Trinity College Surface Evolver Workshop

Home Help Day 2

Surface Evolver Workshop Day 1 - Basics


This workshop assumes you already have the Surface Evolver software installed. If you do not, either inquire about local installation at your institution or see the generic Evolver installation instructions.

NOTE: Be sure the Evolver you are running is a recent version, dated May 2004 or later. Otherwise certain exercises in this workshop will not run as claimed. Evolver prints its version and date whenever you run it. skew quadrilateral


The first example will be a skew quadrilateral, which is defined in the provided datafile quad.fe. Open a terminal window in your working directory and run evolver quad. Note that Evolver will automatically try an extension of .fe if it doesn't find the given filename in the current directory or on EVOLVERPATH. (EVOLVERPATH is an environment variable holding a list of directories that Evolver searches to find files not found in the current directory. See the Evolver installation instructions for how to set it up.)

You should now have an Enter command: prompt. Evolver is controlled by an interactive command language. To those who want every user interface to be graphical, I say "Monkeys can use mice; humans use language." And a command language is necessary for writing scripts.


There are two ways to access the online help. One is to directly browse the HTML help files locally or remotely. The second way is to use the Evolver help command with a keyword, for example
 Enter command: help fixed
This actually extracts text from the HTML documentation, which is why the output looks kind of ragged sometimes. It will also give a list of keywords containing your term. Help also recognizes all the variable and other names that you have defined. Note: if your help topic contains spaces, you need to enclose it with quotes, e.g.
help "fixed facet"
If help complains that it can't find the help files, check your EVOLVERPATH and make sure the HTML files are on it.


NOTE: The graphics used in the version you are running use OpenGL and GLUT. These are now available on all kinds of computers, and are my favored graphics library. Older graphics implementations such as Geomview and 2D Xwindows still exist in Evolver, but I never use them any more.

Start graphics with the s command. This should bring up a graphics window in the upper left hand corner of your screen. The initial view has the X axis out of the screen, the Y axis to the right, and the Z axis vertical. You can rotate the surface by dragging with the mouse with the left button down.

Left button mouse modes: Dragging the mouse in the graphics window with the left button down has various modes, which can be changed by hitting a key with the mouse in the graphics window:

Picking: Clicking with the right mouse button on the surface in the graphics window will "pick" a vertex, edge, or facet that lies under the tip of the pointer. The numbers of the picked elements are printed in the terminal window, so you can see what you have been successful in picking. Try picking various things. NOTE: By default, Evolver re-numbers in order the elements it reads from the datafile, so the number shown by picking may not be the same number as in the datafile. The original datafile number is kept in the element attribute original. To get Evolver to keep the original datafile numbers, start Evolver with the -i command line option, i.e. evolver -i quad.

Focus: One use for picking is to control the center of motion for rotation and zooming. Once you have picked a vertex, you can hit the F key with the mouse in the graphics window to make the picked vertex the focus of motion. Try it.

Other useful graphics mode keys: Various commands can be given by hitting keys while the mouse is in the graphics window. The most useful are these (case sensitive):

Graphics prompt: Back in the terminal window, you will notice that the s command leaves you with a graphics mode prompt. This is largely the legacy of the days before all this fancy interactive mouse stuff, but it can still be useful to make precise movements. Do h at the graphics prompt to get a help screen. Do q to get out of graphics mode back to command mode.

Evolving quad

The quad example is a soap film in a fixed frame in the shape of a skew quadrilateral. The only energy is surface tension, and the magnitude of the surface tension is 1. (Evolver works in dimensionless units; you are responsible for your numbers being in some consistent system.) The main technique of energy minimization used by Evolver is gradient descent - the energy of the surface is a scalar function of all the vertex coordinates, and to reduce the energy Evolver calculates the gradient of the energy, which gives a vector at each vertex that can be used for motion. Evolver then test-moves the surface by varying scales in that direction, finding the scale that gives the lowest energy.

A very simple surface such as quad can be evolved using just two commands:

At the Evolver command prompt, give a g command, and look at the output:
Enter command: g
  0. area:  4.32660897515850 energy:  4.32660897515850  scale: 0.265795
In the output, the first number is a repetition count for repeated commands. Then come the area and energy of the surface, which are the same here since we are modeling a soap film of unit surface tension and there are no other energies involved. The "scale" at the right is the multiplier of the gradient used to calculate the motion of the vertices. For minimizing area, the scale normally is around 0.1 or 0.2; much smaller values indicate the evolution is running into difficulties.

Many commands can be followed by a repetition count, which is particularly useful for the g command. Try g 5. Note that the energy is converging rapidly, which is understandable since at this point there is only one vertex free to move.

Refine the surface by giving the r command. Note this subdivides each triangle into four. Then evolve some more with g 20. You can refine and evolve to your heart's content, at least to the capacity of your computer. See how far you can refine and evolve and still have the graphics managable. Note that hitting e in the graphics window to turn off edge drawing makes the graphics much faster.

