Point Cloud Streaming to Mobile Devices with Real-time Visualization

This tutorial describes how to send point cloud data over the network from a desktop server to a client running on a mobile device. The tutorial describes an example app, PointCloudStreaming, for the Android operating system that receives point clouds over a TCP socket and renders them using the VES and Kiwi mobile visualization framework. The PointCloudStreaming app acts as a client, and it connects to the server program pcl_openni_mobile_server. The server program uses the pcl::OpenNIGrabber to generate point clouds from an OpenNI compatible camera. The tutorial The OpenNI Grabber Framework in PCL provides a background for working with the pcl::OpenNIGrabber. This tutorial describes the client and server programs and how to run them.

Building and running the server

The server program, pcl_openni_mobile_server, is included with PCL as an example app. Build PCL with the BUILD_apps option enabled, then run the server program from the PCL build directory:

$ ./bin/pcl_openni_mobile_server -p 11111

The server will start and listen on port 11111. You must have an OpenNI compatible camera connected in order to run the server, otherwise the program will abort with an error message that the OpenNI grabber could not be initialized. When the server starts, it will open a visualization window. The visualization window will refresh once after each new point cloud is sent to the client. The server runs until the client disconnects. The server uses a voxel grid filter and a bounding box region to limit the number of points sent to the client.

Building and running the client

The client is an Android app named Point Cloud Streaming. The app is implemented using the Android NativeActivity. Using NativeActivity, an Android app can be implemented in pure C++ code without writing components in Java. The app uses APIs provided by the Android NDK to handle touch events and app life cycle events. While this is suitable for an example app, apps that demand extra features and user interface elements will require implementations that mix native code and Java components and APIs.

To build the PointCloudStreaming app, first build its main dependency, VES and Kiwi. Follow the VES Developer’s Guide for instructions on setting up your environment for compiling Android applications and how to build VES and Kiwi. Next, edit the file mobile_apps/android/PointCloudStreaming/tools.sh and enter the correct paths for your environment. Set the ANDROID_NDK environment variable to the location of your Android NDK installation, and then run the bash scripts in order:

$ ./configure_cmake.sh
$ ./configure_ant.sh
$ ./compile.sh
$ ./install.sh

Make sure your device is connected before running install.sh. After running install.sh, the Point Cloud Streaming app will be found on your device. When you start the app, it will automatically attempt to connect to the server program. The app uses a text file to read the server host and port information that will be used. The first time the app runs, it will write a text file to the Android device’s SD card at /mnt/sdcard/PointCloudStreaming/appConfig.txt. You can edit this file to input the correct server host and port information, or modify the file mobile_apps/android/PointCloudStreaming/assets/appConfig.txt in the PCL source code repository and recompile the app.

Note

Note, the app will not overwrite appConfig.txt on the SD card if it already exists.

When the app runs, it will display text on the screen indicating whether or not the server connection was successful. Upon successful connection to the server, the app will begin receiving and rendering point clouds. The camera can be repositioned using single-touch and two-touch gestures.

Server program implementation

The server is provided by the program pcl_openni_mobile_server and implemented by the source file apps/src/openni_mobile_server.cpp. The program’s entry point is the main() function. It parses command line arguments and then creates a PCLMobileServer object, passing the command line arguments as parameters to the constructor. The remainder of the program is handled by the PCLMobileServer object.

PCLMobileServer<pcl::PointXYZRGBA> server (device_id, port, leaf_x, leaf_y, leaf_z);
server.run ();

The run() method initializes some objects before entering the main server loop. The first object to be initialized is the pcl::OpenNIGrabber. The grabber is used to generate point clouds from an OpenNI compatible camera. Here are the first few lines of the run() method:

pcl::OpenNIGrabber grabber (device_id_);
boost::function<void (const CloudConstPtr&)> handler_function = boost::bind (&PCLMobileServer::handleIncomingCloud, this, _1);
grabber.registerCallback (handler_function);
grabber.start ();

The grabber is constructed and then the handleIncomingCloud method is bound and registered as a callback on grabber. This callback method is called for each new point cloud that is generated. The OpenNIGrabber runs in a separate thread, and the handleIncomingCloud method is called on that thread. This allows the grabber is generate and process point clouds continuously while the server loop runs in the main thread. Here is the implementation of the handleIncomingCloud() method:

void
handleIncomingCloud (const CloudConstPtr& new_cloud)
{
  CloudPtr temp_cloud (new Cloud);
  voxel_grid_filter_.setInputCloud (new_cloud);
  voxel_grid_filter_.filter (*temp_cloud);

