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Harald Reingruber
Harald Reingruber

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Three.js Visualizations with Theo Armour (Week 2)

- Week 2 of my Remote Pair-Programming Tour -

Theo found out about my tour from my outreach email campaign and liked the idea from the beginning. He even offered to cover my accommodation costs in San Francisco, but due to COVID-19 I had to return to Austria before I was able to start my tour. Thankfully, Theo was still interested in continuing the collaboration and knowledge exchange online and I was happy to find out how he was using three.js for the COVID-19 visualization and his various other projects.

Shared passion for 3D visualization and three.js

Theo is working on some really interesting projects, all FOSS and based on three.js.

He is really passionate about how "easy" and fast you are able to visualize 3D content in the browser using three.js, and his excitement is not only justified but also very contagious. Collaborating on three.js projects was an awesome tour stop for me, and I enjoyed a lot figuring out how I can support Theo on his tasks and brainstorm with him about his future visions.

Interesting projects Theo is working on

Theo likes to create web apps with plain vanilla JavaScript and three.js. He has an uncountable number of projects and repositories on Github, which he created while experimenting with the reimagination of visualizing things (objects or information) in 3D.

COVID-19 Viz3D

COVID-19 Statistics 3D Visualization
A couple of weeks ago, with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Theo started a project to visualize the global statistics on a 3D globe in the browser, fetching data from the John Hopkins University and Wikipedia. Here is the COVID-19 Viz3D, which is also static HTML with plain vanilla JavaScript, only depending on three.js and fully running in the browser for desktop and mobile devices.

Spider gbXML Viewer

Spider gbXML Viewer
One very remarkable project is the gbXML viewer, which allows to view building data stored in Building Information Models (BIM). Check out this online demo of the Spider gbXML Viewer, I especially like the exploded view and the possibility to toggle the view between interior/exterior surfaces which can be found in the popup menu on the right.

three.js cookbooks

There are hundreds of HTML and JavaScript snippets, which Theo published in his "cookbooks", like this one. The idea is to have browser-ready online demos, where also people new to JavaScript and programming in general are able to copy, paste and adapt the code snippets from the github repository.

Time zone difference and common working hours

Theo usually works in the afternoon and evening. Combined with the nine hour time zone difference between Pacific and Central European time, it was not so easy for us to find time slots which was working well for both of us.

In the beginning we tried to do two 2-hour slots in the morning and evening, but we soon realized it is better to have only one session per day instead of switching back and forth. After several sessions, we decided that doing 2-hour sessions twice a week works best for us. I've kept "week 2" in the title of this article, which is the week of my tour where we started collaborating. We continued collaborating in the weeks after at a lower pace.

Topics Theo and I were collaborating on

After Theo showed me what he was working on, we figured out which topics might be interesting to start working on and kicked off our collaboration.

three.js performance profiling and improvement

COVID-19 Viz3D should run in browsers of mobile devices as well as desktop computers, which makes it especially difficult to stay within the 60 FPS goal.
We noticed that mainly the CPU usage is our bottleneck, because we saw in the Windows task manager that the GPU utilization didn't seem to be very high. We used the three.js inspector to disable certain three.js groups and saw that the cylinders seem to take most of the computation time. The scene contains more than 400k triangles, which seem to be too much to run well on all platforms, at least without further optimizations.

From Unity3D I knew if the triangle count is the issue, there are tricks like batching draw calls for meshes with the same material. A first search how this could be achieved with three.js made us considering to use BufferGeometryUtils.mergeBufferGeometries() to merge all cylinders into one triangle mesh, but this way the raycaster for showing the statistics for each country when hovering the cylinder would not be able to return which mesh was hit by the raycast as easily.

A couple of days later Theo found out that there is a rather new functionality in three.js called InstancedMesh, which allows to create multiple/many instances of the same mesh. Bingo, now all 400k triangles are processed in one draw call a lot faster, and the three.js raycasting mechanism returns the corresponding instance ID which allows to display the data to the corresponding cylinder.