The quad datafile

The initial surface is defined in a text datafile that defines the geometry of the surface, along with many other options we will see later. Here is the datafile quad.fe:
// quad.fe
// simple skew quadrilateral

1   0  0  1   fixed
2   2  0  0   fixed
3   2  2  0.5 fixed
4   0  2  0   fixed

1   1  2 fixed
2   2  3 fixed
3   3  4 fixed
4   4  1 fixed

1   1 2 3 4 
Comments are indicated by // or /*...*/ as in C. The list of vertices is given with one vertex per line, starting with the vertex number, followed by its coordinates. Then come the vertex attributes, with fixed indicating the vertex cannot move. In the edges section, each edge definition begins with the edge number, then the vertex numbers of its tail and head, followed by attributes. Fixed for an edge means that any vertices produced by refining the edge will also be fixed. The faces section lists the polygons that make up the surface. Each polygon is given as a closed loop of oriented edges (all the edges here are used in the positive direction, but if you used an edge in the negative direction, you would give its number as negative).

cube end cube start

The cube example

This is a cube with fixed volume that evolves into a sphere. You can work through the tutorial from the Surface Evolver documentation.

bubble2 start

The double bubble

This is two bubbles stuck together. Its evolution illustrates a little more advanced command language.

Start Evolver with datafile bubble2.fe and display graphics. The v command shows that the target volumes of the bubbles are different, just to make things nonsymmetric. Try this sequence of commands:
bubble2 end

  g 5
  refine edge where valence == 3
  g 5
  set body[1].facet color red
  set body[2].facet color green
  show facet where color == red
  show facet where color == green
  show facet
  g 10
  g 20
This shows a couple of commands that have an SQL-like syntax (for the non-cognoscenti, SQL is structured query languange, used with databases). The general syntax of this class of commands is
 verb element-generator where-clause
Some common verbs are list, refine, delete, set, fix, unfix, and show. An element generator is either the name of a type of element (vertex, edge, facet, body), or an indexed element name for a single element, or a subsidiary set of elements of a single element (such as body[1].facet above). The where clause is optional; it is a boolean expression that selects a subset of the generated elements. The set syntax has some extra bits in it,
 set element-generator attribute value where-clause

The various element attributes are described in the online documentation. The attributes used above are color and valence. The color of an edge or facet is one of sixteen colors: black, blue, green, cyan, red, magenta, brown, lightgray, darkgray, lightblue, lightgreen, lightcyan, lightred, lightmagenta, yellow, and white. These are actually synonyms for the numbers 0 through 15. The valence of a vertex is the number of adjacent edges; the valence of an edge is the number of adjacent facets, and the valence of a facet is its number of vertices.

It would be redundant to list the details of the whole command language here; I refer you to the online documentation of command syntax. Between the online documentation and the sample datafiles (*.fe) and sample script files (*.cmd), you should be able to get the hang of it.

bridge start

Solder bridge example

This simulates a "bridge" between two blobs of solder on a circuit board. It shows the use of various features for grooming the triangulation. Load and display the bridge.fe datafile. Try a straightforward evolution,
bridge end
 g 5
 g 20

bridge-2 The triangulation here isn't too bad, but one could try improving it. There are lots of long skinny triangles; the u command flips around edges to try to make more equilateral triangles. This process is called equiangulation. Try it.

Also notice the fixed edges on the contact line could use refinement. Try

 refine edges where valence==1 and not no_refine
The no_refine attribute was put on the tabletop edges in the datafile to keep them from being refined by the r command; the refine command doesn't pay attention to no_refine unless you tell it to, as above.

Another useful grooming command is V (upper case, if you can't tell), for vertex averaging. It helps spread out bunched up vertices. Try it a couple of times.

I recommend doing a couple of alternating u's and V's whenever your triangulation is looking a little ragged. After each r is a good time, also.

Now you should be able to evolve and refine the bridge to a nice, smooth, evenly triangulated surface.


String model

The Evolver can also do 1-dimensional surfaces in 2-dimensional ambient space. This is called the string model, as compared to the 2D surface in 3D soapfilm model. Here the default energy is edge length. The main difference in the datafile is that two lines are added in the top section:
  space_dimension 2
A face is still a chain of edges, although the chain need not be closed, and a face is not triangulated when read in. The area of a face can be constrained by defining a body consisting of the one face and then fixing the volume of the body. See the sample string datafile flower.fe, and run flower.fe in Evolver. Try this evolution:
  g 5
  g 10
  g 10
  read "zebra.cmd"

cube film


Create your own datafile modeling the soap film that forms within a cubical wire frame, which has a rounded square in the middle. Note that it is not a bubble in the middle, just one square of film. Hints: Datafile vertices should be the eight corners of the cube, fixed, and the four corners of the inner square. You should have twelve fixed edges for the cubical frame, four unfixed edges for the inner square, and eight unfixed edges joining the cube corners to the corners of the inner square. You should have 13 facets: one central square, 4 triangles, and 8 quadrilaterals. Before you start typing the datafile, draw a large sketch and number all the vertices, edges, and facets. I emphasize "large", since the most common mistake beginners make is to have too small a sketch, and things get too crowded. "Large" means it should fill a whole sheet of paper. Draw arrows on the edges to show their orientation, and also indicate the orientation of facets; I like to draw bent arrows around facet numbers in the direction edges are to be followed.

Home Help Day 2
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