  PointCloudBuffers::Ptr new_buffers = PointCloudBuffers::Ptr (new PointCloudBuffers);
  CopyPointCloudToBuffers (temp_cloud, *new_buffers);

  boost::mutex::scoped_lock lock (mutex_);
  filtered_cloud_ = temp_cloud;
  buffers_ = new_buffers;
}

The new cloud is filtered through a voxel grid filter. The result of the voxel grid filter is then copied into a PointCloudBuffers object. This object is a struct that contains the buffers that will be sent over the TCP socket to the client:

struct PointCloudBuffers
{
  typedef boost::shared_ptr<PointCloudBuffers> Ptr;
  std::vector<short> points;
  std::vector<unsigned char> rgb;
};

The PointCloudBuffers struct contains two vectors, one for points and one for rgb colors. The points vector is defined using short. Each xyz point coordinate of the point cloud is converted from float to short in order to reduce the number of bytes required to represent the coordinate. This conversion results in a loss of precision, but the assumption is that the point clouds generated by the pcl::OpenNIGrabber will have units in meters and the extent of the point cloud will be limited to only several meters. The short data type contains enough bits to acceptably represent such value ranges for the purposes of visualization.

The conversion from float to short is performed by the CopyPointCloudToBuffers function. The function also defines a fixed, axis aligned bounding box, outside of which points will be culled. The function loops over all the points in the point cloud and copies the xyz and rgb values into buffers, while skipping points that lie outside of the predefined bounding box or contain NaN values.

void
CopyPointCloudToBuffers (pcl::PointCloud<pcl::PointXYZRGBA>::ConstPtr cloud, PointCloudBuffers& cloud_buffers)
{
  const size_t nr_points = cloud->points.size ();

  cloud_buffers.points.resize (nr_points*3);
  cloud_buffers.rgb.resize (nr_points*3);

  const pcl::PointXYZ  bounds_min (-0.9, -0.8, 1.0);
  const pcl::PointXYZ  bounds_max (0.9, 3.0, 3.3);

  size_t j = 0;
  for (size_t i = 0; i < nr_points; ++i)
  {

    const pcl::PointXYZRGBA& point = cloud->points[i];

    if (!pcl_isfinite (point.x) ||
        !pcl_isfinite (point.y) ||
        !pcl_isfinite (point.z))
      continue;

    if (point.x < bounds_min.x ||
        point.y < bounds_min.y ||
        point.z < bounds_min.z ||
        point.x > bounds_max.x ||
        point.y > bounds_max.y ||
        point.z > bounds_max.z)
      continue;

    const int conversion_factor = 500;

    cloud_buffers.points[j*3 + 0] = static_cast<short> (point.x * conversion_factor);
    cloud_buffers.points[j*3 + 1] = static_cast<short> (point.y * conversion_factor);
    cloud_buffers.points[j*3 + 2] = static_cast<short> (point.z * conversion_factor);

    cloud_buffers.rgb[j*3 + 0] = point.r;
    cloud_buffers.rgb[j*3 + 1] = point.g;
    cloud_buffers.rgb[j*3 + 2] = point.b;

    j++;
  }

  cloud_buffers.points.resize (j * 3);
  cloud_buffers.rgb.resize (j * 3);
}

The server program opens a TCP socket and waits for a client connection using APIs provided by boost::asio and boost::asio::tcp.

boost::asio::io_service io_service;
tcp::endpoint endpoint (tcp::v4 (), static_cast<unsigned short> (port_));
tcp::acceptor acceptor (io_service, endpoint);
tcp::socket socket (io_service);

std::cout << "Listening on port " << port_ << "..." << std::endl;
acceptor.accept (socket);

std::cout << "Client connected." << std::endl;

After a successful connection, the program enters the main server loop:

while (!viewer_.wasStopped ())
{

  // wait for client
  unsigned int nr_points = 0;
  boost::asio::read (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&nr_points, sizeof (nr_points)));

