileCheck()) {
    mirrorVR.notify('addTrees', position_indices);
  }
  return ...
}

Navigate to the MirrorVR section, and update the keyword arguments to mirrorVR.init with a new listener for trees:

function setupMirrorVR() {
  mirrorVR.init({
    state: {
      ...
      gameOver: {...
      },
      addTrees: {
        onNotify: function(position_indices) {
          position_indices.forEach(addTreeTo)
        }
      },
    }
  }) 
}

Finally, we synchronize the game score. In updateScoreDisplay from the Score section, send a notification when applicable:

function updateScoreDisplay() {
  ...
  if (mobileCheck()) {
    mirrorVR.notify('score', score);
  }
}

Update the mirrorVR initialization for the last time, with a listener for score changes:

function setupMirrorVR() {
  mirrorVR.init({
    state: {
      addTrees: {
      },
      score: {
        onNotify: function(data) {
          score = data;
          updateScoreDisplay();
        }
      }
    }
  });
}

Double-check that your code matches the appropriate source code files for this step. Then, navigate to your desktop preview. Additionally, open up the same URL on your mobile device. As soon as your mobile device loads the webpage, your desktop should immediately start mirroring the mobile device’s game.

Here is a demo. Notice that the desktop cursor is not moving, indicating the mobile device is controlling the desktop preview.

Final result of the endless runner game with MirrorVR game state synchronization (Large preview)

This concludes your augmented project with mirrorVR.

This third step introduced a few basic game state synchronization steps; to make this more robust, you could add more sanity checks and more points of synchronization.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, you added finishing touches to your endless runner game and implemented real-time synchronization of a desktop client with a mobile client, effectively mirroring the mobile device’s screen on your desktop. This concludes the series on building an endless runner game in virtual reality. Along with A-Frame VR techniques, you’ve picked up 3D modeling, client-to-client communication, and other widely applicable concepts.

Next steps can include:

  • More Advanced Modeling
    This means more realistic 3D models, potentially created in a third-party software and imported. For example, (MagicaVoxel) makes creating voxel art simple, and (Blender) is a complete 3D modeling solution.
  • More Complexity
    More complex games, such as a real-time strategy game, could leverage a third-party engine for increased efficiency. This may mean sidestepping A-Frame and webVR entirely, instead publishing a compiled (Unity3d) game.

Other avenues include multiplayer support and richer graphics. With the conclusion of this tutorial series, you now have a framework to explore further.

Smashing Editorial
(rb, ra, il)

Source: Smashing Magazine, How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 3)

I Used The Web For A Day On Internet Explorer 8

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I Used The Web For A Day On Internet Explorer 8

I Used The Web For A Day On Internet Explorer 8

Chris Ashton



This article is part of a series in which I attempt to use the web under various constraints, representing a given demographic of user. I hope to raise the profile of difficulties faced by real people, which are avoidable if we design and develop in a way that is sympathetic to their needs.

Last time, I navigated the web for a day using a screen reader. This time, I spent the day using Internet Explorer 8, which was released ten years ago today, on March 19th, 2009.

Who In The World Uses IE8?

Before we start; a disclaimer: I am not about to tell you that you need to start supporting IE8.

There’s every reason to not support IE8. Microsoft officially stopped supporting IE8, IE9 and IE10 over three years ago, and the Microsoft executives are even telling you to stop using Internet Explorer 11.

But as much as we developers hope for it to go away, it just. Won’t. Die. IE8 continues to show up in browser stats, especially outside of the bubble of the Western world.

Browser stats have to be taken with a pinch of salt, but current estimates for IE8 usage worldwide are around 0.3% to 0.4% of the desktop market share. The lower end of the estimate comes from w3counter:


Graph of IE8 usage over time
From a peak of almost 30% at the end of 2010, W3Counter now believes IE8 accounts for 0.3% of global usage. (Large preview)

The higher estimate comes from StatCounter (the same data feed used by the “Can I use” usage table). It estimates global IE8 desktop browser proportion to be around 0.37%.


Graph of IE8 usage vs other browsers
Worldwide usage of IE8 is at 0.37% according to StatCounter. (Large preview)

I suspected we might see higher IE8 usage in certain geographical regions, so drilled into the data by continent.

IE8 Usage By Region

Here is the per-continent IE8 desktop proportion (data from February 2018 — January 2019):

1. Oceania 0.09%
2. Europe 0.25%
3. South America 0.30%
4. North America 0.35%
5. Africa 0.48%
6. Asia 0.50%

Someone in Asia is five times more likely to be using IE8 than someone in Oceania.

I looked more closely into the Asian stats, noting the proportion of IE8 usage for each country. There’s a very clear top six countries for IE8 usage, after which the figures drop down to be comparable with the world average:

1. Iran 3.99%
2. China 1.99%
3. North Korea 1.38%
4. Turkmenistan 1.31%
5. Afghanistan 1.27%
6. Cambodia 1.05%
7. Yemen 0.63%
8. Taiwan 0.62%
9. Pakistan 0.57%
10. Bangladesh 0.54%

This data is summarized in the map below:


Graph showing IE8 breakdown in Asia
Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan in the Middle East, and China, North Korea & Cambodia in the Far East stand out for their IE8 usage. (Large preview)

Incredibly, IE8 makes up around 4% of desktop users in Iran — forty times the proportion of IE8 users in Oceania.

Next, I looked at the country stats for Africa, as it had around the same overall IE8 usage as Asia. There was a clear winner (Eritrea), followed by a number of countries above or around the 1% usage mark:

1. Eritrea 3.24%
2. Botswana 1.37%
3. Sudan & South Sudan 1.33%
4. Niger 1.29%
5. Mozambique 1.19%
6. Mauritania 1.18%
7. Guinea 1.12%
8. Democratic Republic of the Congo 1.07%
9. Zambia 0.94%

This is summarized in the map below:


Graph showing IE8 breakdown in Africa
Eritrea stands out for its IE8 usage (3.24%). A number of other countries also have >1% usage. (Large preview)

Whereas the countries in Asia that have higher-than-normal IE8 usage are roughly batched together geographically, there doesn’t appear to be a pattern in Africa. The only pattern I can see — unless it’s a coincidence — is that a number of the world’s largest IE8 using countries famously censor internet access, and therefore probably don’t encourage or allow updating to more secure browsers.

If your site is aimed at a purely Western audience, you’re unlikely to care much about IE8. If, however, you have a burgeoning Asian or African market — and particularly if you care about users in China, Iran or Eritrea — you might very well care about your website’s IE8 experience. Yes — even in 2019!

Who’s Still Using IE?

So, who are these people? Do they really walk among us?!

Whoever they are, you can bet they’re not using an old browser just to annoy you. Nobody deliberately chooses a worse browsing experience.

Someone might be using an old browser due to the following reasons:

  • Lack of awareness
    They simply aren’t aware that they’re using outdated technology.
  • Lack of education
    They don’t know the upgrade options and alternative browsers open to them.
  • Lack of planning
    Dismissing upgrade prompts because they’re busy, but not having the foresight to upgrade during quieter periods.
  • Aversion to change
    The last time they upgraded their software, they had to learn a new UI. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  • Aversion to risk
    The last time they upgraded, their machine slowed to a crawl, or they lost their favorite feature.
  • Software limitation
    Their OS is too old to let them upgrade, or their admin privileges may be locked down.
  • Hardware limitation
    Newer browsers are generally more demanding of your hard disk space, memory and CPU.
  • Network limitation
    A capped data allowance or slow connection mean they don’t want to download 75MB of software.
  • Legal limitation
    They might be on a corporate machine that only condones the use of one specific browser.

Is it really such a surprise that there are still people around the world who are clinging to IE8?

I decided to put myself in the shoes of one of these anonymous souls, and browse the web for a day using IE8. You can play along at home! Download an “IE8 on Windows 7” Virtual Machine from the Microsoft website, then run it in a virtualizer like VirtualBox.

IE8 VM: Off To A Bad Start

I booted up my IE8 VM, clicked on the Internet Explorer program in anticipation, and this is what I saw:


Screenshot of default homepage of IE8 not loading
The first thing I saw was a 404. Great. (Large preview)

Hmm, okay. Looks like the default web page pulled up by IE8 no longer exists. Well, that figures. Microsoft has officially stopped supporting IE8 so why should it make sure the IE8 landing page still works?

I decided to switch to the most widely used site in the world.

Google


Screenshot of Google.com
The Google homepage renders fine in IE8. (Large preview)

It’s a simple site, therefore difficult to get wrong — but to be fair, it’s looking great! I tried searching for something:


Screenshot of Google search results for Impractical Jokers
Those who have read my previous articles may notice a recurring theme here. (Large preview)

The search worked fine, though the layout looks a bit different to what I’m used to. Then I remembered — I’d seen the same search result layout when I used the Internet for a day with JavaScript turned off.

For reference, here is how the search results look in a modern browser with JavaScript enabled:


Screenshot of Google Chrome search results for Impractical Jokers
Cleaner layout, extra images and meta information, Netflix/Twitter integration. (Large preview)

So, it looks like IE8 gets the no-JS version of Google search. I don’t think this was necessarily a deliberate design decision — it could just be that the JavaScript errored out:


Screenshot of Google search error “Object doesn’t support this property or method”
The page tried and failed to run JavaScript. (Large preview)

Still, the end result is fine by me — I got my search results, which is all I wanted.

I clicked through to watch a YouTube video.

YouTube


Screenshot of buggy YouTube video page
Funky logo, no images for related videos, and unsurprisingly, no video. (Large preview)

There’s quite a lot broken about this page. All to do with little quirks in IE.

The logo, for instance, is zoomed in and cropped. This is down to IE8 not supporting SVG, and what we’re actually seeing is the fallback option provided by YouTube. They’ve applied a background-image CSS property so that in the event of no SVG support, you’ll get an attempt at displaying the logo. Only they seem to have not set the background-size properly, so it’s a little too far zoomed in.


Screenshot of YouTube logo in IE8 and Developer Tools inspecting it
YouTube set a background-img on the logo span, which pulls in a sprite. (Large preview)

For reference, here is the same page in Chrome (see how Chrome renders an SVG instead):


Screenshot of Chrome DevTools inspecting YouTube logo
(Large preview)

And what about that Autoplay toggle? It’s rendered like a weird looking checkbox:


Screenshot of Autoplay toggle
Looks like IE8 defaults to a checkbox under the hood. (Large preview)

This appears to be down to use of a custom element (a paper-toggle-button, which is a Material Design element), which IE doesn’t understand:


Screenshot of Autoplay toggle markup
paper-toggle-button is a custom element. (The screenshot is from Chrome DevTools, alongside how the Autoplay toggle SHOULD render.) (Large preview)

I’m not surprised this hasn’t rendered properly; IE8 doesn’t even cope with the basic semantic markup we use these days. Try using an <aside> or <main> and it will basically render them as divs, but ignoring any styling you apply to them.

To enable HTML5 markup, you have to explicitly tell the browser these elements exist. They can then be styled as normal:

<!--[if lt IE 9]>
   
      document.createElement('header');
      document.createElement('nav');
      document.createElement('section');
      document.createElement('article');
      document.createElement('aside');
      document.createElement('footer');
   
<![endif]-->

That is wrapped in an IE conditional, by the way. <!--[if lt IE 9]> is a HTML comment to most browsers — and therefore gets skipped — but in IE it is a conditional which only passes “if less than IE 9”, where it executes/renders the DOM nodes within it.

So, the video page was a fail. Visiting YouTube.com directly didn’t fare much better:


Screenshot of IE8 YouTube homepage: “Your web browser is no longer supported”
At least I had a visible error message this time! (Large preview)

Undeterred, I ignored the warning and tried searching for a video within YouTube’s search bar.


Screenshot of Google “Sorry, your computer may be sending automated queries. We can't process your request”
Computer says no. (Large preview)

IE8 traffic is clearly suspicious enough that YouTube didn’t trust that I’m a real user, and decided not to process my search request!

Signing Up To Gmail

If I’m going to spend the day on IE8, I’m going to need an email address. So I go about trying to set up a new one.

First of all, I tried Gmail.


Screenshot of Gmail homepage
The text isn’t going to pass color contrast standards! (Large preview)

There’s something a bit off about the image and text here. I think it’s down to the fact that IE8 doesn’t support media queries — so it’s trying to show me a mobile image on desktop.

One way you can get around this is to use Sass to generate two stylesheets; one for modern browsers, and one for legacy IE. You can get IE-friendly, mobile-first CSS (see tutorial by Jake Archibald) by using a mixin for your media queries. The mixin “flattens” your legacy IE CSS to treat IE as though it’s always a specific predefined width (e.g. 65em), giving only the relevant CSS for that width. In this case, I’d have seen the correct background-image for my assumed screen size and had a better experience.

Anyway, it didn’t stop me clicking ‘Create an Account’. There were a few differences between how it looked in IE8 and a modern browser:


Screenshot comparing Gmail signup screen on Chrome and IE8
IE8 is missing the tight layout, and there’s an overlap of text, but otherwise still works. (Large preview)

Whilst promising at first sight, the form was quite buggy to fill in. The ‘label’ doesn’t get out of the way when you start filling in the fields, so your input text is obfuscated:


Screenshot of buggy labels
The labels overlapped the text I was writing. (Large preview)

The markup for this label is actually a <div>, and some clever JS moves the text out of the way when the input is focussed. The JS doesn’t succeed on IE8, so the text stays stubbornly in place.


Screenshot of gmail form markup
The ‘label’ is a div which is overlaid on form input using CSS. (Large preview)

After filling in all my details, I hit “Next”, and waited. Nothing happened.

Then I noticed the little yellow warning symbol at the bottom left of my IE window. I clicked it and saw that it was complaining about a JS error:


Screenshot of Gmail error
I got reasonably far, but then the Next button didn’t work. (Large preview)

I gave up on Gmail and turned to MSN.

Signing Up To Hotmail

I was beginning to worry that email might be off-limits for a ten-year-old browser. But when I went to Hotmail, the signup form looked OK — so far so good:


Screenshot of signup page for MSN
The signup page looked fine. Guessed we’d have more luck with a Microsoft product! (Large preview)

Then I noticed a CAPTCHA. I thought, “There’s no way I’ll get through this…”


Screenshot of captcha verification of signup state
I could see and complete the CAPTCHA. (Large preview)

To my surprise, the CAPTCHA worked!

The only quirky thing on the form was some slightly buggy label positioning, but the signup was otherwise seamless:


Screenshot of first name label, surname label, and then two empty input fields, no clear visual hierarchy
The label positions were a bit off, but I guessed my last name followed by my surname would be fine. (Large preview)

Does that screenshot look OK to you? Can you spot the deliberate mistake?

