Friday, March 15, 2013

What is gimbal lock and why do we still have to worry about it?

If you have ever worked with rotations and Euler angles you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the phrase "gimbal lock". But like many things concerning rotations, angles and spaces it can be tricky to visualize and get a good grasp of.

Sometimes it feels like every time I need to think about gimbal lock I have forgotten everything about it and have to go back the beginning and ask myself: OK, but what is it really that is happening?

Hopefully, this article will take care of that problem.

The Wikipedia page shows how gimbal lock can happen in a mechanical system. But it isn't necessarily self-evident how this translates to the computer game world. In the computer there are no mechanical limitations, we can rotate an object however we like. How can anything be "locked"?

Euler angles

When we are using Euler angles, we represent an object's orientation as three consecutive rotations around the object's axes. We can choose the axes and the order in which we apply the rotations arbitrarily, and depending on what we choose we get different Euler representations. So XYZ is the Euler representation where the first angle rotates the object around its X-axis, the second around its (new) Y-axis and the third around its (new) Z-axis. YZX gives us a different representation. We can even have representations with repeated axes, such as XZX.

So if we want to talk about the "Euler angles" of an object, we really must also talk about what axes we are rotating around and in what order. Otherwise we have no idea at all what we are talking about. Unfortunately, many articles about Euler angles are pretty sloppy with this and throw around terms like yaw, pitch and roll as if they had completely well-defined and unambiguous meanings. I prefer to use more wordy, but descriptive names, such as euler_xyz[0] that unambiguously state the axis rotation order and the index of the angle we are talking about.

An object has three rotational degrees of freedom and it is quite easy to see that the three Euler angles for a particular axis order (XYZ) are enough to define any possible orientation of an object. Note though that the representation is not unique. There are many possible Euler angles that represent the same orientation. For example, adding 360 degrees to any of the three angles will give us a different representation that results in the same object orientation.

So "gimbal lock" doesn't mean that there are rotations that can't be expressed as Euler angles. We can express any rotation in Euler angle form. Given an object, we can convert its orientation to Euler angles, and from that orientation we can rotate the object however we like and convert the new orientation to other Euler angles.

So what exactly is it that is "locked"? It seems we can do whatever we like.

The "lock" in gimbal lock

The term "gimbal lock" comes from the mechanical world. If the problem had originated in the world of computers, it would probably have been called something less confusing, such as "Euler angle flip" or "coordinate singularity".

Because, in the computer world, there is really nothing that gets "locked". Instead, the problem is this: when the Euler angles have particular values, there are orientations that are very similar to the current orientation which can't be achieved by just making small changes to the Euler angles. In particular, this happens when one of the angles is at 90 degrees, so that two rotation axes coincide.

So even though the orientations are "close" in the real world, they are not close in the Euler representation. In fact, at least one of the Euler angles will have to flip 180 degrees in order for us to represent the new orientation.

So one of the angles have to flip? What is the big deal? Can't we just flip it and get on with our stuff?

We can, as long as the angles only represent instantaneous "snapshots" of the object's orientation. However, if the angles represent key frames in an animation and we want to interpolate between those key frames we run into trouble. If one of the angles flips 180 degrees between two key frames and we interpolate between those values, we will see the the object animating through all those 180 degrees. In the viewport, we will see the object doing a "flip" or "roll" that shouldn't be there.

Note that it is only the interpolation that creates this unwanted behavior. If we just displayed the actual key frames and didn't interpolate between them -- everything would look right. We could work in Euler angles as much as we liked and be as close to the gimbal lock position as we wanted and no-one would ever know.

So the only thing we need to fix to get rid of gimbal lock is the interpolation. If you have done any work with 3D graphics you probably already know the answer -- to use quaternions instead of Euler angles to represent angles. Quaternions don't have the weird singularity points that Euler angles have and we can interpolate between any keyframes by just lerping the quaternions.

It doesn't matter if the animation package is using Euler angles internally, as long as we convert everything to quaternions before we do the interpolation. Note that interpolation in quaternion space is not the same as interpolation in Euler space though, so to get as close as possible to what the animator intended, we probably want to sample the animation at our target frame rate and generate our quaternion key frames from those samples, rather than directly converting the animator's key frames (which may be further apart).

