Processing.js 2008-2018

Yesterday Pomax DM'ed me on Twitter to let me know he'd archived the Processing.js GitHub repo. He's been maintaining it mostly on his own for quite a while, and now with the amazing p5js project, there isn't really a need to keep it going.

I spent the rest of the day thinking back over the project, and reflecting on what it meant to me. Like everyone else in May 2008, I was in awe when John Resig wrote his famous reverse birthday present blog post, showing the world what he'd been hacking together:

I've decided to release one of my largest projects, in recent memory. Processing.js is the project that I've been alluding to for quite some time now. I've ported the Processing visualization language to JavaScript, using the Canvas element. I've been working on this project, off-and-on now, for the past 7 months.

It was nothing short of epic. I had followed the development of Processing since I was an undergrad. I remember stumbling into the aesthetics + computation group website at MIT in my first year, and becoming aware of the work of Ben Fry, John Maeda, Casey Reas and others. I was smitten. As a student studying both humanities and CS, I didn't know anyone else who loved computers and art, and here was an entire lab devoted to it. For many years thereafter, I followed along from afar, always amazed at the work people there were doing.

Then, in the fall of 2009, as part of my work with Mozilla, Chris Blizzard approached me about helping Al MacDonald (f1lt3r) to work on getting Processing.js to 1.0, and adding the missing 3D API via WebGL. In the lead-up to Firefox 3.7, Mozilla was interested in getting more canvas based tech on the web, and in finding performance and other bugs in canvas and WebGL. Processing.js, they thought, would help to bring a community of artists, designers, educators, and other visual coders to the web.

Was I interested!? Here was a chance to finally work alongside some of my technical heroes, and to get to contribute to a space I'd only ever looked at from the other side of the glass. "Yes, I'm interested." I remember getting my first email from Ben, who started to explain what Processing was--I didn't need any introductions.

That term I used Processing.js as the main open source project in my open source class. As Al and I worked on the code, I taught the students how things worked, and got them fixing small bugs. The code was not the easiest first web project for students: take a hybrid of Java and make it work, unmodified, in the browser, using DOM and canvas APIs. This was before transpilers, node, and the current JS ecosystem. If you want to learn the web though, there was no better way than to come at it from underneath like this.

I had an energetic group of students with a nice set of complimentary skills. A few had been working with Vlad on 3D in the browser for a while, as he developed what would become WebGL. Andor Salga, Anna Sobiepanek, Daniel Hodgin, Scott Downe, Jon Buckley, and others would go on to continue working on it with me in our open source lab, CDOT.

Through 2009-11 we worked using the methods I'd learned from Mozilla: open bug tracker, irc, blogs, wikis, weekly community calls, regular dot-releases.

Because we were working in the open, and because the project had such an outsized reputation thanks to the intersections of "Ben & Casey" and Resig, all kinds of random (and amazing) people showed up in our irc channel. Every day someone new from the who's who of design, graphics, gaming, and the digital art worlds would pop in to show us a demo that had a bug, or to ask a question about how to make something work. I spent most of my time helping people debug things, and writing tests to put back into the project for performance issues, parser bugs, and API weirdness.

One day a musician and digital artist named Corban Brook showed up. He used Processing in his work, and was interested to help us fix some things he'd found while porting an old project. He never left. Over the months he'd help us rewrite huge amounts of the code, taught us git, and become a big brother to many of the students. I learned a ton from him about git and JS.

Then there was the time this mathematician came into the channel, complaining about how poor our font code and bezier curve implementation. It turned out he knew what he was talking about, and we never let him leave either. Pomax would go on to become one of the most important maintainers on the project, and a long time friend.

Another time an unknown nickname, "notmasteryet," appeared. He started submitting massive pull requests, but never really said anything. At one point he rewrote our entire Java-to-JavaScript parser from scratch and magically fixed hundreds of bugs we couldn't solve. "notmasteryet" turned out to be Yury Delendik, who would go on to join Mozilla and build every cool thing you've seen the web do in the past 10 years (pdf.js, shumway to name a few).

Being part of this eclectic mix of hackers and artists was intoxicating. Whatever skill one of you lacked, others in the group had it. At one point, the conversation moved toward how to use the browser to mix audio and visuals with processing.js. I had no idea how sound worked, but I did understand how to hack into Gecko and get the data, Corban was a master with FFTs, Al knew how to make the visuals work, and Yury knew everything the rest of us didn't.

We set out to see if we could connect all the dots, and began hacking on a new branch of our code that used a version of Firefox I modified to emit audio events. Our work would eventually be shipped in Firefox 4 as the Audio Data API, and lead to what is now the standardization of the Web Audio AI. I still remember the first time we got all of our pieces working together in the browser, and Corban filmed it. Magic!

From there the group only got larger, and the ideas for processing.js more ambitious. With the addition of people like CJ and Bobby, we started building big demos for Mozilla, which doubled as massive performance tests for browsers trying to compete for speed with WebGL: Flight of the Navigator, No Comply. And these led to yet more browser APIs for gaming, like Pointer Lock and Gamepad.

Since then it's been amazing to watch all the places that processing.js has gone. Twitter has always been full of people discovering it, and sharing their work, not least because of John and Khan Academy using it there in their curriculum. Years later, I even got to use it there with my own children to teach them to code.

I truly loved working on processing.js, probably more than any other project I've done in the past 10 years. It was my favourite kind of software to build for a few reasons:

  • we were implementing Ben's spec. All of our tests and decisions were based on "what does p5 do?" The freedom not to have to decide, but to simply execute, was liberating.
  • we had an enormous amount of pre-existing code to test, and slowly make work. There's no way I could have built processing.js from zero. But I love porting everyone's existing projects.
  • the project was totally based on tests: unit tests, performance tests, visual snapshot/ref tests, parser tests. I learned how to think about code in terms of tests by working on Mozilla, but I learned to love tests through processing.js
  • it could be run without installing anything. Every time we made something new work, you just had to hit Refresh in your browser. That sounds so obvious, but for the community of Java devs coming to the web via processing.js, it was eye opening.
  • we could put time and attention into docs, examples, and guides. Casey and Ben had done so much of this, and we learned a lot from his approach and style.
  • it let me move up and down the web stack. I spent as much time working on performance issues in Firefox as I did in JavaScript. We found a ton of things in WebGL (I was even able to find and get a security bounty for a bug with TypedArrays). I remember once sitting with Boris Zbarsky in Boston, and having him teach me, slowly, how to figure out why our code was falling off of the JIT tracing, and how to fix it. Eventually we got back on JIT, thanks to bz :)

While it's definitely time for processing.js to be archived and other projects to take its place, I wanted to at least say a proper goodbye. I'm thankful I got to spend so many years working in the middle of it, and to have had the chance to work with such a creative part of the internet.

Thanks, too, to Pomax for keeping the lights on years after the rest of us had gone to other projects.

And to processing.js, goodnight. Thanks for all the unit tests.

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