"Collaborative Canvas": A Simple Multi-User Drawing Web App Built Using Node.js

  • Web App

Timeline: May 8-13, 2015
Languages Used: JavaScript (Node.js), HTML, CSS
School: Colorado College
Course: CP215 Application Design

Ever wanted to draw online together with your friends? This app is perfect for that! ... but not much else. It doesn't even have a function to save/download the masterpieces you create, let alone do most things expected of sophisticated drawing applications these days.

Why not? This app was both an experiment in node.js, as well as my collaborative final project for my CP215 Application Design class. So essentially, it was made in a weekend by two people. But that's not to say it isn't a noteworthy project!

Without using websockets or anything of the sort, this application synchronizes a drawing canvas across two or more devices almost instantaneously, while gracefully resolving conflicts individually on each pixel, by prioritizing recency of each user's paint instruction. How? Glad you asked. Well, to start, it's arguably very memory inefficient. But remember, for a weekend project, it's speed of implementation that really counts.


Client-Side Operations

In order to more easily understand these operations, it's best to think of each client's canvas as a child, and the server's canvas as the parent, where the parent reflects the "real" current state of the canvas.

Painting on the Child Canvas

We completed this project so quickly by first choosing to create a "canvas" which is actually an HTML <table> element, made up of thousands of tiny cells, each representing a pixel with a simple background-color CSS attribute. A painted pixel is just a cell with a non-transparent background color, while a blank pixel is a cell with a transparent background color. On mouse-click, a certain number of cells (determined by the current brush size) around the active cell are all painted the color of the currently selected brush.

Polling for Pixels

On the client-side, the browser sends an XHR request to the server every 500 milliseconds (this is called polling) for an updated version of the parent canvas. Regardless of whether any changes have been made, the server will respond to the client with a JSON object containing an array of more objects representing the table's thousands of cells (thus the aforementioned memory inefficiency; remember that this occurs a couple times per second). Upon receiving this response, the client immediately updates the color of every single cell on the local child canvas, corresponding directly to the colored cells in the array sent by the server.**

Listening to Changes

Meanwhile, the client employs event listeners to wait for input (clicks) from the user, and updates pixels on the child canvas accordingly in real-time (i.e. without client-server communication.) The client keeps track of all the changes being made locally to the canvas, via a dynamic array (changed_cells_array) containing only altered "pixels" (JSON objects with x, y, and color properties).

Additionally, every 100 milliseconds, the client will (in a sense) poll itself, to determine whether or not anything has changed on its child canvas. If the local changed_cells_array contains any objects (meaning those corresponding pixels have been somehow locally altered since the last request), then the client sends an XHR to the server containing this array of ONLY altered pixels (as opposed to all pixels in the table) in the form of a JSON object.

Pixel Conflict Resolution

** At any point during the user experience - particularly when the user makes a long brush stroke - it is entirely possible that the following scenario will occur:

During the time period between the mousedown event and the mouseup event, the client has requested and received an updated parent canvas from the server which contains new color values for the same cells currently being painted over by the user. In other words, in the current brushstroke, the user has painted Cell [43, 586] green, but at some point during the brushstroke (perhaps even after said pixel has been painted), the server has informed the client that Cell [43, 586] should be painted blue in accordance with another user's changes. These events can occur in any order, and to more than one cell simultaneously. How does the client know what to do? Can it choose between green and blue in a predictable way? Or does it just crash?

Thankfully, it does not crash. In accordance with our rules of prioritizing recency, if the client's child canvas contains local cells which are currently being manipulated by the user, then the client will not apply the server's changes to those cells until the mouseup event has fired, signaling the end of the user's brushstroke.

Remember the changed_cells_array? This array is only ever filled with the altered cells after the brushstroke ends. This ensures that every time the server asks for altered cells during a brushstroke, this array will always be empty, and therefore nothing will change in the parent canvas on the server. Once the stroke ends, however, the array is updated and the changes are echoed to the parent canvas and all its children.

This delayed response is important for two reasons:

  1. All cells currently being changed but not yet inserted into the changed_cells_array take priority over changes from the server, because they are considered more recent.
  2. If two or more clients manipulate the same cells at the same time, the client who waits the longest to end the brushstroke with a mouseup event is the "winner."

Server-Side Operations

The Parent Canvas

Similar to changed_cells_array, the parent canvas on the server is nothing more than an array of objects corresponding to pixels, each with three properties (x, y, and color).

Listening for Changes

While the server never polls the clients, it does listen in a very similar fashion to them. As you may have already gleaned, the server may receive the contents of each client's changed_cells_array as often as 10 times per second. These arrays contain all the individual pixels that have been painted in child canvases by users more recently than the server last updated them in the parent canvas. As soon as the server receives a request from a client in this way, it simply must update the colors for the corresponding pixels in the parent canvas array, in preparation for the next poll request from a client for the updated canvas.

Pixel Conflict Resolution

Server-side conflict resolution is much simpler than it is on the client side. Since pixels must be prioritized by recency, the server does not need to do anything except to accept requests from clients and change the corresponding pixels in the order they are received. This way, without any additional programming, the client who most recently requested changes be made to the canvas is the one whose changes will be prioritized above all others.

Did we make any glaring mistakes? Is this the coolest Node.js app you've ever seen made in a weekend? Let me know in the comments!

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