Calendar versioning and automated deployment

Theo uses a calendar versioning approach, which allowed him to run different versions (by date) directly in the browser from Github Pages. He tried to create a new feature for the COVID-19 Viz3D every day, and a menu linking to all daily versions clearly shows the impressive progress the project had during a couple of weeks.

Separation of concerns

While working with him, I noticed that because of creating copies of the source folders, Git can not be used to it's full extent as it looses the connection between the different versions. Still, the advantages of having all versions online in parallel is evident. My gut feeling was if the concern of versioning are separated from the concern of deployment, Theo could benefit from having all previous versions online while being able to use the full power of Git versioning.

Continuous deployment of tags/branches

We made a plan, to experiment with a couple of workflow changes:

  • Configure Github Pages to use a separate gh-pages brach, instead of master, which contains the sub-folder with all relevant source files
  • Create a branch or tag for each version
  • The development branch will only contain the current version
  • A deployment script will update the gh-pages branch and copy the current version to a sibling folder named after the branch name
  • The script will be executed on every new commit pushed to Github, by a continuous integration service like Github Actions, Travis CI, Circle CI, Gitlab CI, etc.


Theo knew that there is value in using tools for auto-formatting your code and static code analysis, but ESLint has a high learning curve if you are not very familiar with the Node.js ecosystem and NPM.

I know how much you can learn from the suggestions of static code analysis, and how much more readable code with consistent styling is. Our eyes and brain unconsciously detect even slight differences, which consumes cognitive energy you might want to reserve for the actual task you are working on. But you don't want to spend the cognitive energy on sticking to strict coding styles either, which is why tools doing that for you are very helpful.

Helping Theo with a initial setup of ESlint and simple NPM scripts for linting and fixing the JavaScript files, allows him to step-by-step get used to the workflow and adjust the ESLint rules to his preferences. Later he will be able to copy the settings to other projects as well.

Looking back

It is really impressive to see that the people involved in software development are as diverse as the topics and technologies we are working on. Theo studied and was working as an architect and was involved with developing CAD software. His enthusiasm is driven by working on prototypes and showing what can be achieved with technology.

I recently heard about the difference between Makers vs. Menders. Makers enjoy quickly building things while menders enjoy to analyze and improve things little by little looking for the mid-/long-term success.

Not knowing how Theo would see himself in this categories, while working with him he reminded me of makers by this definition. I don't think this can or should be distinguished clearly, but it's definitely good to know the tendency. I would count myself as a mender, while I am also enjoying working on prototypes from time to time. Ultimately, you want to have both types of personas in your team to turn up the good. This is probably one of the reasons why our collaboration was inspiring and a valuable learning experience for both of us.

Bottom line, collaboration is really awesome and I am already looking forward to my next sessions with Adrian Bolboacă. 😃

Top comments (2)

theoarmour profile image
Theo Armour • Edited


Thank you for offering your services and for committing much time and effort to what is turning out to be an ongoing friendship and collaboration. You have certainly helped my project move forward and move faster. I feel that you are developing skills that will help you become an unusually qualified developer.

"Makers vs Menders" is a lovely topic. I did not know about this particular comparison, but the comparison has a good history of being observed. Examples might include:

Where am I in this mix? For sure I can see myself as a maker. I adore the new blank file and the possibility that anything can happen here. At the same time, I adore fixing stuff. Over the weekend I received a bug report on my Spider gbXML Viewer version 0.17.07-4. By midday v 0,17.07-5 was out the door with a one line bug fix that took an hour or so to track down.

What I enjoy about being old and free to do what I want is that I can morph my talents into focussing on the methods, psychology and workflow needed for the task at hand. Again, because my age I have a wide array of observations and experiences to draw from. And, to paraphrase Peter Drucker, in all this I try to do my best to confirm that we are doing the right thing and not merely doing the things right.

harald3dcv profile image
Harald Reingruber

You are welcome. Keep on the great spirit!!!