The leftmost input should have been my first name, not my surname. When I came back and checked this page later, I clicked on the “First name” label and it applied focus to the leftmost input, which is how I could have checked I was filling in the correct box in the first place. This shows the importance of accessible markup — even without CSS and visual association, I could determine exactly which input box applied to which label (albeit the second time around!).

Anyhow, I was able to complete the sign-up process and was redirected to the MSN homepage, which rendered great.


Screenshot of MSN homepage looking good
If any site is going to work in IE8, it will be the Microsoft homepage. (Large preview)

I could even read articles and forget that I was using IE8:


Screenshot of MSN article
The article works fine. No dodgy sidebars or borked images. (Large preview)

With my email registered, I was ready to go and check out the rest of the Internet!

Facebook

I visited the Facebook site and was immediately redirected to the mobile site:


Screenshot of Facebook mobile
“You are using a browser that is not supported by Facebook, so we have redirected you to a simpler version to give you the best experience.” (Large preview)

This is a clever fallback tactic, as Facebook need to support a large global audience on low-end mobile devices, so need to provide a basic version of Facebook anyway. Why not offer that same baseline of experience to older desktop browsers?

I tried signing up and was able to make an account. Great! But when I logged into that account, I was treated with suspicion — just like when I searched for things on YouTube — and was faced with a CAPTCHA.

Only this time, it wasn’t so easy.


Screenshot of CAPTCHA message, but CAPTCHA image failing to load
“Please enter the code below”. Yeah, right. (Large preview)

I tried requesting new codes and refreshing the page several times, but the CAPTCHA image never loaded, so I was effectively locked out of my account.

Oh well. Let’s try some more social media.

Twitter

I visited the Twitter site and had exactly the same mobile redirect experience.


Screenshot of mobile view for Twitter
Twitter treats IE8 as a mobile browser, like Facebook does. (Large preview)

But I couldn’t even get as far as registering an account this time:


Screenshot of Twitter registration screen
Your browser is no longer supported. To sign up, please update it. You can still log in to your existing user accounts. (Large preview)

Oddly, Twitter is happy for you to log in, but not for you to register in the first place. I’m not sure why — perhaps it has a similar CAPTCHA scenario on its sign-up pages which won’t work on older browsers. Either way, I’m not going to be able to make a new account.

I felt awkward about logging in with my existing Twitter account. Call me paranoid, but vulnerabilities like the CFR Watering Hole Attack of 2013 — where the mere act of visiting a specific URL in IE8 would install malware to your machine — had me nervous that I might compromise my account.

But, in the interests of education, I persevered (with a temporary new password):


Screenshot of Twitter feed
Successfully logged in. I can see tweets! (Large preview)

I could also tweet, albeit using the very basic <textarea>:


Screenshot of me writing a tweet, lamenting about the lack of emojis in the IE8 twitter view
You only miss them when they’re gone. (Large preview)

In conclusion, Twitter is basically fine in IE8 — as long as you have an account already!

I’m done with social media for the day. Let’s go check out some news.

BBC News


Screenshot of BBC homepage with “Security Warning” browser popup
The BBC appears to be loading a mixture of HTTPS and HTTP assets. (Large preview)

The news homepage looks very basic and clunky but basically works — albeit with mixed content security warnings.

Take a look at the logo. As we’ve already seen on YouTube, IE8 doesn’t support SVG, so we require a PNG fallback.

The BBC uses the <image> fallback technique to render a PNG on IE:


Screenshot of IE8 BBC News logo with devtools open
IE8 finds the base64 image inside the SVG and renders it. (Large preview)

…and to ignore the PNG when SVG is available:


Screenshot of Chrome BBC News logo with devtools open
The image part is ignored and the svg is rendered nicely. (Large preview)

This technique exploits the fact that older browsers used to obey both <image> and <img> tags, and so will ignore the unknown <svg> tag and render the fallback, whereas modern browsers ignore rendering <image> when inside an SVG. Chris Coyier explains the technique in more detail.

I tried viewing an article:


Screenshot of a BBC article, which displays fine but has a warning message at the top
This site is optimised for modern browsers, and does not fully support your browser. (Large preview)

It’s readable. I can see the headline, the navigation, the featured image. But the rest of the article images are missing:


Screenshot of BBC article with references to images that are not displaying
(Large preview)

This is to be expected, and is due to the BBC lazy-loading images. IE8 not being a ‘supported browser’ means it does not get the JavaScript that enables lazy-loading, thus the images never load at all.

Out of interest, I thought I’d see what happens if I try to access the BBC iPlayer:


Screenshot of BBC iPlayer - just a black screen
…not a lot. (Large preview)

And that got me wondering about another streaming service.

Netflix

I was half expecting an empty white page when I loaded up Netflix in IE8. I was pleasantly surprised when I actually saw a decent landing page:


Screenshot of Netflix homepage
“Join free for a month” call to action, over a composite image of popular titles. (Large preview)

I compared this with the modern Chrome version:


Screenshot of Netflix homepage
“Watch free for 30 days” call to action, over a composite image of popular titles. (Large preview)

There’s a slightly different call to action (button text) — probably down to multivariate testing rather than what browser I’m on.

What’s different about the render is the centralized text and the semi-transparent black overlay.

The lack of centralized text is because of Netflix’s use of Flexbox for aligning items:


Netflix Flexbox aligning items
Netflix uses the Flexbox property justify-content: center to align its text. (Large preview)

A text-align: center on this class would probably fix the centering for IE8 (and indeed all old browsers). For maximum browser support, you can follow a CSS fallbacks approach with old ‘safe’ CSS, and then tighten up layouts with more modern CSS for browsers that support it.

The lack of background is due to use of rgba(), which is not supported in IE8 and below.


A background of rgba(0,0,0,.5) is meaningless to older browsers
A background of rgba(0,0,0,.5) is meaningless to older browsers. (Large preview)

Traditionally it’s good to provide CSS fallbacks like so, which show a black background for old browsers but show semi-transparent background for modern browsers:

rgb(0, 0, 0); /* IE8 fallback */
rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.8);

This is a very IE specific fix, however, basically every other browser supports rgba. Moreover, in this case, you’d lose the fancy Netflix tiles altogether, so it would be better to have no background filter at all! The surefire way of ensuring cross-browser support would be to bake the filter into the background image itself. Simple but effective.

Anyway, so far, so good — IE8 actually rendered the homepage pretty well! Am I actually going to be watching Breaking Bad on IE8 today?

My already tentative optimism was immediately shot down when I viewed the sign-in page:


Screenshot comparing sign-in page for Netflix on Chrome and IE8. IE version colors are all over the place, and it's hard to read the text
Can you guess which side is IE8 and which is Chrome? (Large preview)

Still, I was able to sign in, and saw a pared-back dashboard (no fancy auto-expanding trailers):


Screenshot of Netflix dashboard for logged in user
Each programme had a simple hover state with play icon and title. (Large preview)

I clicked on a programme with vague anticipation, but of course, only saw a black screen.

Amazon

Ok, social media and video are out. All that’s left is to go shopping.

I checked out Amazon, and was blown away — it’s almost indistinguishable from the experience you’d get inside a modern browser:


Screenshot of Amazon homepage
The Amazon homepage looks almost as good on IE8 as it does on any other browser. (Large preview)

I’ve been drawn in by a good homepage before. So let’s click on a product page and see if this is just a fluke.


Screenshot of Amazon product page for Ferrero Rocher chocolates
The product page also looks fantastic (and makes me hungry). (Large preview)

No! The product page looked good too!

Amazon wasn’t the only site that surprised me in its backwards compatibility. Wikipedia looked great, as did the Gov.UK government website. It’s not easy to have a site that doesn’t look like an utter car crash in IE8. Most of my experiences were decidedly less polished…!


Screenshot of sky.com on IE8, layout is all over the place and text is hard to read when placed over images
It is difficult to read or navigate sky.com on IE8. (Large preview)

But a deprecated warning notice or funky layout wasn’t the worst thing I saw today.

Utterly Broken Sites

Some sites were so broken that I couldn’t even connect to them!


Screenshot: Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage
No dice when accessing GitHub. (Large preview)

I wondered if it might be a temporary VM network issue, but it happened every time I refreshed the page, even when coming back to the same site later in the day.

This happened on a few different sites throughout the day, and I eventually concluded that this never affected sites on HTTP — only on HTTPS (but not all HTTPS sites). So, what was the problem?

Using Wireshark to analyze the network traffic, I tried connecting to GitHub again. We can see that the connection failed to establish because of a fatal error, “Description: Protocol Version.”


Screenshot of Wireshark output
TLSv1 Alert (Level: Fatal, Description: Protocol Version) (Large preview)

Looking at the default settings in IE8, only TLS 1.0 is enabled — but GitHub dropped support for TLSv1 and TLSv1.1 in February 2018.


Screenshot of settings panel
Default advanced settings for IE8: TLS 1.0 is checked, TLS 1.1 and 1.2 are unchecked. (Large preview)

I checked the boxes for TLS 1.1 and TLS 1.2, reloaded the page and — voilà! — I was able to view GitHub!


Screenshot of GitHub homepage, with a “no longer supports Internet Explorer” message on it
It doesn’t look pretty, but at least I can now see it! (Large preview)

Many thanks to my extremely talented friend Aidan Fewster for helping me debug that issue.

I’m all for backwards compatibility, but this presents an interesting dilemma. According to the PCI Security Standards Council, TLS 1.0 is insecure and should no longer be used. But by forcing TLS 1.1 or higher, some users will invariably be locked out (and not all are likely to be tech-savvy enough to enable TLS 1.2 in their advanced settings).

By allowing older, insecure standards and enabling users to continue to connect to our sites, we’re not helping them — we’re hurting them, by not giving them a reason to move to safer technologies. So how far should you go in supporting older browsers?

How Can I Begin To Support Older Browsers?

When some people think of “supporting older browsers”, they might be thinking of those proprietary old hacks for IE, like that time the BBC had to do some incredibly gnarly things to support iframed content in IE7.

Or they may be thinking of making things work in the Internet Explorer “quirks mode”; an IE-specific mode of operation which renders things very differently to the standards.

But “supporting older browsers” is very different to “hacking it for IE”. I don’t advocate the latter, but we should pragmatically try to do the former. The mantra I try to live by as a web developer is this:

“Optimize for the majority, make an effort for the minority, and never sacrifice security.”

I’m going to move away from the world of IE8 now and talk about general, sustainable solutions for legacy browser support.

There are two broad strategies for supporting older browsers, both beginning with P:

  1. Polyfilling
    Strive for feature parity for all by filling in the missing browser functionality.
  2. Progressive Enhancement
    Start from a core experience, then use feature detection to layer on functionality.

These strategies are not mutually exclusive from one another; they can be used in tandem. There are a number of implementation decisions to make in either approach, each with their own nuances, which I’ll cover in more detail below.

Polyfilling

For some websites or web pages, JavaScript is very important for functionality and you simply want to deliver working JavaScript to as many browsers as possible.

There are a number of ways to do this, but first, a history lesson.

A Brief History Of ECMAScript

ECMAScript is a standard, and JavaScript is an implementation of that standard. That means that ES5 is “ECMAScript version 5”, and ES6 is “ECMAScript version 6”. Confusingly, ES2015 is the same as ES6.

ES6 was the popularized name of that version prior to its release, but ES2015 is the official name, and subsequent ECMAScript versions are all associated with their release year.

Note: This is all helpfully explained by Brandon Morelli in a great blog post that explains the full history of JavaScript versions.

At time of writing, the latest standard is ES2018 (ES9). Most modern browsers support at least ES2015. Almost every browser supports ES5.

Technically IE8 isn’t ES5. It isn’t even ES4 (which doesn’t exist — the project was abandoned). IE8 uses the Microsoft implementation of ECMAScript 3, called JScript. IE8 does have some ES5 support but was released a few months before ES5 standards were published, and so has a mismatch of support.

Transpiling vs Polyfilling

You can write ES5 JavaScript and it will run in almost every ancient browser:

var foo = function () {
  return 'this is ES5!';
};

You can also continue to write all of your JavaScript like that — to enable backwards compatibility forever. But you’d be missing out on new features and syntactic sugar that has become available in the evolving versions of JavaScript, allowing you to write things like:

const foo = () => {
  return 'this is ES6!';
};

Try running that JavaScript in an older browser and it will error. We need to transpile the code into an earlier version of JavaScript that the browser will understand (i.e. convert our ES6 code into ES5, using automated tooling).

Now let’s say our code uses a standard ES5 method, such as Array.indexOf. Most browsers have a native implementation of this and will work fine, but IE8 will break. Remember IE8 was released a few months before ES5 standards were published, and so has a mismatch of support? One example of that is the indexOf function, which has been implemented for String but not for Array.

If we try to run the Array.indexOf method in IE8, it will fail. But if we’re already writing in ES5, what else can we do?

We can polyfill the behavior of the missing method. Developers traditionally polyfill each feature that they need by copying and pasting code, or by pulling in external third-party polyfill libraries. Many JavaScript features have good polyfill implementations on their respective Mozilla MDN page, but it’s worth pointing out that there are multiple ways you can polyfill the same feature.

For example, to ensure you can use the Array.indexOf method in IE8, you would copy and paste a polyfill like this:

if (!Array.prototype.indexOf) {
  Array.prototype.indexOf = (function (Object, max, min) {
    // big chunk of code that replicates the behaviour in JavaScript goes here!
    // for full implementation, visit:
    // https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/JavaScript/Reference/Global_Objects/Array/indexof#Polyfill
  })(Object, Math.max, Math.min);
}

So long as you call the polyfill before you pull in any of your own JS, and provided you don’t use any ES5 JavaScript feature other than Array.indexOf, your page would work in IE8.

Polyfills can be used to plug all sorts of missing functionality. For example, there are polyfills for enabling CSS3 selectors such as :last-child (unsupported in IE8) or the placeholder attribute (unsupported in IE9).

Polyfills vary in size and effectiveness and sometimes have dependencies on external libraries such as jQuery.

You may also hear of “shims” rather than “polyfills”. Don’t get too hung up on the naming — people use the two terms interchangeably. But technically speaking, a shim is code that intercepts an API call and provides a layer of abstraction. A polyfill is a type of shim, in the browser. It specifically uses JavaScript to retrofit new HTML/CSS/JS features in older browsers.

