I’ve been following the development of Flash Catalyst, formerly known as Thermo, ever since it was announced and I was really happy when Adobe finally released Flash Catalyst beta 1 earlier this month. I played with it a little and I am really excited by what this tool will become.

Flash Catalyst

To give Catalyst a try, I decided to write a very simple application to search for photos on Flickr. After 10 minutes in Photoshop, 15 minutes in Catalyst and 15 minutes in Flash Builder 4 I had a working application and I had written only a dozen lines of code.

Despite its qualities, Flash Catalyst has a long way to go. I know this is only the first beta of a 1.0 product but here is a short list of what limitations I encountered after writing a few simple applications:

  • The tool sometimes doesn’t feel responsive; I kind of expected this from an Eclipse-based Flex-based application in full screen mode on a 30″ monitor.
  • All sizes and positions are hardcoded in absolute coordinates. The lack of support for layouts will definitely make Catalyst a lot less interesting for stand-alone AIR apps.
  • There are only a few properties you can manipulate for each widget.
  • Round-tripping between Catalyst and Flash Builder is worrisome if you’re not careful.
  • Integration with Photoshop is definitely lacking and far from what was announced (or at least I thought was announced.)

The Photoshop integration is the only real issue I have with Catalyst. You can apparently use Illustrator or Fireworks but these are tools I’m not very familiar with. This also means getting new licenses because only CS4 is supported (too bad for my CS3 copy of Illustrator.)

I can’t wait to see what Flash Catalyst 1.0 will end up becoming and what Adobe has in store for the future releases.

Flash Catalyst and Flash Builder 4

Almost two years ago, I talked about using OpenGL pixel shaders in Swing to fast-process bitmaps. I also explained this effect in a little more details in my book Filthy Rich Clients (follow the link to download the source code).

A while ago Adobe announced Hydra, now known as Pixel Bender, a pixel shader engine/language for the Flash platform. Pixel Bender is available as a stand-alone application known as the Pixel Bender Toolkit or as part of the Flash 10 player. You can also leverage Pixel Bender shaders with the newly released Flex 3.2 SDK. Looking at the presentations I really liked the language Adobe came up with. It’s very similar to GLSL but offers a few interesting features like parameters metadata and dependent values. I recently found a few minutes to play with Pixel Bender in the context of a Flex application and recreated the bloom effect I wrote in Java/GLSL.

The code is pretty simple, a lot simpler than with Java, JOGL and GLSL actually. Let’s start with the fun stuff and look at the shader itself:

<languageVersion: 1.0;>
kernel BrightnessThreshold
    namespace : "CuriousCreature";
    vendor : "Romain Guy";
    version : 1;
    description : "brightness threshold";
    parameter float threshold
        minValue: float(0.0);
        maxValue: float(1.0);
        defaultValue: float(0.5);

    input image4 image;
    output pixel4 outputPixel;

    void evaluatePixel()
        outputPixel = sampleNearest(image, outCoord());

        float3 luminanceVector = float3(0.2125, 0.7154, 0.0721);
        float luminance = dot(luminanceVector, outputPixel.rgb);
        luminance = max(0.0, luminance - threshold);
        outputPixel.rgb *= sign(luminance);

The code is pretty simple, straightforward and very similar to the GLSL implementation. Interestingly, this shader could be optimized by creating the luminance vector only once using the evaluateDependents() function. Unfortunately, Flash 10 does not support this function, only the Pixel Bender Toolkit does.

Here is now the Flex code to apply the shader on a bitmap. Note that this is much more complicated than what you would do to apply the shader on a button for instance. The purpose of this code is to load an image and then apply the shader on a copy of that image. The program thus end up with the original image and the filtered result.

var SourceImage:Class;
var ThresholdShader:Class;

// Load the bitmap and its data
var bitmap:Bitmap = new SourceImage();
var data:BitmapData = bitmap.bitmapData;

// Load the shader
var brightnessShader:Shader = new Shader();
brightnessShader.byteCode = new ThresholdShader();
brightnessShader.data.threshold.value = [0.75];

// Create a new bitmap to hold the filter result
var filtered:BitmapData = new BitmapData(data.width, data.height);
filtered.applyFilter(data, data.rect, new Point(), new ShaderFilter(brightnessShader));

If instead you want to apply the filter directly on a component, like an image or a panel, the code becomes simpler. The following snippet comes from the MXML file:

        [Embed(source="assets/shaders/BrightnessThreshold.pbj", mimeType="application/octet-stream")]
        private var ThresholdShader:Class;

        private function createFilters():void {
            var shader:Shader = new Shader();
            shader.byteCode = new ThresholdShader();
            shader.data.threshold.value = [0.75];

            myWidget.filters = [new ShaderFilter(shader)];

The code is very similar to the previous snippet but this time, the shader is applied as a filter onto the widget itself. I believe that the code could be simpler with Flex Gumbo by passing the new instance of ThresholdShader directly to the ShaderFilter instead of going through an intermediate Shader object.

Even though this example is not very useful, it gives a glimpse of what cool things should be doable with Pixel Bender, Flash and Flex. The only real issue I can see is that shaders rendered in Flash are not executed by the GPU. These shaders do take advantage of multiple cores though and really fly on modern machines with 2 or more cores.

Oh and apparently you can use Pixel Bender shaders as filters in Photoshop CS4. I’ve been waiting for an easy way to write my own filters for quite a long time, I’m sold! Something else really cool about Pixel Bender: it was designed to let you process generic data, not just images. That means you can easily take advantage of multiple cores for your number crunching operations.

Filtering a Bitmap using pixels shaders in Flex

Chet just wrote a very interesting blog about graphics benchmark, and BubbleMark in particular, used to compare various RIA runtimes performance. I highly recommend reading it.

Graphics Benchmark

Chet Haase, a good friend and fellow co-author, just opened his new blog. I won’t spoil you the surprise but you might be interested to know what Chet is up to nowadays :)

A New Blog

Adobe just released the AIF Toolkit which lets you create GPU-accelerated visual effects by using some sort of a pixel shader programming language. Apparently this technology, Hydra, will be included in Flash. Hmm, time to learn Flash and Flex more deeply?

More Awesomeness From Adobe