pictie, my c++-to-webassembly workbench
Hello, interwebs! Today I'd like to share a little skunkworks project with y'all: Pictie, a workbench for WebAssembly C++ integration on the web.
wtf just happened????!?
To find out the answers to these questions and to evaluate potential platform modifications, I needed a small, standalone test case. So... I wrote one? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
pictie is a test bed
Pictie is a simple, standalone C++ graphics package implementing an algebra of painters. It was created not to be a great graphics package but rather to be a test-bed for compiling C++ libraries to WebAssembly. You can read more about it on its github page.
Structurally, pictie is a modern C++ library with a functional-style interface, smart pointers, reference types, lambdas, and all the rest. We use emscripten to compile it to WebAssembly; you can see more information on how that's done in the repository, or check the README.
Pictie is inspired by Peter Henderson's "Functional Geometry" (1982, 2002). "Functional Geometry" inspired the Picture language from the well-known Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs computer science textbook.
prototype in action
So far it's been surprising how much stuff just works. There's still lots to do, but just getting a C++ library on the web is pretty easy! I advise you to take a look to see the details.
If you are thinking of dipping your toe into the WebAssembly water, maybe take a look also at Pictie when you're doing your back-of-the-envelope calculations. You can use it or a prototype like it to determine the effects of different compilation options on compile time, load time, throughput, and network trafic. You can check if the different binding strategies are appropriate for your C++ idioms; Pictie currently uses embind (source), but I would like to compare to WebIDL as well. You might also use it if you're considering what shape your C++ library should have to have a minimal overhead in a WebAssembly context.
I use Pictie as a test-bed when working on the web platform; the weakref proposal which adds finalization, leak detection, and working on the binding layers around Emscripten. Eventually I'll be able to use it in other contexts as well, with the WebIDL bindings proposal, typed objects, and GC.
prototype the web forward
As the browser and adjacent environments have come to dominate programming in practice, we lost a bit of the delightful variety from computing. JS is a great language, but it shouldn't be the only medium for programs. WebAssembly is part of this future world, waiting in potentia, where applications for the web can be written in any of a number of languages. But, this future world will only arrive if it "works" -- if all of the various pieces, from standards to browsers to toolchains to virtual machines, only if all of these pieces fit together in some kind of sensible way. Now is the early phase of annealing, when the platform as a whole is actively searching for its new low-entropy state. We're going to need a lot of prototypes to get from here to there. In that spirit, may your prototypes be numerous and soon replaced. Happy annealing!
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