How to Write an Interactive, 60 Hz Desktop Application

This post is available on the IMVU Engineering Blog.

IMVU’s client application doesn’t fit neatly into a single development paradigm:

  • IMVU is a Windows desktop application. Mouse clicks, window resizes, and dialog boxes must all respond with imperceptible latency. Running IMVU should not significantly affect laptop battery life.
  • IMVU is an interactive 3D game. The 3D scene must be simulated and drawn at smooth, interactive frame rates, 60 Hz if possible.
  • IMVU is a networked application. Sending and receiving network packets must happen quickly and the UI should never have to wait for I/O.

Thus, let us clarify some specific requirements:

  • Minimal CPU usage (and thus battery consumption) when the application is minimized or obscured.
  • Minimal CPU usage in low-complexity scenes. Unlike most games, IMVU must never unnecessarily consume battery life while waiting in spin loops.
  • Animation must continue while modal dialog boxes and menus are visible. You don’t have control over these modal event loops, but it looks terrible if animation pauses while menus and dialogs are visible.
  • Animation must be accurate and precise. It looks much better if every frame takes 22 milliseconds (45 Hz) than if some frames take 30 milliseconds and some take 15 milliseconds (averaging 45 Hz).
  • Animation must degrade gracefully. In a really complex room with a dozen avatars, IMVU can easily spend all of a core’s CPU trying to animate the scene. In this case, the frame rate should gradually drop while the application remains responsive to mouse clicks and other input events.
  • Support for Windows XP, Vista, and 7.

Naive Approach #1

Windows applications typically have a main loop that looks something like:

MSG msg;
while (GetMessage(&msg, 0, 0, 0) > 0) {
    TranslateMessage(&msg);
    DispatchMessage(&msg);
}

What went wrong

Using SetTimer/WM_TIMER sounds like a good idea for simulation and painting, but it’s way too imprecise for interactive applications.

Naive Approach #2

Games typically have a main loop that looks something like the following:

while (running) {
    // process input events
    MSG msg;
    while (PeekMessage(&msg, 0, 0, 0, PM_REMOVE)) {
        TranslateMessage(&msg);
        DispatchMessage(&msg);
    }

    if (frame_interval_has_elapsed) {
        simulate_world();
        paint();
    }
}

What went wrong

The above loop never sleeps, draining the user’s battery and burning her legs.

Clever Approach #1: Standard Event Loop + timeSetEvent

void runMainLoop() {
    MSG msg;
    while (GetMessage(&msg, 0, 0, 0) > 0) {
        TranslateMessage(&msg);
        DispatchMessage(&msg);
    }
}

void customWindowProc(...) {
    if (message == timerMessage) {
        simulate();
        // schedules paint with InvalidateRect
    }
}

void CALLBACK TimerProc(UINT, UINT, DWORD, DWORD, DWORD) {
    if (0 == InterlockedExchange(&inFlight, 1)) {
        PostMessage(frameTimerWindow, timerMessage, 0, 0);
    }
}

void startFrameTimer() {
    RegisterClass(customWindowProc, ...);
    frameTimerWindow = CreateWindow(...);
    timeSetEvent(FRAME_INTERVAL, 0, &TimerProc, 0, TIME_PERIODIC);
}

What went wrong

The main loop’s GetMessage call always returns messages in a priority order. Slightly oversimplified, posted messages come first, then WM_PAINT messages, then WM_TIMER. Since timerMessage is a normal message, it will preempt any scheduled paints. This would be fine for us, since simulations are cheap, but the dealbreaker is that if we fail to maintain frame rate, WM_TIMER messages are entirely starved. This violates our graceful degradation requirement. When frame rate begins to degrade, code dependent on WM_TIMER shouldn’t stop entirely.

Even worse, the modal dialog loop has a freaky historic detail. It waits for the message queue to be empty before displaying modal dialogs. When painting can’t keep up, modal dialogs simply don’t appear.

We tried a bunch of variations, setting flags when stepping or painting, but they all had critical flaws. Some continued to starve timers and dialog boxes and some degraded by ping-ponging between 30 Hz and 15 Hz, which looked terrible.

Clever Approach #2: PostThreadMessage + WM_ENTERIDLE

A standard message loop didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere, so we changed our timeSetEvent callback to PostThreadMessage a custom message to the main loop, who knew how to handle it. Messages sent via PostThreadMessage don’t go to a window, so the event loop needs to process them directly. Since DialogBox and TrackPopupMenu modal loops won’t understand this custom message, we will fall back on a different mechanism.

DialogBox and TrackPopupMenu send WM_ENTERIDLE to their owning windows. Any window in IMVU that can host a dialog box or popup menu handles WM_ENTERIDLE by notifying a global idle handler, which can decide to schedule a new frame immediately or in N milliseconds, depending on how much time has elapsed.

What Went Wrong

So close! In our testing under realistic workloads, timeSetEvent had horrible pauses and jitter. Sometimes the multimedia thread would go 250 ms between notifications. Otherwise, the custom event loop + WM_ENTERIDLE approach seemed sound. I tried timeSetEvent with several flags, but they all had accuracy and precision problems.

What Finally Worked

Finally, we settled on MsgWaitForMultipleObjects with a calculated timeout.