Summary of the “manually importing polyfills” strategy:

  • ✅ Complete control over choice of polyfills;
  • ✅ Suitable for basic websites;
  • ⚠️ Without additional tooling, you’re forced to write in native ES5 JavaScript;
  • ⚠️ Difficult to micromanage all of your polyfills;
  • ⚠️ Out of the box, all your users will get the polyfills, whether they need them or not.

Babel Polyfill

I’ve talked about transpiling ES6 code down to ES5. You do this using a transpiler, the most popular of which is Babel.

Babel is configurable via a .babelrc file in the root of your project. In it, you point to various Babel plugins and presets. There’s typically one for each syntax transform and browser polyfill you’ll need.

Micromanaging these and keeping them in sync with your browser support list can be a pain, so the standard setup nowadays is to delegate that micromanagement to the @babel/preset-env module. With this setup, you simply give Babel a list of browser versions you want to support, and it does the hard work for you:

{
  "presets": [
    [
      "@babel/preset-env",
      {
        "useBuiltIns": "usage",
        "targets": {
          "chrome": "58",
          "ie": "11"
        }
      }
    ]
  ]
}

The useBuiltIns configuration option of @babel/preset-env is where the magic happens, in combination with an import "@babel/polyfill" (another module) in the entry point of your application.

  • When omitted, useBuiltIns does nothing. The entirety of @babel/polyfill is included with your app, which is pretty heavy.
  • When set to "entry", it converts the @babel/polyfill import into multiple, smaller imports, importing the minimum polyfills required to polyfill the targeted browsers you’ve listed in your .babelrc (in this example, Chrome 58 and IE 11).
  • Setting to "usage" takes this one step further by doing code analysis and only importing polyfills for features that are actually being used. It’s classed as “experimental” but errs on the side of “polyfill too much” rather than “too little”. In any case, I don’t see how it’s possible that it would create a bigger bundle than "entry" or false, so is a good option to choose (and is the way we’re going at the BBC).

Using Babel, you can transpile and polyfill your JavaScript prior to deploying to production, and target support in a specific minimum baseline of browsers. NB, another popular tool is TypeScript, which has its own transpiler that transpiles to ES3, in theory supporting IE8 out of the box.

Summary of using @babel/preset-env for polyfilling:

  • ✅ Delegate micromanagement of polyfills to a tool;
  • ✅ Automated tool helps prevent inclusion of polyfills you don’t need;
  • ✅ Scales to larger, complex sites;
  • ⚠️ Out of the box, all your users will get the polyfills, whether they need them or not;
  • ⚠️ Difficult to keep sight of exactly what’s being pulled into your application bundle.

Lazy Loading Polyfills With Webpack And Dynamic Imports

It is possible to leverage the new import() proposal to feature-detect and dynamically download polyfills prior to initializing your application. It looks something like this in practice:

import app from './app.js';

const polyfills = [];

if (!window.fetch) {
  polyfills.push(import(/* webpackChunkName: "polyfill-fetch" */ 'whatwg-fetch'));
}

Promise.all(polyfills)
  .then(app)
  .catch((error) => {
    console.error('Failed fetching polyfills', error);
  });

This example code is shamelessly copied from the very good article, “Lazy Loading Polyfills With Webpack And Dynamic Imports” that delves into the technique in more detail.

Summary:

  • ✅ Doesn’t bloat modern browsers with unnecessary polyfills;
  • ⚠️ Requires manually managing each polyfill.

polyfill.io

polyfill.io is polyfilling as a service, built by the Financial Times. It works by your page making a single script request to polyfill.io, optionally listing the specific features you need to polyfill. Their server then analyzes the user agent string and populates the script accordingly. This saves you from having to manually provide your own polyfill solutions.

Here is the JavaScript that polyfill.io returns for a request made from IE8:


Screenshot of response from polyfill.io service for IE8
Lots of JS code to polyfill standard ES5 methods in IE8. (Large preview)

Here’s the same polyfill.io request, but where the request came from modern Chrome:


Screenshot of response from polyfill.io service for Chrome - no polyfill was required
No JS code, just a JS comment. (Large preview)

All that’s required from your site is a single script call.

Summary:

  • ✅ Ease of inclusion into your web app;
  • ✅ Delegates responsibility of polyfill knowledge to a third party;
  • ⚠️ On the flipside, you’re now reliant on a third-party service;
  • ⚠️ Makes a blocking  call, even for modern browsers that don’t need any polyfills.

Progressive Enhancement

Polyfilling is an incredibly useful technique for supporting older browsers, but can be a bloat to web pages and is limited in scope.

The progressive enhancement technique, on the other hand, is a great way of guaranteeing a basic experience for all browsers, whilst retaining full functionality for your users on modern browsers. It should be achievable on most sites.

The principle is this: start from a baseline of HTML (and styling, optional), and “progressively enhance” the page with JavaScript functionality. The benefit is that if the browser is a legacy one, or if the JavaScript is broken at any point in its delivery, your site should still be functional.

The term “progressive enhancement” is often used interchangeably with “unobtrusive JavaScript“. They do mean essentially the same thing, but the latter takes it a little further in that you shouldn’t litter your HTML with lots of attributes, IDs and classes that are only used by your JavaScript.

Cut-The-Mustard

The BBC technique of “cutting the mustard” (CTM) is a tried and tested implementation of progressive enhancement. The principle is that you write a solid baseline experience of HTML, and before downloading any enhancing JavaScript, you check for a minimum level of support. The original implementation checked for the presence of standard HTML5 features:

if ('querySelector' in document
  && 'localStorage' in window
  && 'addEventListener' in window) {
    // Enhance for HTML5 browsers
}

As new features come out and older browsers become increasingly antiquated, our cuts the mustard baseline will change. For instance, new JavaScript syntax such as ES6 arrow functions would mean this inline CTM check fails to even parse in legacy browsers — not even safely executing and failing the CTM check — so may have unexpected side-effects such as breaking other third-party JavaScript (e.g. Google Analytics).

To avoid even attempting to parse untranspiled, modern JS, we can apply this “modern take” on the CTM technique, taken from @snugug’s blog, in which we take advantage of the fact that older browsers don’t understand the type="module" declaration and will safely skip over it. In contrast, modern browsers will ignore  declarations.


http://./no-mustard.js

<!-- Can be done inline too -->


  import mustard from './mustard.js';



  console.log('No Mustard!');

This approach is a good one, provided you’re happy treating ES6 browsers as your new minimum baseline for functionality (~92% of global browsers at the time of writing).

However, just as the world of JavaScript is evolving, so is the world of CSS. Now that we have Grid, Flexbox, CSS variables and the like (each with a varying efficacy of fallback), there’s no telling what combination of CSS support an old browser might have that might lead to a mishmash of “modern” and “legacy” styling, the result of which looks broken. Therefore, sites are increasingly choosing to CTM their styling, so now HTML is the core baseline, and both CSS and JS are treated as enhancements.

The JavaScript-based CTM techniques we’ve seen so far have a couple of downsides if you use the presence of JavaScript to apply CSS in any way:

  1. Inline JavaScript is blocking. Browsers must download, parse and execute your JavaScript before you get any styling. Therefore, users may see a flash of unstyled text.
  2. Some users may have modern browsers, but choose to disable JavaScript. A JavaScript-based CTM prevents them from getting a styled site even when they’re perfectly capable of getting it.

The ‘ultimate’ approach is to use CSS media queries as your cuts-the-mustard litmus test. This “CSSCTM” technique is actively in use on sites such as Springer Nature.

<head>
  <!-- CSS-based cuts-the-mustard -->
  <!-- IMPORTANT: the JS depends on having this rule somewhere in the CSS: `body { clear: both }` -->
  <link rel="stylesheet" href="mq-test.css"
      media="only screen and (min-resolution: 0.1dpcm),
      only screen and (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio:0)
      and (min-color-index:0)">
</head>
<body>
  <!-- content here... -->
  
    (function () { // wrap in an IIFE to prevent global scope pollution
      function isSupported () {
        var val = '';
        if (window.getComputedStyle) {
          val = window.getComputedStyle(document.body, null).getPropertyValue('clear');
        } else if (document.body.currentStyle) {
          val = document.body.currentStyle.clear;
        }
        if (val === 'both') { // references the `body { clear: both; }` in the CSS
          return true;
        }
        return false;
      }
      if (isSupported()) {
        // Load or run JavaScript for supported browsers here.
      }
    })();
  
</body>

This approach is quite brittle — accidentally overriding the clear property on your body selector would ‘break’ your site — but it does offer the best performance. This particular implementation uses media queries that are only supported in at least IE 9, iOS 7 and Android 4.4, which is quite a sensible modern baseline.

“Cuts the mustard”, in all its various guises, accomplishes two main principles:

  1. Widespread user support;
  2. Efficiently applied dev effort.

It’s simply not possible for sites to accommodate every single browser / operating system / network connection / user configuration combination. Techniques such as cuts-the-mustard help to rationalize browsers into C-grade and A-grade browsers, according to the Graded Browser Support model by Yahoo!.

Cuts-The-Mustard: An Anti-Pattern?

There is an argument that applying a global, binary decision of “core” vs “advanced” is not the best possible experience for our users. It provides sanity to an otherwise daunting technical problem, but what if a browser supports 90% of the features in your global CTM test, and this specific page doesn’t even make use of the 10% of the features it fails on? In this case, the user would get the core experience, since the CTM check would have failed. But we could have given them the full experience.

And what about cases where the given page does make use of a feature the browser doesn’t support? Well, in the move towards componentization, we could have a feature-specific fallback (or error boundary), rather than a page-level fallback.

We do this every day in our web development. Think of pulling in a web font; different browsers have different levels of font support. What do we do? We provide a few font file variations and let the browser decide which to download:

@font-face {
  font-family: FontName;
  src: url('path/filename.eot');
  src: url('path/filename.eot?#iefix') format('embedded-opentype'),
    url('path/filename.woff2') format('woff2'),
    url('path/filename.woff') format('woff'),
    url('path/filename.ttf') format('truetype');
}

We have a similar fallback with HTML5 video. Modern browsers will choose which video format they want to use, whereas legacy browsers that don’t understand what a <video> element is will simply render the fallback text:

<video width="400" controls>
  <source src="mov_bbb.mp4" type="video/mp4">
  <source src="mov_bbb.ogg" type="video/ogg">
  Your browser does not support HTML5 video.
</video>

The nesting approach we saw earlier used by the BBC for PNG fallbacks for SVG is the basis for the <picture> responsive image element. Modern browsers will render the best fitting image based on the media attribute supplied, whereas legacy browsers that don’t understand what a <picture> element is will render the <img> fallback.

<picture>
  <source media="(min-width: 650px)" srcset="img_pink_flowers.jpg">
  <source media="(min-width: 465px)" srcset="img_white_flower.jpg">
  <img src="img_orange_flowers.jpg" alt="Flowers" style="width:auto;">
</picture>

The HTML spec has carefully evolved over the years to provide a basic fallback mechanism for all browsers, whilst allowing features and optimisations for the modern browsers that understand them.

We could apply a similar principle to our JavaScript code. Imagine a Feature like so, where the foo method contains some complex JS:

class Feature {
  browserSupported() {
    return ('querySelector' in document); // internal cuts-the-mustard goes here
  }

  foo() {
    // etc
  }
}

export default new Feature();

Before calling foo, we check if the Feature is supported in this browser by calling its browserSupported method. If it’s not supported, we don’t even attempt to call the code that would otherwise have errored our page.

import Feature from './feature';

if (Feature.browserSupported()) {
  Feature.foo();
}

This technique means we can avoid pulling in polyfills and just go with what’s natively supported by each individual browser, gracefully degrading individual features if unsupported.

Note that in the example above, I’m assuming the code gets transpiled to ES5 so that the syntax is understood by all browsers, but I’m not assuming that any of the code is polyfilled. If we wanted to avoid transpiling the code, we could apply the same principle but using the type="module" take on cuts-the-mustard, but it comes with the caveat that it already has a minimum ES6 browser requirement, so is only likely to start being a good solution in a couple of years:


  import Feature from './feature.js';
  if (Feature.browserSupported()) {
    Feature.foo();
  }

We’ve covered HTML, and we’ve covered JavaScript. We can apply localized fallbacks in CSS too; there’s a @supports keyword in CSS, which allows you to conditionally apply CSS based on the presence or absence of support for a CSS feature. However, it is ironically caveated with the fact that it is not universally supported. It just needs careful application; there’s a great Mozilla blog post on how to use feature queries in CSS.

In an ideal world, we shouldn’t need a global cuts-the-mustard check. Instead, each individual HTML, JS or CSS feature should be self-contained and have its own error boundaries. In a world of web components, shadow DOM and custom elements, I expect we’ll see more of a shift to this sort of approach. But it does make it much more difficult to predict and to test your site as a whole, and there may be unintended side-effects if, say, the styling of one component affects the layout of another.

Two Main Backwards Compatibility Strategies

A summary of polyfilling as a strategy:

  • ✅ Can deliver client-side JS functionality to most users.
  • ✅ Can be easier to code when delegating the problem of backwards-compatibility to a polyfill.
  • ⚠️ Depending on implementation, could be detrimental to performance for users who don’t need polyfills.
  • ⚠️ Depending on complexity of application and age of browser, may require lots of polyfills, and therefore run very poorly. We risk shipping megabytes of polyfills to the very browsers least prepared to accept it.

A summary of progressive enhancement as a strategy:

  • ✅ Traditional CTM makes it easy to segment your code, and to manually test.
  • ✅ Guaranteed baseline of experience for all users.
  • ⚠️ Might unnecessarily deliver the core experience to users who could handle the advanced experience.
  • ⚠️ Not well suited to sites that require client-side JS for functionality.
  • ⚠️ Sometimes difficult to balance a robust progressive enhancement strategy with a performant first render. There’s a risk of over-prioritizing the ‘core’ experience to the detriment of the 90% of your users who get the ‘full’ experience (e.g. providing small images for noJS and then replacing with high-res images on lazy-load means we’ve wasted a lot of download capacity on assets that are never even viewed).

Conclusion

IE8 was once a cutting edge browser. (No, seriously.) The same could be said for Chrome and Firefox today.

If today’s websites are totally unusable in IE8, the websites in ten years time’ are likely to be about as unusable in today’s modern browsers — despite being built upon the open technologies of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Isn’t it a bit scary? (That said, if you can’t abandon browsers after ten years and after the company who built it has deprecated it, when can you?)