  PointCloudBuffers::Ptr buffers_to_send = getLatestBuffers ();

  nr_points = static_cast<unsigned int> (buffers_to_send->points.size()/3);
  boost::asio::write (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&nr_points, sizeof (nr_points)));

  if (nr_points)
  {
    boost::asio::write (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&buffers_to_send->points.front(), nr_points * 3 * sizeof (short)));
    boost::asio::write (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&buffers_to_send->rgb.front(), nr_points * 3 * sizeof (unsigned char)));
  }

  counter++;

  double new_time = pcl::getTime ();
  double elapsed_time = new_time - start_time;
  if (elapsed_time > 1.0)
  {
    double frames_per_second = counter / elapsed_time;
    start_time = new_time;
    counter = 0;
    std::cout << "fps: " << frames_per_second << std::endl;
  }

  viewer_.showCloud (getLatestPointCloud ());
}

The first part of the loop waits for a message from the client. It reads 4 bytes from the client, but does not actually read the value sent.

// wait for client
unsigned int nr_points = 0;
boost::asio::read (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&nr_points, sizeof (nr_points)));

You could extend the example code so that the client actually sends some usable information to the server, such as new leaf size parameters to set on the voxel grid filter.

Next, the loop gets the latest point cloud buffers that were generated by the OpenNI grabber callback function, and sends information about the buffer’s number of points to the client:

PointCloudBuffers::Ptr buffers_to_send = getLatestBuffers ();

nr_points = static_cast<unsigned int> (buffers_to_send->points.size()/3);
boost::asio::write (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&nr_points, sizeof (nr_points)));

Next, if there is a non-zero number of points, the server sends the xyz and rgb buffers to the client:

if (nr_points)
{
  boost::asio::write (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&buffers_to_send->points.front(), nr_points * 3 * sizeof (short)));
  boost::asio::write (socket, boost::asio::buffer (&buffers_to_send->rgb.front(), nr_points * 3 * sizeof (unsigned char)));
}

The remainder of the code in the server loop is responsible for refreshing the server’s visualization window and incrementing a counter for tracking the number of point clouds per second that are transferred. The server runs indefinitely until it is terminated or the connection drops.

Client app implementation

The client application, an Android app named PointCloudStreaming is implemented in a single C++ file, mobile_apps/android/PointCloudStreaming/jni/PointCloudStreaming.cpp. The app implementation contains a lot of boiler plate code for initializing the OpenGL ES 2.0 rendering context, managing application life cycle using the Android NDK APIs, and converting touch events into high level gestures. Most of this code is outside of the scope of this tutorial. This tutorial will focus on the code in the client app that is responsible for handling point cloud streaming. In fact, the majority of the code that handles point cloud streaming is contained in a class named vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation found in the kiwi library, part of the VES and Kiwi mobile visualization framework. The vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation is usable by any mobile application.

The PointCloudStreaming app, in PointCloudStreaming.cpp instantiates the vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation in a function named connect() like this:

bool connect(const std::string& host, int port)
{
  mIsConnected = false;

  std::stringstream hostPort;
  hostPort << host << ":" << port;
  this->showText("Connecting to " + hostPort.str());

  if (!mDataRep) {
    mDataRep = vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation::Ptr(new vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation);
  }

  if (!mDataRep->connectToServer(host, port)) {
    this->showText("Connection failed to " + hostPort.str());
    return false;
  }

  this->showText("Connected to " + hostPort.str());
  mIsConnected = true;
  mDataRep->initializeWithShader(mShader);
  mDataRep->addSelfToRenderer(this->renderer());
  this->resetView();
  return true;
}

A new instance is lazy constructed and stored in mDataRep. The mDataRep object provides functionality for initializing the connection to the server and managing the point cloud streaming after a successful connection. After a successful connection is made, the connect() function does not need to be called again. The mDataRep object starts a new thread which reads point cloud xyz and rgb values from the TCP socket and converts them into VES data structures that are used for rendering. The primary data structure used is a vesGeometryData which will be described in more detail later.

At each render loop, the willRender() function is called:

void willRender()
{
  this->Superclass::willRender();

  if (mIsConnected) {
    this->mDataRep->willRender(this->renderer());
  }
  else {
    this->connect(mHost, mPort);
  }
}

If there is not a valid connection to the server, then a connection is attempted, otherwise the willRender() method of mDataRep is called. The mDataRep object uses this opportunity to swap in the most recent vesGeometryData data structure in order to update the point cloud visualization before rendering the new frame.