Assuming the existence of a FrameTimeoutCalculator object which returns the number of milliseconds until the next frame:

int runApp() {
    FrameTimeoutCalculator ftc;

    for (;;) {
        const DWORD timeout = ftc.getTimeout();
        DWORD result = (timeout
            ? MsgWaitForMultipleObjects(0, 0, TRUE, timeout, QS_ALLEVENTS)
            : WAIT_TIMEOUT);
        if (result == WAIT_TIMEOUT) {
            simulate();
            ftc.step();
        }

        MSG msg;
        while (PeekMessage(&msg, 0, 0, 0, PM_REMOVE)) {
            if (msg.message == WM_QUIT) {
                return msg.wParam;
            }

            TranslateMessage(&msg);
            DispatchMessage(msg);
        }
    }
}

Well, what about modal dialogs?

Since we rely on a custom message loop to animate 3D scenes, how do we handle standard message loops such as the modal DialogBox and TrackPopupMenu calls? Fortunately, DialogBox and TrackPopupMenu provide us with the hook required to implement frame updates: WM_ENTERIDLE.

When the standard DialogBox and TrackPopupMenu modal message loops go idle, they send their parent window a WM_ENTERIDLE message. Upon receiving WM_ENTERIDLE, the parent window determines whether it’s time to render a new frame. If so, we animate all visible 3D windows, which will trigger a WM_PAINT, which triggers a subsequent WM_ENTERIDLE.

On the other hand, if it’s not time to render a new frame, we call timeSetEvent with TIME_ONESHOT to schedule a frame update in the future.

As we saw previously, timeSetEvent isn’t as reliable as a custom loop using MsgWaitForMultipleObjectsEx, but if a modal dialog or popup menu is visible, the user probably isn’t paying very close attention anyway. All that matters is that the UI remains responsive and animation continues while modal loops are open. Code follows:

LRESULT CALLBACK ModalFrameSchedulerWndProc(HWND hwnd, UINT message, WPARAM wparam, LPARAM lparam) {
    if (message == idleMessage) {
        stepFrame();
    }
    return DefWindowProc(hwnd, message, wparam, lparam);
}

struct AlmostMSG {
    HWND hwnd;
    UINT message;
    WPARAM wparam;
    LPARAM lparam;
};

void CALLBACK timeForPost(UINT, UINT, DWORD_PTR user_data, DWORD_PTR, DWORD_PTR) {
    AlmostMSG* msg = reinterpret_cast<AlmostMSG*>(user_data);
    PostMessage(msg->hwnd, msg->message, msg->wparam, msg->lparam);
    delete msg;
}

void PostMessageIn(DWORD timeout, HWND hwnd, UINT message, WPARAM wparam, LPARAM lparam) {
    if (timeout) {
        AlmostMSG* msg = new AlmostMSG;
        msg->hwnd = hwnd;
        msg->message = message;
        msg->wparam = wparam;
        msg->lparam = lparam;
        timeSetEvent(timeout, 1, timeForPost, reinterpret_cast<DWORD_PTR>(msg), TIME_ONESHOT | TIME_CALLBACK_FUNCTION);
    } else {
        PostMessage(hwnd, message, wparam, lparam);
    }
}

class ModalFrameScheduler : public IFrameListener {
public:
    ModalFrameScheduler() { stepping = false; }

    // Call when WM_ENTERIDLE is received.
    void onIdle() {
        if (!frameListenerWindow) {
            idleMessage = RegisterWindowMessageW(L"IMVU_ScheduleFrame");
            Assert(idleMessage);

            WNDCLASS wc;
            ZeroMemory(&wc, sizeof(wc));
            wc.hInstance = GetModuleHandle(0);
            wc.lpfnWndProc = ModalFrameSchedulerWndProc;
            wc.lpszClassName = L"IMVUModalFrameScheduler";
            RegisterClass(&wc);

            frameListenerWindow = CreateWindowW(
                L"IMVUModalFrameScheduler",
                L"IMVUModalFrameScheduler",
                0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0,
                GetModuleHandle(0), 0);
            Assert(frameListenerWindow);
        }

        if (!stepping) {
            const unsigned timeout = ftc.getTimeout();
            stepping = true;
            PostMessageIn(timeout, frameListenerWindow, idleMessage, 0, 0);
            ftc.step();
        }
    }
    void step() { stepping = false; }

private:
    bool stepping;
    FrameTimeoutCalculator ftc;
};

How has it worked out?

A custom message loop and WM_ENTERIDLE neatly solves all of the goals we laid out:

  • No unnecessary polling, and thus increased battery life and performace.
  • When possible, the 3D windows animate at 60 Hz.
  • Even degradation. If painting a frame takes 40 ms, the frame rate will drop from 60 Hz to 25 Hz, not from 60 Hz to 15 Hz, as some of the implementations did.
  • Animation continue to play, even while modal dialogs and popup menus are visible.
  • This code runs well on XP, Vista, and Windows 7.

3 thoughts on “How to Write an Interactive, 60 Hz Desktop Application”

  1. Why not just install a high-priority thread that fires WM_USER messages at a high rate to the main loop? Upon reception of these you can invalidate your area that needs repainting.

  2. dantheman: I wish I could remember why but that approach wasn’t a complete solution for us… I do remember trying it. We do take a similar approach when not in control of the event loop (that is, when showing modal dialogs).

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