IE8 is today’s scapegoat. Tomorrow it’ll be IE9, next year it’ll be Safari, a year later it might be Chrome. You can swap IE8 out for ‘old browser of choice’. The point is, there will always be some divide between what browsers developers build for, and what browsers people are using. We should stop scoffing at that and start investing in robust, inclusive engineering solutions. The side effects of these strategies tend to pay dividends in terms of accessibility, performance and network resilience, so there’s a bigger picture at play here.

We tend not to think about screen reader numbers. We simply take it for granted that it’s morally right to do our best to support users who have no other way of consuming our content, through no fault of our own. The same principle applies to people using older browsers.

We’ve covered some high-level strategies for building robust sites that should continue to work, to some degree, across a broad spectrum of legacy and modern browsers.

Once again, a disclaimer: don’t hack things for IE. That would be missing the point. But be mindful that all sorts of people use all sorts of browsers for all sorts of reasons, and that there are some solid engineering approaches we can take to make the web accessible for everyone.

Optimize for the majority, make an effort for the minority, and never sacrifice security.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Smashing Editorial
(ra, il)

Source: Smashing Magazine, I Used The Web For A Day On Internet Explorer 8

Collective #500

dreamt up by webguru in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Collective #500

C500_nested

CSS Nesting Module

The draft of a new CSS module that introduces the ability to nest one style rule inside another.

Read it




C500_scroll

lax.js

A light-weight JavaScript library to create smooth and beautiful animations when you scroll.

Check it out




C500_core

Core

A responsive front-end feature kit in React. By the folks of Mason.

Get it
















Collective #500 was written by Pedro Botelho and published on Codrops.


Source: Codrops, Collective #500

A Detailed Comparison Between WordPress And October CMS

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A Detailed Comparison Between WordPress And October CMS

A Detailed Comparison Between WordPress And October CMS

Leonardo Losoviz



Three months ago, WordPress finally released React-powered Gutenberg to power its default content editing experience, triggering many people who are not happy with this change to look for alternatives. Some folks decided to fork and release pre-Gutenberg WordPress, however, for me this doesn’t make much sense since it still carries 15 years worth of technical debt. If I were to find an alternative to WordPress, I would try to avoid being stuck in the past, and aim for a clean cut through some mature platform built on modern foundations.

This article compares WordPress to the arguably similar yet more modern October CMS on a wide arrange of both technical and non-technical topics. The goal of the article is not to convince people to stick to WordPress or to switch to October CMS, but simply to demonstrate what aspects must be taken into account before concluding the move to a different platform. The same comparison could (and should) also be done with other platforms before making a sensible decision.

Why October CMS

I found out about October CMS when it won an award, after which I went into research mode and spent a good deal of time digging deep into this CMS — from the perspective of both a user and a developer. As I gained knowledge on this CMS, I felt confident that I could provide an objective evaluation of its features as contrasted to WordPress. I chose this CMS for the comparison over alternative options such as Grav, Statamic, ButterCMS, Joomla, Drupal, Jekyll, Hugo, and others, for the following reasons:

  • I know how this CMS works (unlike Grav);
  • It is free and open source (unlike Statamic and ButterCMS);
  • At five years, it is “relatively” new (unlike Joomla and Drupal);
  • It is a dynamic (not static) content generator and based in PHP (unlike Jekyll and Hugo).

I believe that October CMS is a good candidate because it is based on Laravel which is a framework used for building modern applications. After seven years of existence, it has received positive approval from developers (as evidenced by its sizeable community and ecosystem), and marks a distinct contrast over coding in WordPress, i.e. WordPress is mostly procedural programming while Laravel is decidedly object-oriented programming.

What’s The Difference Between The Two?

Below I will compare WordPress and October CMS on different categories and highlight what, I believe, is good and not so good about them. However, I will not pick a winner, since that’s not the objective of the article and, in any case, there is no “best” or even “better” CMS: each CMS has its own set of strengths and weaknesses that will make it more or less suitable for each task, project, company, team, and anything else. Moreover, a project may benefit from using more than one CMS, such as using some CMS to manage and provide data, and another CMS to render the view. To decide which of the dozens of CMSs out there is most suitable for your own needs is entirely up to you.

In addition, this article could never draw definitive conclusions since it is only concerned with a subset of all possibilities. For instance, we can also find online comparisons such as “WordPress vs Drupal vs Joomla”, “WordPress vs Static Site Generators” and even “WordPress vs Medium”. Because none of these articles sees the full picture, then none of these comparisons can ever be conclusive, and should not be treated as such.

Let’s start with the comparison.

Philosophy And Target Group

It is no coincidence that WordPress powers nearly 1 in 3 websites. Ever since its inception, it has strived to be extremely user-friendly and has done so successfully, removing friction for technical and non-technical users alike as well as for people from all backgrounds — irrespective of their education and economic levels. WordPress’ founder Matt Mullenweg expressed that WordPress’ motto of “Democratize Publishing” for the current era meant the following:

“People of all backgrounds, interests, and abilities should be able to access Free-as-in-speech software that empowers them to express themselves on the open web and to own their content.”

WordPress is easy to use for everyone and its inclusivity is evidenced on the development side too: It’s not uncommon to find people without a programming background (such as marketers, designers, bloggers, sales people, and others) tinkering with their WordPress installations, designing their own themes and successfully launching their own websites. WordPress is user-centric, and the needs of the users trump those of the developers. In WordPress, the user is king (or queen).

In contrast, October CMS is more geared towards the developer, as explicity established from its very first release:

“October makes one bold but obvious assumption: clients don’t build websites, developers do. The role of a client is to manage the website and convey their business requirements. The web developer, and the industry itself, revolves around mediating these factors.”

In the words of its founders, the CMS’ mission is to “prove that making websites is not rocket science.” Being based on Laravel, October CMS can claim to have strong foundations of reusable, modular code that can produce properly-architected applications, maintainable in the long term and fully customizable without requiring hacks — the type which attracts serious programmers. October CMS can also provide a great user experience, however, it is not as simple or frictionless as that provided by WordPress. Users may need to be explained how to use certain functionality before being able to use it. For instance, embedding a form from some plugin has a lengthy explanation on how to do it, which is more cumbersome than the self-evident, drag-and-drop functionality provided by several form plugins in WordPress.

Installation

WordPress is famous for its 5-minute installation, even though many people point out that (taking into consideration all the plugins that must be installed) a typical installation requires 15 minutes or more. In addition, WordPress also offers the Multisite feature, which allows us to create a network of multiple virtual sites under a single installation. This feature makes it easy for an agency to administer the sites of multiple clients — among other user cases.

Installing October CMS is also very smooth: The Wizard installation itself takes even less than five minutes, and if you install it through the Console installation, it is even faster. You can do the latter by simply navigating to the target directory and then executing curl -s https://octobercms.com/api/installer | php (after which we need to input the database configuration, otherwise it behaves as a flat-file CMS). Once the installation has been completed, we will have a fully functioning website, but still quite bare (if you add the time needed to install and configure the required plugins, you can expect it to take at least 15 minutes).


October CMS Wizard installation
Installing October CMS with the Wizard is a breeze. (Large preview)

Security

WordPress has been accused of being insecure due to the high amount of vulnerabilities that are constantly found. This forces users to have the software for the CMS and all installed plugins always up to date to avoid security exploits. Among the main issues is WordPress’ support for older versions of PHP which are not supported by the PHP development community anymore (WordPress currently supports PHP 5.2.4, while the latest fully supported PHP version is 5.6). However, this problem should be resolved in April 2019 when WordPress will officially start supporting PHP versions 5.6 and upwards.

Otherwise, WordPress is not necessarily insecure because of itself, but because of its high popularity, which makes it a primal target for hackers. However, this plays both ways: WordPress ubiquity means that its security team must really take their job seriously by constantly looking for exploits and fixing them as soon as possible, otherwise up to a third of the web is at risk. The stakes are just too high.

October CMS, on the other hand, doesn’t have a reputation of being insecure. However, since there are roughly 27,000 live sites that use October as compared with WordPress’ millions, we can’t judge the two of them on the same terms. Nevertheless, the team behind October CMS does take security seriously, as evidenced by the Wizard installation’s prompt to input the CMS backend URL, set as /backend by default but changeable to anything else, as to make it more difficult for hackers to target the site. In contrast, changing WordPress’ login and backend URLs from /wp-login.php and /wp-admin respectively to something else must be done through a plugin. In addition, October CMS can function as a flat-file CMS (i.e. without a database) and avoid database-related vulnerabilities such as SQL injection.

Technology Stack

Both WordPress and October CMS run on the traditional LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. (However, only PHP is fixed: we can also use Windows, Nginx, MariaDB, and others.) October CMS can also behave as a flat-file CMS, meaning that it can do without a database, however, at the cost of forgoing many functionalities (such as blog posts and users) the only functionality that is guaranteed is pages, which is considered to be the basic unit for the creation and publishing of content and shipped as a core feature.

Concerning the language stack, sites built with both WordPress and October CMS are based on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (note that PHP is used to generate the HTML). October CMS also makes it easy to use LESS and SASS files.

Programming Paradigm

WordPress follows a functional programming paradigm, based on calculating computations by calling functions devoid of application state. Even though WordPress developers do not need to stick to functional programming (for instance, for coding their themes and plugins), the WordPress core code inherits this paradigm from 15 years of preserving backwards compatibility, which has been one of the pillars to WordPress’ success but which has the unintended consequence of accumulating technical debt.

On the other side, October CMS follows an imperative programming paradigm, based on calculating computations by manipulating objects’ state. October CMS sits on top of Laravel, a web framework fully founded on Object-Oriented Programming principles that enable the production of modular applications based on concepts such as the Model-View-Controller to decouple the user interface from the application data, Dependency Injection to configure class dependencies, and the Interface Segregation Principle to define the core services provided by the framework, among many others.

Hooks/Events

Programming in WordPress could be characterized as HDD which stands for “Hook-Driven Development”. A hook is a mechanism that allows changing a default behavior or value and allowing other code to execute related functionality. Hooks are triggered through “actions” which allow executing extra functionality, and “filters” that allow modifying values.

Hooks, which are widespread across the WordPress codebase, are one of the concepts that I most like from coding in WordPress. They allow plugins to interact with other plugins (or with a core or theme) in a clean way, providing some basic support of Aspect-Oriented Programming.

Good news is that Laravel (and in consequence October CMS) also supports the concept of hooks, which is called “events”. Events provide a simple observer implementation, enabling code to subscribe and listen for events that occur in the application and react as needed. Events make it possible to split a complex functionality into components, which can be installed independently yet collaborate with each other, thus enabling the creation of modular applications.

Dependence on JavaScript Libraries

The latest version of WordPress incorporates React-powered Gutenberg for its default content creation experience. Hence, WordPress development now relies by and large on JavaScript (predominantly through React), even though it is also possible to use other frameworks or libraries (as evidenced by Elementor Blocks for Gutenberg which is based on Marionette). In addition, WordPress still relies on Backbone.js (for the Media Manager) and jQuery (legacy code), however, we can expect the dependence on these libraries to wither away as Gutenberg is consolidated as the new norm.

October CMS depends on jQuery, which it uses to implement its optional AJAX framework to load data from the server without a browser page refresh.

Pages, Themes and Plugins

Both WordPress and October CMS treat a page as the basic unit for creating and publishing content (in WordPress case, in addition to the post), support changing the site’s look and feel through themes, and allow to install and extend the site’s functionalities through plugins. Even though the concepts are the same in both CMSs, there are a few differences in implementation that produce somewhat different behavior.

In WordPress, pages are defined as content and stored in the database. As a result, page content can be created through the CMS only (e.g. in the dashboard area), and switching from one theme to another doesn’t make an existing page become unavailable. This produces an overall frictionless experience.

In October CMS, on the other hand, pages are static files stored under the theme directory. On the positive side from this architectural decision, page content can be created from an external application, such as text editors like Sublime or Visual Studio Code. On the negative side, when switching from one theme to another, it is required to manually recreate or copy the pages from the current to the new theme, or otherwise, they will disappear.

Significantly, October CMS resolves routing through pages, hence pages are used not just as containers for content but also for functionality. For instance, a plugin for blogging depends on a page for displaying the list of blog posts under a chosen URL, another page to display a single blog post under another chosen URL, and so on. If any of these pages disappear, the associated functionality from the plugin becomes unavailable, and that URL will produce a 404. Hence, in October CMS themes and plugins are not thoroughly decoupled, and switching themes must be done carefully.


Editing a file from inside or outsite October CMS
October CMS enables the creation of content from external applications. (Large preview)

Core vs Plugin Functionality

WordPress attempts to deliver a minimal core functionality which is enhanced through plugins. WordPress relies on the 8020 rule” to decide if to include some functionality in its core experience or not. If it benefits 80% of the users it goes in, otherwise, it belongs to plugin-land. When adding plugins to a site, they can lead to bloat if too many plugins are installed. Plugins may also not work well with one another, or execute similar code or load similar assets, resulting in suboptimal performance. Hence, whereas launching a WordPress site is relatively easy, a bigger challenge is its general maintenance and being able to preserve an optimal and performant state when adding new features.


WordPress plugin directory
The WordPress plugin directory claims to have almost 55,000 plugins. (Large preview)

Likewise, October CMS also attempts to deliver a minimal core functionality, but on steroids: the only guaranteed functionality is the creation and publication of pages, and for everything else we will need to install one plugin or another, which is expressed as:

“Everything you need, and nothing you don’t.”

The objective is clear: most simple sites are only composed of pages, with possibly no blog posts, users or login area. So why should the application load resources for these when they are not needed? As a consequence, functionalities for blogging, user management, translation and several others are released through the plugin directory.


October CMS plugins directory
Searching for ‘Rainlab’ in October’s plugins directory displays plugins created by October CMS’ team. (Large preview)

October CMS also includes certain features in its core which (even though they are not always needed) can enhance the application significantly. For instance, it provides out-of-the-box support to upload media files to Amazon S3 and accesses them through the Rackspace CDN. It also includes a Media Manager which is mostly used through plugins, e.g. for adding images into a blog post. (Pages can also use the Media Manager to embed media files, however, the CMS also ships with an Assets section to upload media files for these which seems more suitable.)

I believe that October’s opinionatedness can perfectly enable us to produce an application that is as lean as possible — mostly concerning simple sites. However, it can also backfire and encourage bloat, because the line of what is needed and what is not is an arbitrary one, and it’s difficult to be set in advance by the CMS. This difficulty can be appreciated when considering the concept of a “user”: In WordPress, website users and website admins belong to the same user entity (and through roles and privileges we can make a user become an admin). In October CMS, these two are implemented separately, shipping in core the implementation for the website administrator which can log in to the backend area and modify the settings, and through a plugin the implementation of the website user. These two types of users have a different login process and a different database table for storing their data, thus arguably breaching the DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) principle.

