Java and Vector Math

Some time ago, I had to develop a 3D vector utility class for Java. Because the Android platform only uses Java, this is a must if you’re developing for it (unless you’re directly using the NDK or some middleware such as Unity. I’ll get back to this later).

Java, like all programming languages, has its virtues and weaknesses. I found trying to develop a solid Vector3 class to be one such weakness, because Java lacks two main features that I consider core to what I was trying to achieve: stack-allocated objects and operator overloading. These missing features make operating with vectors in Java an annoyance beyond measure.

As much as some people seem to dislike operator overloading, vector/matrix math is one domain where I consider they excel, and the lack of it is going to force me to always go through functions for even the simplest of operations, such as adding/subtracting two vectors or multiplying/dividing by a scalar.

Compare the following lines of code:

Doesn’t seem too bad, does it? Let’s try something different, like obtaining a direction from two points, normalizing, scaling by a factor, and adding it to a point (a relatively frequent operation)

It’s either that or separating into several lines so it becomes clearer and a bit more readable. This is clearly an undesirable way of working with vectors, but the only at our disposal when using Java.

There’s another caveat, though, one that is implicit in the way we have used the equal operator until now. We have been assigning the Vector3 by reference all this time, invalidating the erroneous assumption that we get a new Vector3 out of the operation. What we want is a copy of the resulting Vector3, which means create a new Vector3 using the new operator, and copy the values into the new Vector3. Therefore, line [2] would become something along the lines of:

or

In any case it is a very confusing way of working with vectors.

There is yet another annoyance to be wary of when working with instantiations on the heap in a garbage collected language such as Java which is, precisely, the dreaded Garbage Collector. Vector3 operations typically go inside long loops where interesting calculations take place for many objects in the virtual world, and creating all those new objects in the heap is asking for trouble when the GC comes to inspect your pile of vector rubbish and tries to clean up the mess. This is due to the fact that there are no stack-allocated objects in Java, leaving us with one option – creating temporary Vector3’s and reusing them. This has its fair share of problems too – mainly readability, the ability to use several temporary vectors for intermediate calculations, and having to pass the Vector3 reference as a parameter instead of returning it as a normal function return value. Let’s go back to our example.

Definitely not ideal. In contrast, and for all its similarity with Java, C# has both these features, which makes it a language of choice for these kinds of applications, and I wonder if it was one among the multiple reasons why Unity chose it as their main development language.

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