One of the key distinctions of web development is that the standards draw a bright line between content and presentation. While LabVIEW doesn’t (so far) have anything as powerful as the facilities that CSS provides, there are things that you can do to take steps in that direction. The basic technique is called creating a “drop-in” VI. These functions derive their name from the fact that they are dropped into an existing VI to change the display characteristics, but without impacting the host VI’s basic functionality.
The Main Characteristics
The first thing we need to do is consider the constraints under which these VIs will need to operate. These constraints will both assist in setting the scope of what we try to accomplish, and inform the engineering decision we have to make.
The first requirement that a VI to meet in order to be considered truly “drop-in” capable, is that there must be no interaction between its logic and that of the VI into which it is being dropped. But if there is to be no interaction with the existing code, how is it supposed to change anything? Given that we are only talking about changing the aspects of the data presentation, all we need is a VI Server reference to the calling VI, and that we can get using the low-level Call Chain function.
As you can see, from the VI reference you can get a reference to the VI’s front panel, and from that you can get an array of references for all the objects on the front panel. It is those references that allow you to set such things as the display font and size – which just happen to be the two things we are going to be manipulating for this example.
One potential problem to be aware of is the temptation to use these references to do things that directly affect how the code operates. However, this is a temptation you must resist. Even though it may seem like you “got away with it this time”, sooner or later it will bite you.
To be specific, changing the appearance of data is OK, but changing the data itself is, in general, not. However, there is one exception that when you think about it makes a lot of sense: localization. Localization is the process of changing the text of captions or labels so they appear is the language of the user, and not the developer. This operation is acceptable because although you might be changing the value in, for example, a button’s Boolean text you aren’t changing what the button does. The button will perform the same whether it is marked “OK”, “Si” or “Ja”.
Autonomous Error Handling
The next thing a drop-in has to be able to do is correctly manage errors. But here we have a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, errors are still important, so you want to know if they occur. However, you don’t on the other hand, want this added functionality to interrupt the main code because an error occurred while configuring something the user would consider as “cosmetic”.
The solution is for the drop-in to have its own separate error reporting mechanism that records errors, but doesn’t inject them into the main VI’s error chain. The error handling library we have in place already has the needed functions for implementing this functionality.
External Configuration Storage
Finally, the drop-in VI needs configuration data that is stored in a central location outside the VI itself – after all, we want this drop-in to be usable in a wide variety of applications and projects. For implementing this storage you have at your disposal all the options you had when creating the main application itself, and as with the main application, the selection of the correct storage location depends on how much of this added capability will be exposed to the user. If you intend to let the user set the values, you can put the settings in an INI file. You just need to make sure that you quality the data they enter before you try using it. Otherwise you could end up in a situation where they specify a non-existent font, or a text size that is impossibly large or small.
To keep things simple for this test case, we will store the data in the same database that we use to store all the other configuration values. The data that we store in the database will also be (for now) simple. Each record will store the data needed to modify one part of one control, so it will contain a field for the name of the VI, the name of the control, an enumeration for selecting what part of the control is to be set, and finally the font name and size. The enumeration
Component to Set will have 3 values:
Contents. Note that to keep things organized and easy to modify or expand, this structure as a whole, and the enumeration in particular are embodied on the LabVIEW side in type definitions.
The Plan of Action
So how can we implement this functionality? The literary device of the “omniscient author” has always bothered me so rather than simply heading off in a direction that I chose before I started writing, let’s take a look at a couple of implementation options and see which one of the two will work the best for us. Remember that the only thing more important that coming up with the right answer, is knowing how you came up with the right answer.
The “Normal” Way
For our first try, let’s start with the basic logic for getting the control references we saw a moment ago, and add to it a VI that returns the font configuration data for the VI that is being configured. Note that the input to this fetch routine (which gets the data from the application database) is the name of the VI that is calling the drop-in. This name is fully qualified, meaning it contains not just the VI name, but also the names of any library or class of which it might be a member.
The output from the database lookup consists of a pair of correlated arrays. Correlated arrays are arrays where the data from a given element in one array correlates to, or goes with, the data from the same-numbered element in the other array. In this case, one array is a list of the control names and the other array is a list of all the font settings that go with the various parts of that control.
The first thing the code does is look to see if there are any font settings defined for the VI by checking to see if one of the arrays are empty. It is only necessary to check one of the arrays since they will always have the same number of elements. If there are font settings defined for the VI, the code takes the array of control references from the VI’s front panel and looks at them one-by-one to determine whether the label for that particular control or indicator is contained in the array of control names. When this search finds a control that is in the list of control names, the code unbundles the font settings data and uses the
Component to Set value to select the frame of a case structure that contains the property node for the specified component’s property.
This approach works pretty well for labels and captions because all controls and indicators can, regardless of type, have them. In addition, regardless of whether the control is a string, numeric, cluster or what have you, the properties are always named the same. (The property for manipulating a control’s
Caption is shown.)
Unfortunately, things begin to get complicated once you move past the properties that all controls share in common and start changing the font settings for the data contained inside the control – what we are calling the
Contents. For example, the property for setting the font of the contents of a string control is called
Text.FontName, whereas the property for setting the corresponding information in a digital numeric is called
NumText.FontName. Things get even stranger when you start talking about setting the font of the Boolean text in the middle of a button, or worse the lines in a listbox – there each row has to be set individually.