This problem arises not only concerning the behavior of an entity but also what data fields it must contain. For instance, should the website user data fields be predefined? Is a telephone field required? What about an Instagram URL field, considering that Instagram got kind of cool only recently? But then, when building a professional website shouldn’t we use a LinkedIn URL field instead? These decisions clearly depend on the application and can’t be decided by either CMS or plugin.

The October CMS plugin called User implements users but without any user field, on top of which plugin User Plus adds several arbitrary user fields, which are possibly not enough, so plugin User Plus+ adds yet other user fields. When, where and how do we stop this process?

Another problem is when there is no room to add new capabilities to an entity, which leads to the creation of another, extremely similar entity, just to support those required capabilities. For instance, October CMS ships with pages, and allows to create “static pages” through a plugin. Their nature is the same: both pages and static pages are saved as static files. The only difference between them (as far as I can tell) is that static pages are edited with a visual editor instead of the HTML editor, and can be added to menus. In my opinion, only structural differences, such as having one entity saved as a static file and the other one stored in the database, could justify creating a second entity for a page (there is a pull request to do this), but for simple features, as is the case currently, it constitutes development bloat.

In summary, a well implemented October CMS application can be very lean and efficient (e.g. by removing the database when not needed), but on the contrary it can also become unnecessarily bloated, forcing developers to implement several solutions for similar entities, and which can be very confusing to use (“Should I use a page or a static page?”). Because neither WordPress or October CMS has found a perfect solution for removing bloat, we must design either application architecture with care to avoid down-the-road pain.

Content Creation

Gutenberg makes two important contributions to WordPress: It uses components as the unit for building sites (which offers several advantages over coding blobs of HTML), and it introduces an entity called a “block” which, once Gutenberg Phase 2 is completed (presumably in 2019), will provide a unified way to incorporate content into the site, thus enabling a simpler user experience as opposed to the more chaotic process of adding content through shortcodes, TinyMCE buttons, menus, widgets, and others.


WordPress Gutenberg
Since WordPress 5.0 Gutenberg is the default content creation experience. (Large preview)

Because Gutenberg blocks can produce and save static HTML as part of the blog post, then installing many Gutenberg blocks doesn’t necessarily translate into bloat on the website on the user side, but can be kept restricted to the admin side. Hence, Gutenberg can arguably be considered a good approach to produce websites in a modular way, with a simple yet powerful user experience for creating content. Possibly the biggest drawback is the (unavoidable, but not easily so) requirement to learn React, whose learning curve is rather steep.

If React components are the basic unit for creating content in WordPress, October CMS is based on the premise that knowing good old HTML is enough for building sites. Indeed, when creating a page, we are simply presented an HTML (Markup) editor:


October CMS page creation
Creating a page in October CMS. (Large preview)

If the page were solely static HTML, then there would be no need for a CMS. Instead, October CMS pages are written using Twig templates which are compiled to plain optimized PHP code. They can select a layout to include the scaffolding of the page (i.e. repetitive elements, such as the header, footer, and so on), can implement placeholders, which are defined on the layout to allow the page to customize content, and can include partials, which are reusable chunks of code. In addition, pages can include content blocks, which are either text, HTML or Markdown files that can be edited on their own and can attach components which are functionalities implemented through plugins. And finally, for whenever HTML is not enough and we need to produce dynamic code, we can add PHP functions.

The editor is all about HTML. There is no TinyMCE textarea for adding content in a visual manner — at least not through the default experience (this functionality belongs to plugin-land). Hence, having knowledge of HTML could be considered a must for using October CMS. In addition, the several different inputs for creating content (pages, layouts, placeholders, partials, content blocks, components, and PHP functions) may be very effective, however, it is certainly not as simple as through the unified block interface from WordPress. It can even get more complex since other elements can also be added (such as static pages and menus, and snippets), and some of them, such as pages and static pages, seemingly provide the same functionality, making it confusing to decide when to use one or the other.

As a result, I dare say that while pretty much anyone can use a WordPress site from the admin side, October CMS is more developer-friendly than non-technical user-friendly, so programmers may find it a joy to use, but certain other roles (marketers, sales people, and the like) may find it non-intuitive.

Media Manager

Both WordPress and October CMS are shipped with a Media Manager which allows adding media files to the site effortlessly, supporting the addition of multiple files simultaneously through a drag-and-drop interface and displaying the images within the content area. They look and behave similarly; the only notable differences I found are that WordPress’ Media Manager allows to embed image galleries, and October’s Media Manager allows to manually create a folder structure where to place the uploaded files.


October CMS Media Manager
October CMS ships with a powerful Media Manager. (Large preview)

Since the introduction of Gutenberg, though, WordPress’ media capabilities have been enhanced greatly, enabling to embed videos, pictures and photo galleries in place as compared to within a TinyMCE textarea (which only provides a non-accurate version of how it will look like in the site), and unlocking powerful, yet easy-to-use features as shown in this video.

Internationalization

WordPress core uses gettext to enable the translation of themes and plugins. Starting from a .pot file containing all strings to translate, we need to create a .po file containing their translation to the corresponding language/locale, and this file is then compiled to a binary .mo file suitable for fast translation extraction. Tools to perform these tasks include GlotPress (online) and Poedit (downloadable application). Conveniently, this mechanism also works for client-side localization for Gutenberg.


Poedit
Poedit allows to translate strings for themes and plugins for WordPress. (Large preview)

WordPress currently doesn’t ship any solution in core to translate content, and will not do so until Phase 4 of Gutenberg (targeted for year 2020+). Until then, this functionality is provided by plugins which offer different strategies for storing and managing the translated content. For example, while plugins such as Polylang and WPML store each translation on its own row from a custom database table (which is clean since it doesn’t mix content together, but slower since it requires an additional INNER JOIN of two tables when querying the database), plugin qTranslate X stores all translations on the same field from the original database table (faster for querying the data, but content mixed all together can produce wreckage on the site if disabling the plugin). Hence, we can shop around and decide the most suitable strategy for our needs.

October CMS doesn’t ship the multilingual functionality through its core, but as a plugin created by the October CMS team that guarantees a faultless integration into the system. From a functional point of view, this plugin delivers what it promises. From a development point of view, it is not quite ideal how this plugin actually works. In WordPress, a page is simply a post with post type “page” and there is a single translation mechanism for them, but in October CMS, there are entities “page”, “static page” and “blog post” and, even though quite similar, they require three different implementations for their translations! Then, the content from a “page” can include message codes (e.g. codes called nav.content, header.title, and so on), each of which contains its translations for all locales as a serialized JSON object in database table rainlab_translate_messages. The content from a “static page” is created into a new static file per locale, however, all translated URLs for all locales are stored not in their corresponding file but instead on the default language’s file. The content for the “blog post” is stored as a serialized JSON object with one row per locale in database table rainlab_translate_attributes and the translated URL is stored with one row per locale in database table rainlab_translate_indexes. I don’t know if this complexity is due to how the plugin was implemented or whether it is due to October CMS’ architecture. Whichever the case, this is another instance of undesired bloat on the development side.

Plugin Management

Both WordPress and October CMS offer a sophisticated plugin manager which allows to search for plugins, install new plugins, and update currently-installed plugins to their latest version — all from within the backend.


October CMS software update
October CMS enables to keep all plugins up-to-date effortlessly. (Large preview)

Dependency Management

October CMS uses Composer as the package manager of choice, enabling plugins to download and install their dependencies when being installed, thus delivering a painless experience.

WordPress, on the opposite side, hasn’t officially adopted Composer (or any PHP dependency manager) because the community can’t agree if WordPress is a site or a site dependency. Hence, if they require Composer for their projects, developers must add it on their own. With the switch to Gutenberg, npm has become the preferred JavaScript dependency manager, with a popular developer toolkit depending on it, and the client-side libraries being steadily released as autonomous packages in the npm registry.

Interaction With The Database

WordPress provides functions to retrieve database data (such as get_posts) and store it (such as wp_insert_post and wp_update_post). When retrieving data, we can pass parameters to filter, limit and order the results, in order to indicate if the result must be passed as an instance of a class or as an array of properties and others. When the function doesn’t fully satisfy our requirements (e.g. when we need to do an INNER JOIN with a custom table) then we can query the database directly through global variable $wpdb. When creating a plugin with a custom post type, the code will most likely be executing custom SQL queries to retrieve and/or save data into custom tables. In summary, WordPress attempts to provide access to the database through generic functions in the first stage, and through low-level access to the database in the second stage.

October CMS employs a different approach: Instead of connecting to the database straight away, the application can use Laravel’s Eloquent ORM to access and manipulate database data through instances of classes called Models, making the interaction with the database also be based on Object-Oriented Programming. It is high-level access; just by following the rules on how to create tables and set-up relationships among entities, a plugin can retrieve and/or save data without writing a line of SQL. For instance, the code below retrieves an object from the database through model Flight, modifies a property, and stores it again:

$flight = Flight::find(1);
$flight->name = 'Darwin to Adelaide';
$flight->save();

Upgrading The Data Model

Another reason for WordPress’ success (in addition to not breaking backward compatibility) has been its database architecture, which was engineered to enable applications to grow over time. This objective is accomplished through “meta” properties, i.e. properties that can be loosely added to a database object at any moment. These properties are not stored in a column from the corresponding entity table (either wp_posts, wp_users, wp_comments or wp_terms), but instead as a row in the corresponding “meta” table (wp_postmeta, wp_usermeta, wp_commentmeta or wp_termmeta) and retrieved doing an INNER JOIN. Hence, even though retrieving these meta values is slower, they provide unlimited flexibility, and the application’s data model rarely needs to be re-architected from scratch in order to implement some new functionality.


WordPress database architecture
WordPress provides unlimited flexibility for upgrading the application’s data model. (Large preview)

October CMS doesn’t use meta properties but instead can store several arbitrary values, which are not directly mapped as columns in the database tables, as a serialized JSON object. Otherwise, when an object needs some new property, we need to add a new column on the corresponding table (which is the reason behind plugins User Plus and User Plus+, mentioned earlier on). To update the application’s database schema, October CMS relies on Laravel’s Migrations, which are sets of instructions to execute against the schema (such as add or drop a column, rename an index, etc) and which are executed when upgrading the software (e.g. when installing a plugin’s new version).

Headless Capabilities

Both WordPress and October CMS can be used as headless, i.e. treating the CMS as a content management system that makes content accessible through APIs, which allows to render the website on the client-side and can power other applications (such as mobile apps). Indeed, WordPress is steadily heading towards headless, since the Gutenberg content editor itself treats WordPress as a headless CMS (and, as a consequence, Gutenberg can also work with any other CMS too, as Drupal Gutenberg demonstrates).

A headless system needs to implement some API to return the data, such as REST and GraphQL. WordPress supports REST through WP REST API (merged in core), exposing endpoints under some predefined route /wp-json/wp/v2/...; October CMS supports REST through plugins RESTful and API Generator, which allow to create custom endpoints and, as a consequence, support versioning as part of the endpoint URL and can offer a better security against bots. Concerning GraphQL, WordPress supports it through WPGraphQL, while October CMS currently has no implementations for it.

Quite importantly, a headless system needs to offer powerful content management capabilities. As mentioned earlier on, WordPress has a very solid database architecture, offering a plethora of data entities (users, posts and custom posts, pages, categories, tags and custom taxonomies, comments) over which the application can be reasonably well modelled, meta properties to extend these data entities (enabling the application to upgrade its data model accordingly and without major changes), and with plugin Advanced Custom Fields filling the gap to construct relationships among the data entities. In addition, plugin VersionPress allows to version control the database content using Git. Hence, WordPress is undoubtedly a good fit for managing content, as demonstrated in several projects in the wild.

On its part, and as mentioned earlier on, October CMS can omit the database and behave as a flat-file system, or it can have a database and behave as a hybrid, storing the content from pages as static files and blog posts (and others) on the database. As a consequence, content is not centralized, and its management involves a different approach. For instance, while we can use Git to version control pages, there is no support to version control the database per se; the solution to this is to populate data into the database through Seeders which, being code, can be put under version control and executed upon deployment. In addition, October CMS doesn’t offer a baked-in database model featuring predefined data entities that can support the needs of most applications. Hence, more likely than not the application will need custom development to implement its data model, which means more work, but also means that it can be more efficient (e.g. accessing a property from a column is faster than from a row in another table through an INNER JOIN, which is the case with WordPress’ meta properties).

CLI Support

Both WordPress and October CMS can be interacted with from the console through a Command Line Interface (CLI): WordPress through WP-CLI and October CMS through Laravel’s Artisan. In addition to Laravel’s commands, October CMS implements several custom commands for updating the system, migrating the database, and others. These tools make it very convenient to access the site from outside a browser, for instance for testing purposes.

Managed Hosting

It is not a problem finding a managed hosting provider for a WordPress site: given WordPress’ market share, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of providers out there vying with each other for the business, constituting a very dynamic market. The only problem is finding the most suitable provider for our specific sites based on all of their offerings, which can vary based on price, quality, type (shared or dedicated services), bandwidth and storage size, customer support, location, frequency of renewal of equipment, and other variables which we can navigate mainly through reviews comparing them (such as this one, this one or this one).

Even though nothing near as many as WordPress, October CMS still enjoys the offering from several hosting providers, which allows for some consideration and selection. Many of them are listed as October Partners, and several others are found DuckDuckGoing, but since I haven’t found any independent review of them or article comparing them, the task of finding out the most suitable one will take some effort.

Marketplace, Ecosystem And Cost

WordPress’ commercial ecosystem is estimated to be USD $10 billion/year, evidencing how many people and companies have managed to make a living by offering WordPress products and services, such as the creation of sites, hosting, theme and plugin development, support, security, and others. Indeed, its size is so big it is even bloated, meaning that it is very common to find different plugins solving the same problem, plugins that underdeliver, underperform or have not been updated for years, and themes which seem to look-alike each other. However, when creating a new site, the size and variety of the ecosystem also means that we will most likely find at least one plugin implementing each of the required functionalities, enabling us to save money by not having to develop the functionality ourselves, and the availability of customizable themes enables to produce a reasonably distinctive-looking site with minimal effort. As a consequence, we can easily create and launch a WordPress site for less than USD $100, making WordPress a sensible option for projects of any budget.

Being relatively new (only five years so far), OctoberCMS certainly doesn’t enjoy anything near WordPress’ marketplace and ecosystem sizes, however, it has been growing steadily so its size is bound to become bigger. Currently, its marketplace boasts 600+ plugins, and only a handful of themes. Concerning plugins, the October CMS team is requesting the community to put their effort into the creation of original plugins, delivering functionality not yet provided by any other plugin.