Let’s now examine some of the code in vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation. This class is derived from vesKiwiDataRepresentation. In kiwi, a data representation is a high level class that contains all the custom logic required to render a piece of data and control its appearance. The data representation ties together many different classes from VTK and VES to accomplish its task. For example, it may use VTK filters and data objects, convert VTK data objects into VES data structures, and use VES rendering classes for managing shaders, textures, and appearance details. Advanced data representations, such as those derived from vesKiwiWidgetRepresentation use touch events and gestures to update the data object visualization.

In the case of vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation, it uses a TCP socket and a thread in order to manage a real-time visualization of a point cloud stream sent from the server. The server connection is established in the connectToServer() method:

bool vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation::connectToServer(const std::string& host, int port)
{
  return (this->Internal->Comm->ConnectToServer(host.c_str(), port) == 0);
}

In the above code, this->Internal->Comm is an instance of a vtkClientSocket. Rather than use boost::asio::tcp, kiwi makes use of the networking classes provided by VTK. After the connection is established, the client loop is started in a new thread:

this->Internal->ClientThreadId = this->Internal->MultiThreader->SpawnThread(ClientLoop, this->Internal);

The client loop is implemented by the ClientLoop function. The this->Internal pointer is passed to the ClientLoop function as an argument. The client loop runs in a new thread and uses the this->Internal pointer to communicate with the main thread. Communication is performed safely using a mutex lock. Here is the implementation of the client loop:

VTK_THREAD_RETURN_TYPE ClientLoop(void* arg)
{
  vtkMultiThreader::ThreadInfo* threadInfo = static_cast<vtkMultiThreader::ThreadInfo*>(arg);

  vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation::vesInternal* selfInternal =
    static_cast<vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation::vesInternal*>(threadInfo->UserData);

  bool shouldQuit = false;
  while (!shouldQuit) {

      vesGeometryData::Ptr geometryData = ReceiveGeometryData(selfInternal->Comm.GetPointer());

      if (!geometryData) {
        break;
      }

      selfInternal->Lock->Lock();
      selfInternal->GeometryData = geometryData;
      selfInternal->HaveNew = true;
      shouldQuit = selfInternal->ShouldQuit;
      selfInternal->Lock->Unlock();
  }

  return VTK_THREAD_RETURN_VALUE;
}

The bulk of the work is carried out by ReceiveGeometryData(). This function is responsible for receiving point cloud xyz and rgb buffers over the TCP socket and copying them into a new vesGeometryData object that is used for rendering. ReceiveGeometryData() is implemented like this:

vesGeometryData::Ptr ReceiveGeometryData(vtkClientSocket* comm)
{
  vtkNew<vtkShortArray> points;
  vtkNew<vtkUnsignedCharArray> colors;
  double startTime = vtkTimerLog::GetUniversalTime();

  int numberOfPoints = 0;

  if (!comm->Send(&numberOfPoints, 4)) {
    return vesGeometryData::Ptr();
  }
  if (!comm->Receive(&numberOfPoints, 4)) {
    return vesGeometryData::Ptr();
  }

  if (!numberOfPoints) {
    return vesGeometryData::Ptr(new vesGeometryData);
  }

  points->SetNumberOfTuples(numberOfPoints*3);
  colors->SetNumberOfComponents(3);
  colors->SetNumberOfTuples(numberOfPoints);

  if (!comm->Receive(points->GetVoidPointer(0), numberOfPoints * 3 * 2)) {
    return vesGeometryData::Ptr();
  }
  if (!comm->Receive(colors->GetVoidPointer(0), numberOfPoints * 3)) {
    return vesGeometryData::Ptr();
  }

  double elapsed = vtkTimerLog::GetUniversalTime() - startTime;
  double kb = points->GetActualMemorySize() + colors->GetActualMemorySize();
  double mb = kb/1024.0;

  std::cout << numberOfPoints << " points in " << elapsed << " seconds "
            << "(" << mb/ elapsed << "mb/s)" << std::endl;


  return CreateGeometryData(points.GetPointer(), colors.GetPointer());
}

The network communication code in ReceiveGeometryData() is written to match the communication code in the server program. First, a ready signal is sent from the client to the server. This signal is 4 bytes and is not actually used for anything on the server side.