Well, there is one caveat actually. If we have more than 180 degrees of rotation in a single frame we can't represent that nicely with quaternions. Quaternions always lerp the shortest path between two orientations and you can't represent several "laps" of rotation with quaternions as you can do with Euler angles (by setting one of the angles to 9000 degrees, for example). But you can fix that by sampling at a higher frame rate if you need to represent really fast rotations with quaternions.

So with that we can say good bye and good riddance to Euler angles and never have to worry about their sorry gimbal locking asses ever again.

Or so you may think...

The return of gimbal lock

I certainly thought so, until I started working on the new cutscene animation system for our level editor.

You see, animators really like to work with curves. They like to see a visual representation of what the animation will do to an object over time with key points that can be moved and handles that can be adjusted to change the slope of the curve.

Curves! Animators love them!

Quaternions are great for interpolation, but they are no good for curve editing.

Sure, you could probably draw some curves that represented a quaternion (the laziest thing would be to just draw the x, y and z components of the quaternion), but those curves wouldn't mean anything to an animator, the way the Euler angle curves do. They wouldn't be able to do anything with them.

So, animators want curves with keyframe interpolation. Curves need Euler angles. But what happens when we mix Euler angles with keyframe interpolation? Presto! Our old friend the gimbal lock is back again! Haven't we missed him.

That's it. We're stuck. Gimbal lock is here to stay and the animators will just have to work around it.

And we have to add support for all the usual tricks and workarounds that animators use to get around gimbal lock, such as changing the axis order (from XYZ, to XYZ, XZX or another of the twelve possible permutations), converting to quaternion and back again, applying an "Euler filter", etc.

But who said this game engine gig should be easy?

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Bug in Object Replication and Message Reordering

The Bitsquid network system supports a peer-to-peer model with migration of network objects -- i.e., changing the owner of a network object from one peer to another. This recently lead to an rare race condition.

To understand this bug you must first understand a little bit about how our network system works.


The entire network model is based on an packet delivery system (on top of UDP) that provides ACKs for unreliable packets as well as a reliable (and ordered) packet stream between any two network endpoints. At the next layer we have implemented a remote-procedure-call service for Lua as well as an object replication system.

Games can use these services however they like, but our recommendation is to do as much as possible with the object replication system and as little as possible with RPC calls, since using explicit RPC messages tends to require more bandwidth and be more error prone.

The network be run in both client-server and peer-to-peer mode. The only difference is that in client-server mode, the server relays all messages (clients never talk directly to each other) and owns most of the network objects. (Clients can own objects in client-server mode, in that case the changes to the objects are relayed by the server.)

Objects are replicated with a message stream that looks something like this:


Here, A (the owner of the object) first sends a reliable message that creates the object. When it has received an ACK for that message, it starts sending updates, informing the other players about changes to the object. (By monitoring ACKs, it knows which changes the other players have received, so it only sends updates when necessary and it will resend updates if the messages are lost.) Finally, at some future point, the object is destroyed, through another reliable message.

The UPDATE messages are sent on the unreliable stream (for maximum performance), so they can potentially arrive before CREATE or after DELETE. But this is not a problem, because we simply ignore UPDATE messages that arrive out of order.

This approach ensures that everybody that participates in the game session will see the same set of objects with the same properties (at least eventually, keeping in mind that messages can be delayed).


Migration complicates this picture somewhat.

Migrating a network object means changing the owner of the object from one peer to another. There are a number of reasons why you might want to do that. First, if a player drops out of the game, the objects owned by that player may need to be taken over by somebody else. Second, in a peer-to-peer game we may want to load balance, so that each peer is managing about the same amount of objects. Finally, sometimes a particular player is interacting directly with a particular object (picking up a rock, etc). It can then be beneficial to make that player owner of the object, so that the interaction is not affected by network latency.

In our network, migration is implemented with a reliable MIGRATION message that tells everybody in the session about the object's new owner. The migration message is always sent by a special peer, the HOST of the game session. (To ensure that peers do not compete for the ownership of an object.)

So if we look at a message stream with migration involved, it looks something like this:

   A:  C Ua Ua Ua Ua Ua
HOST:                    M_ab
   B:                          Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub D

If you are an experienced network programmer you should start to smell trouble at this point.