Hence, even though 600+ plugins doesn’t sound like much, at least these translate into 600+ different functionalities. This way, even though it is not possible to choose among several vendors, at least we can expect to have those basic website features (such as blogging, comments, forum, integration with social media, e-commerce, and others) to be covered. Also, since October’s founders are personally reviewing all submitted plugins and judging them according to quality guidelines, we can expect these plugins to perform as expected. As another plus, October plugins can incorporate elements from Laravel packages (even though not all of them are compatible with October, at least not without some hacks). Concerning themes, the low number of offerings implies we will most likely need to develop our own theme by hiring a developer for the task. In fact, I dare say that the theme in October CMS will most likely be a custom development, since themes and plugins are not thoroughly decoupled (as explained earlier), with the consequence that a market for easily-swappable themes is more difficult to arise. (This is a temporary problem though: once this pull request is resolved, pages will be able to be stored in the database, and swapping themes should not disrupt functionality.)

In my opinion, because of the smaller offerings of themes and plugins, creating a simple site with OctoberCMS will be more expensive than creating a simple WordPress site. For complex sites, however, October’s better architecture (Object-Oriented Programming and Model-View-Controller paradigms) makes the software more maintainable and, as a consequence, potentially cheaper.

Community

Being a part of and having access, WordPress’ community represents one of the most compelling reasons for using WordPress. This is not simply as a matter of size (powering nearly one third of all websites in the world, there are so many stakeholders involved with WordPress, and its community is representatively big) but also as a matter of diversity. The WordPress community involves people from many different professions (developers, marketers, designers, bloggers, sales people, and so on), from all continents and countries, speaking countless languages, from different social, educational and economic backgrounds, with or without disabilities, from corporate, not-for-profit and governmental organizations, and others. Hence, it is quite likely that, for whatever problem we encounter, somebody will be able to help on any of the support forums. And contributing to WordPress is pretty straightforward too: The Make WordPress group congregates stakeholders interested in supporting different projects (accessibility, design, internationalization, and many others) and organizes how and how regularly they communicate — mostly through some dedicated channel on its Slack workspace.

Furthermore, the WordPress community is real and tangible: it doesn’t exist just online, but it gathers offline in WordCamps and meetups all over the world; in 2018, there were a total of 145 WordCamps in 48 countries with over 45,000 tickets sold, and a total of 5,400 meetup events from 687 meetup groups. Hence, it is likely that there is a local chapter nearby which anyone can join to ask for help, learn how to use the platform, keep learning on a regular basis, and teach others as well. In this sense, WordPress is not just a CMS but, more importantly, it’s also people, and considering to leave WordPress should never be done only on its technical merits but on the power of its community, too.


Attendees at WordCamp Kuala Lumpur 2017
WordCamp Kuala Lumpur 2017 drew more than 200 attendees, coming from several countries. (Large preview)

October CMS’ community is nothing near in size or diversity as WordPress’, even though it has been growing steadily following the increasing popularity of the software. October provides a support forum to ask for help, however, it is not very active. A Slack workspace exists which is pretty active and where, quite importantly, October’s founders participate regularly, helping make sure that all enquiries are properly addressed. This channel is a great source for learning low-level tips and tricks about the software, however, it is geared towards developers mainly: There are no channels concerning accessibility, design, internationalization, and other topics as in the WordPress community, at least not yet. Currently, there are no conferences concerning October CMS, but there is Laracon, the conference for the Laravel community.

Maintainers And Governance

Can we trust that the software will be maintained in the long term, so that if we decide to start a project today, we will not need to migrate to some other platform down the road? How many people are taking care of developing the software? And who is deciding in what direction the software moves towards?

Powering one-third of all sites in the world, WordPress is not short of stakeholders contributing to the software; hence we need not fear that the software will fall into decay. However, WordPress is going through internal deliberations concerning its governance model, with many members of the community expressing that decisions concerning WordPress’s direction are being taken unilaterally by Automattic, the company running WordPress.com. Center stage of this perception was the decision to launch Gutenberg, which many members disagreed with, and which suffered a lack of proper communication by the project leads during its development and release. As a consequence, many community members are questioning the role of “benign dictator”, which has been historically granted to WordPress’ founder and Automattic’s CEO Matt Mullenweg, and researching different governance models to find a more suitable one for the future of WordPress. It is yet to be seen if this quest produces any result, or if the status quo perseveres.

Decisions concerning October CMS’ direction are mainly taken by founders Alexey Bobkov and Samuel Georges and developer and community manager Luke Towers, which keep the project going strong. October CMS doesn’t have the luxury of having a governance problem yet: Its current concern is how to make the project sustainable by generating income for the core software’s maintainers.

Documentation

WordPress documentation in its own site is not extremely comprehensive, but it does the job reasonably well. However, when taking all of the documentation about WordPress into account from all sources, such as general sites (Smashing Magazine, CSS tricks, and many others), specialized sites (WPShout, WPBeginner, and many others), personal blogs, online courses, and so on, there is practically no aspect of dealing with WordPress that hasn’t already been covered.

October CMS doesn’t enjoy anything near the many third-party courses, tutorials or blog posts about it as much as WordPress does, however, the documentation on its site is reasonably comprehensive and certainly enough to start coding. October founders also regularly add new documentation through tutorials. One aspect that I personally enjoyed is the duplication of Laravel’s documentation into October’s documentation for everything of relevance, so the reader must not fill the gaps by him/herself and having to guess what is October’s domain and what is Laravel’s. However, this is not 100% perfect. October’s documentation uses terms originating from Laravel, such as middleware, service containers, facades and contracts, without adequately explaining what these are. Then, reading Laravel’s documentation in advance can be helpful (luckily, Laravel’s documentation is decidedly comprehensive, and Laravel’s screencasts, Laracasts, are another great source of learning, not just concerning Laravel but web development in general).

Conclusion

I set out to discover what features may be enticing for developers looking for alternatives to WordPress by comparing WordPress to a similar CMS, which I defined as being free and open source, based in PHP and producing dynamic content, and enjoying the support from some community. From the CMSs fulfilling these conditions, I chose October CMS for the comparison because of the knowledge I got about it, and because I appreciated its clean and modular coding approach as provided by Laravel, which could offer a fresh and modern perspective for building sites.

This article did not intend to pick a winner, but simply analyze when it makes sense to choose one or the other CMS, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. There is no “best” CMS: only the most suitable CMS for a specific situation. Furthermore, anyone looking for a CMS to use on a particular project with a specific team and given a certain budget, should do some research and compare all the offerings out there to find out which one is most suitable for the particular context. It’s important not to limit to a few CMSs as I’ve done here in this article, but instead give a chance to all of them.

On a personal note, as a developer, what I found in October CMS is really appealing to me, mostly its ability to build modular applications as provided through Laravel. I would certainly consider this CMS for a new website. However, in the process of writing this article I also “rediscovered” WordPress. Being so popular, WordPress receives more than its fair share of criticisms, mostly concerning its old codebase and, since recently, the introduction of Gutenberg; however, WordPress also has certain excellent features (such as its super-scalable database model) which are seldom praised but should be taken into account too. And most importantly, WordPress should not be considered on its technical aspects alone: in particular, the size of its community and ecosystem places it a level or two above its alternatives. In a nutshell, some projects may benefit from sticking to WordPress, while others may better rely on October CMS or another platform.

As a final note, I would like to remark that exploring how another CMS works is a very rewarding activity on its own, independent of the decision reached concerning whether to use that particular CMS or not. In my case, I had been working for years on WordPress alone, and delving into October CMS was very refreshing since it taught me many things (such as the existence of PHP Standards Recommendations) which I had not been exposed to through WordPress. I may now decide to switch CMSs, or stick to WordPress knowing how to produce better code.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Smashing Editorial
(rb, ra, yk, il)

Source: Smashing Magazine, A Detailed Comparison Between WordPress And October CMS

Monthly Web Development Update 3/2019: React Hooks, Constructable Stylesheets, And Building Trust

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Monthly Web Development Update 3/2019: React Hooks, Constructable Stylesheets, And Building Trust

Monthly Web Development Update 3/2019: React Hooks, Constructable Stylesheets, And Building Trust

Anselm Hannemann



Do you sometimes feel like there’s so much to read and learn that your brain can’t take it anymore? It’s something most of us experience from time to time when we have too much to do and then overload our brains with even more. I’m aware that my reading lists aren’t helpful in that regard, as they contain even more things to learn. But it’s the very reason why I try to compile a diverse, open-minded set of articles that aren’t entirely frontend- or tech-related. And in weeks like this one where there aren’t too many articles for me to summarize, I realize how relieving this can be. Let’s give our brains the chance to wind down a bit when it tells us to and use the opportunity to reconsider how we do work.

Think about how you approach tasks, for example. Do you ask for more details when you’re given a specific task? Do you figure out how to do it yourself? Or are you just following the task’s details? Only doing the latter will get things done, of course. But it’ll also increase the risk that you forget about necessary details, as a study on storing passwords reveals now. If there’s nothing in the task description about hashing a password, for example, many people will not apply it, even if they know it’s the better solution. Or take the process of building a website: If we forget to add the correct caching, server costs will be unnecessarily high, and performance will suffer. It’s these little extra steps of thinking that make the difference between good, solid work and “just getting stuff done”.

News

  • Chrome 74 brings some new features to DevTools: It now highlights all elements that are affected by a CSS property, Lighthouse 4 is integrated into the Audits panel, and a WebSocket binary message viewer has been added, too.
  • Intersection Observer is still quite new and yet Chrome developers are currently introducing version 2 to tackle some common problems and implement learnings from the first version. Here’s what’s going to change in Intersection Observer v2.

General

  • It’s easy to forget about it, but even today we often build non-diverse solutions in many areas of life. This article shows how that happens with car crash test dummies that neglect women.
  • Voice is becoming more and more important in our lives, mainly because we use more devices without real display interfaces today — Homepod, Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, or Amazon Echo. Mozilla teamed up with institutes from around the world to create an open-source pool of high-quality voices that helps teach machines how real people speak.
  • “In our modern world, it’s easy to junk things up. Simple is hard. We’re quick to add more questions to research surveys, more buttons to a digital interface, more burdens to people”. Kate Clayton explores how to be an elegant simplifier.
  • “People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not. It’s in the ocean.” Let’s dive deep into how communication works and how it came to be that Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon own more than half of the undersea bandwidth. The article shows how the Internet depends on these big four companies nowadays and that we’d face massive struggles and performance impacts if we avoided them.
  • Jason Miller wrote an introduction to rendering on the web, summarizing what happens when a user accesses a website through a modern browser. There’s a lot to learn in here.

Map of the world showing undersea internet cables in 2021
Data is not in the cloud. It’s in the ocean. And more than half of the undersea bandwidth is owned by Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. (Image credit)

UI/UX

  • Anand Satyan explains why it’s important to start designing without color first. It helps you understand the structure of data and layout better and often results in cleaner, more consistent designs.
  • Brad Frost wrote about the importance of providing forms that are simple, not clever, especially if you want users to log in.
  • Nikita Prokopov tried to analyze and redesign Github’s repository page. While I don’t like the final result too much, there are a lot of great takeaways from improving existing design patterns and the user experience with simple methods.

JavaScript

CSS

  • Constructable Stylesheets is a new way of initializing an external stylesheet or set of styles in a non-blocking way. This new approach allows us to dynamically construct stylesheets via JavaScript which is especially useful when we use it for Web Components in a ShadowDOM. The feature is available in Chrome Preview builds currently.
  • Rachel Andrew explains how we’re going to break boxes with the new CSS Fragmentation specification. With CSS Fragmentation, we can do things we used to do with float, but it’s more flexible and helps us control page breaks and other things relevant for print or eBooks.
  • This CSS-only experiment is mind-blowing. I’m seriously impressed and wouldn’t have imagined that we can do something like this with CSS today.

Security

Web Performance

Accessibility

  • Ben Robertson shares five tools we can use for automated accessibility audits. This is great because it allows us to use these tools in CIs, in regression testing (e.g., via Selenium or Chrome/Firefox headless browsers), or directly in our browsers.
  • Alex Carpenter summarized takeaways from WebAIM’s recent accessibility analysis of the top one million sites: 59% of form inputs are unlabeled and, thus, not accessible. Making them accessible for everyone wouldn’t be hard at all. It’s as easy as wrapping the input and describing it, for example like this: <label>Name<input name="name"></label> Of course, there are even better labeling practices out there, but this would already be enough to make a difference for all users of a website, not only those who rely on assistive technologies.
  • Accessibility Insights is a new platform service that provides developers with tools to analyze the accessibility of their web projects.

Cartoon cat and a laptop which is running the Accessibility Insights extension
The Accessibility Insights extension helps you spot accessibility errors and shows how to fix them. (Image credit)

Work & Life

  • How do we build trust as leaders? Claire Lew shares why business retreats and team building activities don’t matter much compared to the things that really make a difference: showing vulnerability, communicating the intent behind actions, and, finally, following through on commitments.
  • I found this article by Sahil Lavingia, the founder of Gumroad, very insightful. In it, he shares the failures, the struggles, and the bad decisions when getting Venture Capital, and why having a “normal” company is worth a thought, too, to prevent the whole thing from failing.
  • Our children are technology-focused and spend a lot of time in front of screens, playing games or watching videos. Pamela Paul advocates for letting our children get bored again.

Going Beyond…

Here’s one more thing: The periodic — yet not regular — reminder to give something back if you enjoy reading my writings and summary of articles.
— Anselm

Smashing Editorial
(cm)

Source: Smashing Magazine, Monthly Web Development Update 3/2019: React Hooks, Constructable Stylesheets, And Building Trust

Block Kit: Slack’s Contribution To Building A Better Collaboration UI

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Block Kit: Slack’s Contribution To Building A Better Collaboration UI

Block Kit: Slack’s Contribution To Building A Better Collaboration UI

Suzanne Scacca



(This is a sponsored article.) Over the last few years, there’s been a major shift in terms of the way companies work. As more businesses become location independent, collaboration tools have become the standard way in which teams meet and get work done.

That said, just because we have collaboration apps that integrate our connected business processes and tools, that doesn’t mean the experience always leads to optimum efficiency or productivity. Why? Well, sometimes an unfriendly UI gets in the way.

That’s why, today, I’m going to talk about Block Kit, Slack’s contribution to building a better collaboration UI.