The fundamental problem that this simple approach has is that the settings for controls and indicators are built on object-oriented principles. Labels and Captions are easy because they are common to all controls, but as soon as you start talking about text that is contained inside a control, you have to deal with a specific type, or subclass, of control. Plus to even get access to the required properties you need to cast the generic
Ctl reference to a more specific class like a
Str (string) or
DigNum (digital numeric). We could, of course, simply expand the number of items in the
Component to Set enumeration to explicitly call out all the various components that we want to be able modify. Then in each case we could do something like this:
Because we know that the
String Text is only valid for strings, we could cast the reference to the proper subclass, set the appropriate property, and call it done. If you look at very much code you will see this sort of thing being done all the time. But looking closer in those situations you will also see all the code that gets put into trying to fix this implementation’s shortcomings. For example, because the subclass selection logic is in essence being driven by the enumeration, and the enumeration value is stored in the database; we have created a situation where the contents of the database needs to be kept “in sync” with the controls on the front panels. Hence if a string control should be changed to a digital numeric (or vice versa) the database will need to be manually updated to track the change. This fact, in turn, means that we will need to add code to the VI to handle the errors that occur when we forget to keep the code and the database in sync.
As bad as that might sound, it is not the worst problem. The real deal-breaker is that every time you want or need to add support for another type of control, or another
Component to Set, you will be back here modifying this VI. This ongoing maintenance task pretty much means that reusing this code will be difficult to impossible. Hopefully you can see that thanks to these problems (and these are just the two biggest ones), this “simple” approach built around a single case structure ends up getting very, very messy.
But if the object-oriented structure of controls is getting us into trouble, perhaps a bit more object orientation can get us out of trouble…
Riding a Horse in the Direction it’s Going
When programming you will often find yourself in a situation where you are wanting to extend a structure that you can see in a way that you can’t yet fully see or understand. When confronting that challenge, I often find it helpful to take some time and consider the overall trajectory of the part of the structure I can see to see where it’s pointing. Invariably, if you are working with a well-defined structure (as you are here) the best solutions will be found by “riding the horse in the direction it’s already going”.
So what direction is this “horse” already going? Well, the first thing we see is that it is going in the direction of a layered, hierarchical structure. In the VI Server structure that we can see, we observe that the basic control class is not at the top of the hierarchy, but rather in the middle of a much larger structure with multiple layers both above and below it.
The other thing we can note about the direction of this architectural trendline is that the hierarchy we just saw is organized using object-oriented principles, so the hierarchy is a hierarchy of classes, of datatypes. Hence, each object is distinct and in some way unique, but the objects as a group are also related to one another in useful ways.
Taking these two points together it becomes clear that we should be looking for a solution that is similarly layered and object-oriented. However, LabVIEW doesn’t (yet) have a way to seamlessly extend its internal object hierarchy, so while developing this structure using classes of our own creation, we will need to be careful to keep “on track”.
The basic for this structure is a class that we will call
Display Properties.lvclass. Initially this class will have two public interface VIs: One,
Create Display Properties Update Object.vi, does as its name says and creates an object associated with a specific control or indicator. This object will drive what is now the only other interface VI (
Set Control Font.vi) which is created for dynamic dispatch and will serve as the entry point for setting the font and size of text associated with GUI controls and indicators. I am building the class in this way because it is easy to imagine other display properties that we might want to manipulate in the future (e.g. colors, styles, localization, etc.). This is the code I use to dynamically load and create display property update objects:
In general, it is very similar to code I have presented before to dynamically create objects, but there are a few differences. To begin with, the code does not buffer the object after it is created because unlike the other examples we have looked at over the past weeks, these objects do not need to be persistent. In other words, these objects will be created, used and then discarded.
Next, to simplify in their identification, all VI Server classes have properties that return a
Class ID number and a
Class Name. The code uses the latter value to build the path and class name of the child class being requested.
Finally, after the code builds the path and name of the subclass it wants to use, it checks to see if the class exists and only attempts to load it if the defining
lvclass file is found. If the file is missing, the code outputs a parent class object. The reason for this difference is twofold:
- Without it, if a control class was called that we had not implemented, the code would throw an error. Consequently, in order to prevent those errors I would have to create dozens of empty classes that served no functional purpose – and that is wasteful of both my time and computer resources.
- With it, the logic extends what normally happens when a method is not overridden in a subclass, to include the case where the subclass hasn’t even been implemented yet: the parent class and, – more to the point – the parent methods, are invoked.
Taken Care of Business
The dynamic dispatch VI
Set Control Font.vi is obviously the parent method for what will eventually be a family of override methods that will address specific types of controls. But that begs the question: What should go in this VI?
Well think about it for a moment. In the first possible implementation we looked at, things initially looked promising because changing the font and size of labels and captions was so easy. You’ll remember that the reason they were easy, was because all controls and indicators can have them and the properties are always named the same. That sounds like a pretty good description of what we would want in a parent method – so here it is:
The structure is pretty simple, the code retrieves the control reference from where it was stored in the class data and passes it into a case structure that has cases for
Caption. In addition, it has an empty case that handles the
Contents value of
Component to Set. This case is empty because that value will be handled during override. So all we have left to do for right now is look at how these VIs look incorporated into the structure we looked at earlier – all we really needed to replace was the case structure…
…and here it is. Nothing much new to see here, so let me just recommend that you take a good look at this code because you probably won’t be seeing it again. Since we will be adding functionality in the context of the class structure we created, we won’t need to revisit this logic any time soon, and maybe ever.
The Big Tease
So with the basic structure in place, all we have to do is start populating the subclasses we need. But that will have to wait for next time when I will also post all the code.
Until Next Time…