The problem is that while the message system provides an ordered stream of messages between any two endpoints, there is no ordering of messages between different endpoints.

Consider an additional network peer X. There is an ordered stream of messages A → X. There is also an ordered stream of messages B → X. But there is no guaranteed ordering between the messages sent from A and the messages sent from B and HOST. So, suppose the messages from A → X are delayed. Then X could see the following message stream:

M_ab Ub Ub Ub D C Ua Ua Ua

So X gets a request to migrate the object before it has been created. And the creation message arrives after DELETE. In other words, a complete mess.

To be sure, this only happens if the object gets migrated really close to being created or deleted and if there are asymmetric network delays on top of that. But of course, it always happens to someone.

The Fix

There are many possible ways of fixing this. Here are some:

  • We could impose a global message ordering. We could make sure that the reliable message streams are globally ordered to prevent "paradoxes" of this kind. I.e., if HOST sends M_ab after receiving C, no peer should receive M_ab before C. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds. For example, what if A dies before it has sent C to X? In that case, that failed delivery will also block the channels HOST → X and B → X, since they are not allowed to deliver any messages before X has received C.

  • We could use a migration handshake. We could do some kind of handshake procedure to make sure that everybody has received M_ab, before B takes over ownership. But this would require a lot of extra messages and temporarily put the object in limbo.

  • We could fix the ACKs. We could make it so that X doesn't ACK M_ab until C has arrived, thus forcing HOST to keep resending it, until we are ready to receive it. This would work, but would require us to implement ACKing of individual messages. Currently, we just ACK an entire UDP packet (containing many messages) on reception, which is simpler and more performant.

  • We could create an internal message queue. We could queue up migration, create and delete messages in some sort of internal queue if they arrive out of order and try to fix things up later. This is a truly horrible "solution" that increases code complexity and is likely to cause lots of confusing bugs in the future.

All these solutions are probably workable, but they all have the drawback of increasing complexity. And I really don't like to increase the complexity of network code. Reasoning about network code is hard enough as it is, we should always strive for the simplest solution possible.

So, instead, the first thing I did was to simplify the problem by eliminating the host from the equation. I simply let the new owner send out the migration message instead of the host:

   A:  C Ua Ua Ua Ua Ua
   B:                    M_ab Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub D

This is already a lot better. Now we only have two parties to worry about (apart from X), instead of three.

We still want the host to be in charge of migration. Otherwise we run into tricky problems of what should happen if several peers try to assume ownership of an object at the same time. So we let the host initiate the migration by sending a message to the new owner (B). Then, B is responsible for notifying everybody else about this.

With this approach, we can use the same "wait for ack" trick that we used during creation to make sure that B doesn't send any updates to peers that haven't acked the migration:

   A:  C [wait] Ua Ua Ua Ua Ua
   B:                            M_ab [wait] Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub D

We still haven't completely solved the problem, X can still see weird message orderings such as:

M_ab   C   D
M_ab   D   C

But this won't be a problem as long as we do two things:

  • We let MIGRATE act as a CREATE message, if we get MIGRATE for an object that doesn't exist.

  • We ignore "old" CREATE messages. (The C that arrives after M.)

To be able to distinguish old messages I introduced a migration counter. This is just a number that starts at zero when the object is created and is increased (by HOST) every time the object is migrated.

We tag all CREATE, DESTROY and MIGRATE messages with the migration counter and simply ignore "old" messages. With this approach, the message streams will look like this:

   A:  C_0 [wait] Ua Ua Ua Ua Ua
   B:                             M_ab_1 [wait] Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub Ub D_1

We can now verify that all possible message orderings that X can see work correctly:

C_0      M_ab_1  D_1  -- ok, the expected order
M_ab_1   C_0     D_1  -- ok, M_ab_1 creates the object with migration counter 1 and C_0 is ignored
M_ab_1   D_1     C_0  -- ok, M_ab_1 creates the object with migration counter 1 and C_0 is ignored

The system works equally well if there are multiple migration steps:

   A:  C_0 [wait] Ua Ua 
   B:                   M_ab_1 [wait] Ub Ub Ub
   C:                                            M_bc_2 [wait] Uc Uc Uc D_2

No matter in which order the messages arrive we will end up in the correct state.