For those of you who have built a custom Slack app (for the app directory or for internal purposes), this will be your introduction to the new design tool. For those of you who haven’t, that’s okay. There are some valuable lessons to take away from this in terms of what makes for an engaging workspace that will improve collaboration.

Developers, Do You Know What Slack Has Been Working On?

Slack has made huge strides since its launch in 2013. What originally began as a messaging app has now blossomed into a powerful collaboration platform.

As of writing this: Slack has over 10 million active users daily — and they live all over the world (over 150 countries, to be exact).


An example of a Slack channel for Japanese speakers
Here’s an example of a Slack channel for Japanese speakers. (Image source: Slack) (Large preview)

It’s not just individuals using Slack either — nearly 585,000 teams of three persons or more collaborate within the platform. 65 of the Fortune 100 companies also happen to be on Slack.


A glimpse into real-time collaboration between Slack users
A glimpse into real-time collaboration between Slack users (Image source: Slack) (Large preview)

This is all thanks to the Slack API which has opened the door for developers to create and publish publicly available apps that extend the functionality of Slack workspaces.


The front page of the Slack App Directory
The front page of the Slack App Directory. (Image source: Slack) (Large preview)

This way, Slack users don’t have to bounce between their most commonly used business tools. Related processes may take place all from within Slack.

Sometimes, though, what’s available in the Slack App Directory just isn’t enough for what your organization needs internally. You may be able to bridge some of the divides between your business tools with what’s there, but you might also find a reason to build your own custom Slack apps.

Introducing Block Kit From Slack

Here’s the thing: while Slack has succeeded in allowing developers to craft their own apps to enhance collaboration within the platform, how are developers supposed to know how to create a good experience with it?

Until recently, Slack’s API and app directory provided limited flexibility and control. As Brian Elliott, the General Manager of the Platform, explained:

“Today, all apps are forced into a limited set of ways to display rich information. If you’ve looked at and seen and used all of the different apps in Slack, many of them end up with the same layout regardless of which functionality they’re trying to deploy. When in reality what you need is a set of components that let you build rich interactive displays that are easier for people to comprehend, digest and act on.”

So, Slack developed Block Kit.

Block Kit is a UI framework that enables developers, designers and front-end builders to display their messaging apps through a rich, interactive and intuitive UI. Further, by providing a set of stackable UI elements or blocks, Block Kit now provides developers with more control and flexibility over their app designs and layouts.

Note: If you’d like to see Block Kit in action, join the upcoming Slack session, “Building with Block Kit”, where you’ll get a live product demonstration and see how easy it is to customize the design of your app.

Block Kit comes with two key components:

1. Block Kit Builder

Notice the similarity between this builder tool and many of the other tools we use to create websites and apps for clients:


A demo of the Block Kit builder
A demo of the Block Kit builder (Image source: Block Kit) (Large preview)

The building components are on the left. Simply click on the one you want to include and watch it get added to the preview of your app in the center.

Want further customization? Check out the text editor on the right. While Block Kit provides pre-made elements that follow best practices for designing messaging apps, you have the ability to make them your own if you prefer.

2. Block Kit Templates

While you can certainly craft a messaging interface from the Builder on your own, I’d suggest exploring the Templates provided as well:


Some of the templates Block Kit offers to users
These are just some of the templates Block Kit offers to users. (Image source: Block Kit) (Large preview)

The Slack Team has already seen really useful cases of Slack apps in action. Needless to say, they know what kinds of things your organization might want to leverage for the sake of improved collaboration.

That’s why you’ll find common actions like the following already built out for you:

  • Reviewing requests for approval;
  • Taking action on new notifications;
  • Running polls and monitoring results;
  • Conducting a search.

Guru is one such tool that’s leveraged Block Kit to improve its Slack app:

Guru provides a database search function within Slack. Results are now quickly retrieved and more clearly displayed on the frontend of Slack.

The Keys To Building A Better Collaboration UI

Now that we’ve seen what’s coming down the line with Block Kit, we need to talk about how it’s going to help you create apps that lead to more productive collaboration.

Blocks

I recently spoke on the subject of Gutenberg and how designers can use it to their advantage. Although the new WordPress editor clearly has its flaws, there’s no questioning why the team at WordPress made the change:


Block builders are the future of web design.

I get that block builders tend to be the preferred tool for web designers and DIY users. Builders allow for visual frontend design and often include abundant customization options.


Some of the pre-made blocks included in Block Kit
Some of the pre-made blocks included in Block Kit (Image source: Block Kit) (Large preview)

But Block Kit does much more than that, which means both designers and developers can build custom apps with ease.

Code

The key differentiator between something like a website builder and the Block Kit builder is the coding aspect.

In most cases, designers use page builders so they don’t have to bother with code. They might add some custom CSS classes or add HTML to their text, but that’s generally it. Developers don’t work like that though.

Block Kit includes a panel with pre-written JSON that developers can copy-and-paste into their own Slack app once it’s ready to go. Rather than leave developers to write their own code, Slack provides code that utilizes best practices for speed and design.


A sample of JSON you get when you build your rich messaging experience in the builder
A sample of JSON you get when you build your rich messaging experience in the builder. (Image source: Block Kit) (Large preview)

This enables developers to focus on making customizations instead of on having to build their apps from the ground up.

Consistency

When Slack users step inside the platform, they know what to expect. Every interface is the same from workspace to workspace.

However, when an API allows developers to build apps to integrate with those spaces, there’s a risk of introducing elements that just don’t jibe well. When that happens, the unpredictability of the interface can create confusion and hesitation for the end user. Ill-fitting layout choices can also harm the experience.

Block Kit enables developers to build apps with stackable UI components that have been tried and tested. When customizing an experience within an already established platform, it can be difficult to know how far you can take it — or if it’ll even work. Slack has taken those questions out of the equation.

Spacing

This is what the traditional Slack exchange looks like:


An example of Slack users messaging one another
An example of Slack users messaging one another (Image source: Slack) (Large preview)

It tends to be a single-column, back-and-forth exchange. And this works perfectly well for Slack channels where collaboration is simple. Employees message about the status of a task. A client uploads a missing asset. The CEO shares a link to a press release mentioning the company. But not all workspaces are that simple.

Block Kit helps you maximize and enhance the space that your app’s features occupy. For instance, Block Kit enables companies like Optimizely to display pertinent information in two-column formats for better readability.


Optimizely uses Block Kit to create two-column formats
Optimizely uses Block Kit to create two-column formats. (Image source: Optimizely) (Large preview)

This is indeed a better way to share pertinent details in your team’s Slack app.

Rich Interactions

Another way to elevate your app is by turning the integration into one that’s rich with interactions.

Blocks have been specially developed to enhance the most commonly used elements in Slack collaboration. For example:

  • Use the Sectional block for better organization.
  • Use the Text block to customize how messages display.
  • Use properly sized Image blocks so you can stop worrying about whether or not they’ll display correctly.
  • Use Context blocks to show bylines or additional context about messages (like author, comments, changes, etc.)
  • Use Divider blocks to improve the look of the app.
  • Use Action blocks like menu selection, button selection and calendar dates to bring better features into your app and make them display more intuitively.
  • Use 2-section blocks for cleaner layouts.

Doodle has a beautiful example of what can be done with rich interactions using Block Kit:

As you can see, users can work together to schedule meetings just as effectively as if they were using a third-party calendar. The only difference is that they can now do all of that within their Slack workspace.

Wrapping Up

Collaboration is an essential part of any organization’s success, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a team of 3 or a team of 300. But there’s a big difference between working together and productively collaborating.

Thanks to Slack’s API, developers have created some awesome ways to integrate related processes and tools into the platform. And thanks to Block Kit, those external contributions won’t disrupt the experience if the design of the elements falls short.

With intuitive block-building capabilities, developer-friendly coding options and more, Block Kit is going to help developers bring richer experiences and better collaboration to the Slack platform.

One last thing to mention:

Slack’s Frontiers conference is coming up soon. It’s going to be in San Francisco on April 24 and 25. If you’re planning to attend, note that the Developers track will include a full day’s training on Block Kit, including workshops, new feature demos, tutorials, as well as one-on-one mentoring. If you’re thinking about Block Kit, this is an opportunity you won’t want to miss.

Smashing Editorial
(ms, ra, il)

Source: Smashing Magazine, Block Kit: Slack’s Contribution To Building A Better Collaboration UI

Collective #499

dreamt up by webguru in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Collective #499











C499_noise

Cube World

Tibix created this demo as part of the “Art of Noise” series, a collection dedicated to canvas animations using Perlin and Simplex noise.

Check it out




C499_send

Firefox Send

In case you didn’t know about it: Firefox Send lets you share files with end-to-end encryption and a link that automatically expires.

Check it out






C499_stuff

Stuff

A simple alternative to Facebook events. With distribution of invitations and collection of RSVPs.

Check it out





Collective #499 was written by Pedro Botelho and published on Codrops.


Source: Codrops, Collective #499

How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 2)

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How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 2)

How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 2)

Alvin Wan



In Part 1 of this series, we’ve seen how a virtual reality model with lighting and animation effects can be created. In this part, we will implement the game’s core logic and utilize more advanced A-Frame environment manipulations to build the “game” part of this application. By the end, you will have a functioning virtual reality game with a real challenge.

This tutorial involves a number of steps, including (but not limited to) collision detection and more A-Frame concepts such as mixins.

Prerequisites

Just like in the previous tutorial, you will need the following:

  • Internet access (specifically to glitch.com);
  • A Glitch project completed from part 1. (You can continue from the finished product by navigating to https://glitch.com/edit/#!/ergo-1 and clicking “Remix to edit”;
  • A virtual reality headset (optional, recommended). (I use Google Cardboard, which is offered at $15 a piece.)

Step 1: Designing The Obstacles

In this step, you design the trees that we will use as obstacles. Then, you will add a simple animation that moves the trees towards the player, like the following:

Template trees moving towards player
Template trees moving towards player (Large preview)

These trees will serve as templates for obstacles you generate during the game. For the final part of this step, we will then remove these “template trees”.

To start, add a number of different A-Frame mixins. Mixins are commonly-used sets of component properties. In our case, all of our trees will have the same color, height, width, depth etc. In other words, all your trees will look the same and therefore will use a few shared mixins.

Note: In our tutorial, your only assets will be mixins. Visit the A-Frame Mixins page to learn more.

In your editor, navigate to index.html. Right after your sky and before your lights, add a new A-Frame entity to hold your assets:

<a-sky...></a-sky>

<!-- Mixins -->
<a-assets>
</a-assets>

<!-- Lights -->
...

In your new a-assets entity, start by adding a mixin for your foliage. This mixins defines common properties for the foliage of the template tree. In short, it is a white, flat-shaded pyramid, for a low poly effect.

<a-assets>
  <a-mixin id="foliage" geometry="
      primitive: cone;
      segments-height: 1;
      segments-radial:4;
      radius-bottom:0.3;"
     material="color:white;flat-shading: true;"></a-mixin>
</a-assets>

Just below your foliage mixin, add a mixin for the trunk. This trunk will be a small, white rectangular prism.

<a-assets>
  ...
  <a-mixin id="trunk" geometry="
      primitive: box;
      height:0.5;
      width:0.1;
      depth:0.1;"
     material="color:white;"></a-mixin>
</a-assets>

Next, add the template tree objects that will use these mixins. Still in index.html, scroll down to the platforms section. Right before the player section, add a new tree section, with three empty tree entities:

<a-entity id="tree-container" ...>

  <!-- Trees -->
  <a-entity id="template-tree-center"></a-entity>
  <a-entity id="template-tree-left"></a-entity>
  <a-entity id="template-tree-right"></a-entity>

  <!-- Player -->
  ...

Next, reposition, rescale, and add shadows to the tree entities.

<!-- Trees -->
<a-entity id="template-tree-center" shadow scale="0.3 0.3 0.3" position="0 0.6 0"></a-entity>
<a-entity id="template-tree-left" shadow scale="0.3 0.3 0.3" position="0 0.6 0"></a-entity>
<a-entity id="template-tree-right" shadow scale="0.3 0.3 0.3" position="0 0.6 0"></a-entity>

Now, populate the tree entities with a trunk and foliage, using the mixins we defined previously.

<!-- Trees -->
<a-entity id="template-tree-center" ...>
  <a-entity mixin="foliage"></a-entity>
  <a-entity mixin="trunk" position="0 -0.5 0"></a-entity>
</a-entity>
<a-entity id="template-tree-left" ...>
  <a-entity mixin="foliage"></a-entity>
  <a-entity mixin="trunk" position="0 -0.5 0"></a-entity>
</a-entity>
<a-entity id="template-tree-right" ...>
  <a-entity mixin="foliage"></a-entity>
  <a-entity mixin="trunk" position="0 -0.5 0"></a-entity>
</a-entity>

Navigate to your preview, and you should now see the following template trees.


Template trees for obstacles
Template trees for obstacles (Large preview)

Now, animate the trees from a distant location on the platform towards the user. As before, use the a-animation tag:

<!-- Trees -->
<a-entity id="template-tree-center" ...>
  ...
  <a-animation attribute="position" ease="linear" from="0 0.6 -7" to="0 0.6 1.5" dur="5000"></a-animation>
</a-entity>
<a-entity id="template-tree-left" ...>
  ...
  <a-animation attribute="position" ease="linear" from="-0.5 0.55 -7" to="-0.5 0.55 1.5" dur="5000"></a-animation>
</a-entity>
<a-entity id="template-tree-right" ...>
  ...
  <a-animation attribute="position" ease="linear" from="0.5 0.55 -7" to="0.5 0.55 1.5" dur="5000"></a-animation>
</a-entity>

Ensure that your code matches the following.

<a-entity id="tree-container"...>

<!-- Trees -->
<a-entity id="template-tree-center" shadow scale="0.3 0.3 0.3" position="0 0.6 0">
  <a-entity mixin="foliage"></a-entity>
  <a-entity mixin="trunk" position="0 -0.5 0"></a-entity>
  <a-animation attribute="position" ease="linear" from="0 0.6 -7" to="0 0.6 1.5" dur="5000"></a-animation>
</a-entity>

<a-entity id="template-tree-left" shadow scale="0.3 0.3 0.3" position="-0.5 0.55 0">
  <a-entity mixin="foliage"></a-entity>
  <a-entity mixin="trunk" position="0 -0.5 0"></a-entity>
  <a-animation attribute="position" ease="linear" from="-0.5 0.55 -7" to="-0.5 0.55 1.5" dur="5000"></a-animation>
</a-entity>

<a-entity id="template-tree-right" shadow scale="0.3 0.3 0.3" position="0.5 0.55 0">
  <a-entity mixin="foliage"></a-entity>
  <a-entity mixin="trunk" position="0 -0.5 0"></a-entity>
  <a-animation attribute="position" ease="linear" from="0.5 0.55 -7" to="0.5 0.55 1.5" dur="5000"></a-animation>
</a-entity>

<!-- Player -->
...