int numberOfPoints = 0;

if (!comm->Send(&numberOfPoints, 4)) {
  return vesGeometryData::Ptr();
}

The return value of Send() is checked to determine whether or not the communication was successful. If the connection was dropped then the function aborts by returning a null vesGeometryData pointer. The client loop is designed to break out of the loop in the case of a null pointer, indicating a dropped connection. If the connection is still valid, but the incoming point cloud contains zero points, then an empty vesGeometryData object is returned:

if (!numberOfPoints) {
  return vesGeometryData::Ptr(new vesGeometryData);
}

If there is a non-zero number of points to receive, then the xyz and rgb data is received into buffers:

points->SetNumberOfTuples(numberOfPoints*3);
colors->SetNumberOfComponents(3);
colors->SetNumberOfTuples(numberOfPoints);

if (!comm->Receive(points->GetVoidPointer(0), numberOfPoints * 3 * 2)) {
  return vesGeometryData::Ptr();
}
if (!comm->Receive(colors->GetVoidPointer(0), numberOfPoints * 3)) {
  return vesGeometryData::Ptr();
}

The points object is a vtkShortArray and colors is a vtkUnsignedCharArray. These types are analogous to std::vector<short> and std::vector<unsigned char>. Finally, the buffers are copied into a new vesGeometryData object which will be used for rendering. The copy is performed by CreateGeometryData():

vesGeometryData::Ptr CreateGeometryData(vtkShortArray* points, vtkUnsignedCharArray* colors)
{
  const int numberOfPoints = points->GetNumberOfTuples()*points->GetNumberOfComponents() / 3;

  vesSharedPtr<vesGeometryData> output(new vesGeometryData());
  vesSourceDataP3f::Ptr sourceData(new vesSourceDataP3f());

  vesVertexDataP3f vertexData;
  for (int i = 0; i < numberOfPoints; ++i) {
    vertexData.m_position[0] = points->GetValue(i*3 + 0);
    vertexData.m_position[1] = points->GetValue(i*3 + 1);
    vertexData.m_position[2] = points->GetValue(i*3 + 2);
    sourceData->pushBack(vertexData);
  }

  output->addSource(sourceData);
  output->setName("PolyData");

  vesPrimitive::Ptr pointPrimitive (new vesPrimitive());
  pointPrimitive->setPrimitiveType(vesPrimitiveRenderType::Points);
  pointPrimitive->setIndexCount(1);
  output->addPrimitive(pointPrimitive);


  vesKiwiDataConversionTools::SetVertexColors(colors, output);
  return output;
}

Remember, the network communication and construction of vesGeometryData occurs on a thread. The main thread is used by the application for rendering. A mutex lock is used to update the pointer to the most recent vesGeometryData object constructed. On the main thread, before each frame to be rendered, the vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation has the opportunity to swap the current vesGeometryData pointer with a new one. This occurs in willRender():

void vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation::willRender(vesSharedPtr<vesRenderer> renderer)
{
  vesNotUsed(renderer);

  this->Internal->Lock->Lock();

  if (this->Internal->HaveNew) {
    this->Internal->PolyDataRep->mapper()->setGeometryData(this->Internal->GeometryData);
    this->Internal->HaveNew = false;
  }

  this->Internal->Lock->Unlock();
}

By using threads, the network communication of the client loop is decoupled from the application’s rendering loop. The app is able to render the point cloud and handle touch events to move the camera at interactive frame rates, even if the network communication runs at a slower rate.

Conclusion

This tutorial has described client and server programs for streaming point clouds to mobile devices. The example client program runs on Android, but it is implemented in native C++ code that is runnable on other mobile operating systems such as iOS.

If one wants to develop their own streaming point cloud apps, a good starting point would be to copy and rename the vesKiwiStreamingDataRepresentation class (instead of deriving from it) to create a new class that can be modified to implement the client side communication. The new class can be compiled directly with the new Android and iOS app being developed. The source code of the VES and Kiwi mobile visualization framework contains additional examples of Android and iOS apps. These examples can also be used as starting points for developing new apps. For more information, see the VES and Kiwi homepage.