Navigate to your preview, and you will now see the trees moving towards you.

Template trees moving towards player
Template trees moving towards playerTemplate trees moving towards player (Large preview)

Navigate back to your editor. This time, select assets/ergo.js. In the game section, setup trees after the window has loaded.

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

...

window.onload = function() {
  setupTrees();
}

Underneath the controls but before the Game section, add a new TREES section. In this section, define a new setupTrees function.

/************
 * CONTROLS *
 ************/

...

/*********
 * TREES *
 *********/

function setupTrees() {
}

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

...

In the new setupTrees function, obtain references to the template tree DOM objects, and make the references available globally.

/*********
 * TREES *
 *********/

var templateTreeLeft;
var templateTreeCenter;
var templateTreeRight;

function setupTrees() {
  templateTreeLeft    = document.getElementById('template-tree-left');
  templateTreeCenter  = document.getElementById('template-tree-center');
  templateTreeRight   = document.getElementById('template-tree-right');
}

Next, define a new removeTree utility. With this utility, you can then remove the template trees from the scene. Underneath the setupTrees function, define your new utility.

function setupTrees() {
    ...
}

function removeTree(tree) {
  tree.parentNode.removeChild(tree);
}

Back in setupTrees, use the new utility to remove the template trees.

function setupTrees() {
  ...

  removeTree(templateTreeLeft);
  removeTree(templateTreeRight);
  removeTree(templateTreeCenter);
}

Ensure that your tree and game sections match the following:

/*********
 * TREES *
 *********/

var templateTreeLeft;
var templateTreeCenter;
var templateTreeRight;

function setupTrees() {
  templateTreeLeft    = document.getElementById('template-tree-left');
  templateTreeCenter  = document.getElementById('template-tree-center');
  templateTreeRight   = document.getElementById('template-tree-right');

  removeTree(templateTreeLeft);
  removeTree(templateTreeRight);
  removeTree(templateTreeCenter);
}

function removeTree(tree) {
  tree.parentNode.removeChild(tree);
}

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

setupControls();  // TODO: AFRAME.registerComponent has to occur before window.onload?

window.onload = function() {
  setupTrees();
}

Re-open your preview, and your trees should now be absent. The preview should match our game at the start of this tutorial.

Part 1 finished product
Part 1 finished product (Large preview)

This concludes the template tree design.

In this step, we covered and used A-Frame mixins, which allow us to simplify code by defining common properties. Furthermore, we leveraged A-Frame integration with the DOM to remove objects from the A-Frame VR scene.

In the next step, we will spawn multiple obstacles and design a simple algorithm to distribute trees among different lanes.

Step 2 : Spawning Obstacles

In an endless runner game, our goal is to avoid obstacles flying towards us. In this particular implementation of the game, we use three lanes as is most common.

Unlike most endless runner games, this game will only support movement left and right. This imposes a constraint on our algorithm for spawning obstacles: we can’t have three obstacles in all three lanes, at the same time, flying towards us. If that occurs, the player would have zero chance of survival. As a result, our spawning algorithm needs to accommodate this constraint.

In this step, all of our code edits will be made in assets/ergo.js. The HTML file will remain the same. Navigate to the TREES section of assets/ergo.js.

To start, we will add utilities to spawn trees. Every tree will need a unique ID, which we will naively define to be the number of trees that exist when the tree is spawned. Start by tracking the number of trees in a global variable.

/*********
 * TREES *
 *********/

...
var numberOfTrees = 0;

function setupTrees() {
...

Next, we will initialize a reference to the tree container DOM element, which our spawn function will add trees to. Still in the TREES section, add a global variable and then make the reference.

...
var treeContainer;
var numberOfTrees ...

function setupTrees() {
    ...
    templateTreeRight   = ...
    treeContainer       = document.getElementById('tree-container');
    
    removeTree(...);
    ...
}

Using both the number of trees and the tree container, write a new function that spawns trees.

function removeTree(tree) {
    ...
}

function addTree(el) {
  numberOfTrees += 1;
  el.id = 'tree-' + numberOfTrees;
  treeContainer.appendChild(el);
}

...

For ease-of-use later on, you will create a second function that adds the correct tree to the correct lane. To start, define a new templates array in the TREES section.

var templates;
var treeContainer;
...

function setupTrees() {
    ...
    templates           = [templateTreeLeft, templateTreeCenter, templateTreeRight];

    removeTree(...);
    ...
}

Using this templates array, add a utility that spawns trees in a specific lane, given an ID representing left, middle, or right.

function function addTree(el) {
    ...
}

function addTreeTo(position_index) {
  var template = templates[position_index];
  addTree(template.cloneNode(true));
}

Navigate to your preview, and open your developer console. In your developer console, invoke the global addTreeTo function.

> addTreeTo(0);  # spawns tree in left lane
Invoking addTreeTo manually
Invoke addTreeTo manually (Large preview)

Now, you will write an algorithm that spawns trees randomly:

  1. Pick a lane randomly (that hasn’t been picked yet, for this timestep);
  2. Spawn a tree with some probability;
  3. If the maximum number of trees has been spawned for this timestep, stop. Otherwise, repeat step 1.

To effect this algorithm, we will instead shuffle the list of templates and process one at a time. Start by defining a new function, addTreesRandomly that accepts a number of different keyword arguments.

function addTreeTo(position_index) {
    ...
}

/**
 * Add any number of trees across different lanes, randomly.
 **/
function addTreesRandomly(
  {
    probTreeLeft = 0.5,
    probTreeCenter = 0.5,
    probTreeRight = 0.5,
    maxNumberTrees = 2
  } = {}) {
}

In your new addTreesRandomly function, define a list of template trees, and shuffle the list.

function addTreesRandomly( ... ) {
  var trees = [
    {probability: probTreeLeft,   position_index: 0},
    {probability: probTreeCenter, position_index: 1},
    {probability: probTreeRight,  position_index: 2},
  ]
  shuffle(trees);
}

Scroll down to the bottom of the file, and create a new utilities section, along with a new shuffle utility. This utility will shuffle an array in place.

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

...

/*************
 * UTILITIES *
 *************/

/**
 * Shuffles array in place.
 * @param {Array} a items An array containing the items.
 */
function shuffle(a) {
   var j, x, i;
   for (i = a.length - 1; i > 0; i--) {
       j = Math.floor(Math.random() * (i + 1));
       x = a[i];
       a[i] = a[j];
       a[j] = x;
   }
   return a;
}

Navigate back to the addTreesRandomly function in your Trees section. Add a new variable numberOfTreesAdded and iterate through the list of trees defined above.

function addTreesRandomly( ... ) {
  ...
  var numberOfTreesAdded = 0;
  trees.forEach(function (tree) {
  });
}

In the iteration over trees, spawn a tree only with some probability and only if the number of trees added does not exceed 2. Update the for loop as follows.

function addTreesRandomly( ... ) {
  ...
  trees.forEach(function (tree) {
    if (Math.random() < tree.probability && numberOfTreesAdded < maxNumberTrees) {
      addTreeTo(tree.position_index);
      numberOfTreesAdded += 1;
    }
  });
}

To conclude the function, return the number of trees added.

function addTreesRandomly( ... ) {
  ...
  return numberOfTreesAdded;
}

Double check that your addTreesRandomly function matches the following.

/**
 * Add any number of trees across different lanes, randomly.
 **/
function addTreesRandomly(
  {
    probTreeLeft = 0.5,
    probTreeCenter = 0.5,
    probTreeRight = 0.5,
    maxNumberTrees = 2
  } = {}) {

  var trees = [
    {probability: probTreeLeft,   position_index: 0},
    {probability: probTreeCenter, position_index: 1},
    {probability: probTreeRight,  position_index: 2},
  ]
  shuffle(trees);

  var numberOfTreesAdded = 0;
  trees.forEach(function (tree) {
    if (Math.random() < tree.probability && numberOfTreesAdded < maxNumberTrees) {
      addTreeTo(tree.position_index);
      numberOfTreesAdded += 1;
    }
  });

  return numberOfTreesAdded;
}

Finally, to spawn trees automatically, setup a timer that runs triggers tree-spawning at regular intervals. Define the timer globally, and add a new teardown function for this timer.

/*********
 * TREES *
 *********/
...
var treeTimer;

function setupTrees() {
...
}

function teardownTrees() {
  clearInterval(treeTimer);
}

Next, define a new function that initializes the timer and saves the timer in the previously-defined global variable. The below timer is run every half a second.

function addTreesRandomlyLoop({intervalLength = 500} = {}) {
  treeTimer = setInterval(addTreesRandomly, intervalLength);
}

Finally, start the timer after the window has loaded, from the Game section.

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/
...
window.onload = function() {
  ...
  addTreesRandomlyLoop();
}

Navigate to your preview, and you’ll see trees spawning at random. Note that there are never three trees at once.

Tree spawning at random
Tree randomly spawning (Large preview)

This concludes the obstacles step. We’ve successfully taken a number of template trees and generated an infinite number of obstacles from the templates. Our spawning algorithm also respects natural constraints in the game to make it playable.

In the next step, let’s add collision testing.

Step 3: Collision Testing

In this section, we’ll implement the collision tests between the obstacles and the player. These collision tests are simpler than collision tests in most other games; however, the player only moves along the x-axis, so whenever a tree crosses the x-axis, check if the tree’s lane is the same as the player’s lane. We will implement this simple check for this game.

Navigate to index.html, down to the TREES section. Here, we will add lane information to each of the trees. For each of the trees, add data-tree-position-index=, as follows. Additionally add class="tree", so that we can easily select all trees down the line:

<a-entity data-tree-position-index="1" class="tree" id="template-tree-center" ...>
</a-entity>
<a-entity data-tree-position-index="0" class="tree" id="template-tree-left" ...>
</a-entity>
<a-entity data-tree-position-index="2" class="tree" id="template-tree-right" ...>
</a-entity>

Navigate to assets/ergo.js and invoke a new setupCollisions function in the GAME section. Additionally, define a new isGameRunning global variable that denotes whether or not an existing game is already running.

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

var isGameRunning = false;

setupControls();
setupCollision();

window.onload = function() {
...

Define a new COLLISIONS section right after the TREES section but before the Game section. In this section, define the setupCollisions function.

/*********
 * TREES *
 *********/

...

/**************
 * COLLISIONS *
 **************/

const POSITION_Z_OUT_OF_SIGHT = 1;
const POSITION_Z_LINE_START = 0.6;
const POSITION_Z_LINE_END = 0.7;

function setupCollision() {
}

/********
 * GAME *
 ********/

As before, we will register an AFRAME component and use the tick event listener to run code at every timestep. In this case, we will register a component with player and run checks against all trees in that listener:

function setupCollisions() {
  AFRAME.registerComponent('player', {
    tick: function() {
      document.querySelectorAll('.tree').forEach(function(tree) {
      }
    }
  }
}

In the for loop, start by obtaining the tree’s relevant information:

 document.querySelectorAll('.tree').forEach(function(tree) {
  position = tree.getAttribute('position');
  tree_position_index = tree.getAttribute('data-tree-position-index');
  tree_id = tree.getAttribute('id');
}

Next, still within the for loop, remove the tree if it is out of sight, right after extracting the tree’s properties:

 document.querySelectorAll('.tree').forEach(function(tree) {
  ...
  if (position.z > POSITION_Z_OUT_OF_SIGHT) {
    removeTree(tree);
  }
}

Next, if there is no game running, do not check if there is a collision.

 document.querySelectorAll('.tree').forEach(function(tree) {
  if (!isGameRunning) return;
}

Finally (still in the for loop), check if the tree shares the same position at the same time with the player. If so, call a yet-to-be-defined gameOver function:

document.querySelectorAll('.tree').forEach(function(tree) {
  ...
  if (POSITION_Z_LINE_START < position.z && position.z < POSITION_Z_LINE_END
      && tree_position_index == player_position_index) {
    gameOver();
  }
}

Check that your setupCollisions function matches the following:

function setupCollisions() {
  AFRAME.registerComponent('player', {
    tick: function() {
      document.querySelectorAll('.tree').forEach(function(tree) {
        position = tree.getAttribute('position');
        tree_position_index = tree.getAttribute('data-tree-position-index');
        tree_id = tree.getAttribute('id');

        if (position.z > POSITION_Z_OUT_OF_SIGHT) {
          removeTree(tree);
        }

        if (!isGameRunning) return;

        if (POSITION_Z_LINE_START < position.z && position.z < POSITION_Z_LINE_END
            && tree_position_index == player_position_index) {
          gameOver();
        }
      })
    }
  })
}

This concludes the collision setup. Now, we will add a few niceties to abstract away the startGame and gameOver sequences. Navigate to the GAME section. Update the window.onload block to match the following, replacing addTreesRandomlyLoop with a yet-to-be-defined startGame function.

window.onload = function() {
  setupTrees();
  startGame();
}

Beneath the setup function invocations, create a new startGame function. This function will initialize the isGameRunning variable accordingly, and prevent redundant calls.

window.onload = function() {
    ...
}

function startGame() {
  if (isGameRunning) return;
  isGameRunning = true;

  addTreesRandomlyLoop();
}

Finally, define gameOver, which will alert a “Game Over!” message for now.

function startGame() {
    ...
}

function gameOver() {
  isGameRunning = false;

  alert('Game Over!');
  teardownTrees();
}

This concludes the collision testing section of the endless runner game.

In this step, we again used A-Frame components and a number of other utilities that we added previously. We additionally re-organized and properly abstracted the game functions; we will subsequently augment these game functions to achieve a more complete game experience.

Conclusion

In part 1, we added VR-headset-friendly controls: Look left to move left, and right to move right. In this second part of the series, I’ve shown you how easy it can be to build a basic, functioning virtual reality game. We added game logic, so that the endless runner matches your expectations: run forever and have an endless series of dangerous obstacles fly at the player. Thus far, you have built a functioning game with keyboard-less support for virtual reality headsets.

Here are additional resources for different VR controls and headsets:

In the next part, we will add a few finishing touches and synchronize game states, which move us one step closer to multiplayer games.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

Smashing Editorial
(rb, ra, yk, il)

Source: Smashing Magazine, How To Build An Endless Runner Game In Virtual Reality (Part 2)