teaching machines


May 20, 2021 by . Filed under public, slai-2021.

This post is part of a course on geometric modeling at the Summer Liberal Arts Institute for Computer Science held at Carleton College in 2021.

You are on a roll. Literally. Your next shape is a cylinder, and the word cylinder comes from the Greek noun kulindros, which means roller. A cylinder is a bit like a cone in that it’s round. However, it has two caps, and it doesn’t taper. Interestingly, the code to produce a cylinder will have a very similar structure to the code that you wrote to produce a grid.


Before you go anywhere near code, first draw on paper a cylinder made of triangles. What decisions do you find yourself having to make as you draw? Those decisions are likely to suggest the parameters your function will need.


Write a function named generateCylinder. Have it accept these parameters:

Create an empty positions and triangle arrays and return them in an object.

Seed Positions

Unlike the other shapes you have, the cylinder has rotational symmetry. We will exploit this fact. Instead of trying to walk across the surface with for loops, we will traverse just a cross section of the cylinder. The vertices on this cross section are what we’ll call the seed positions. They are called seeds because later on we will use them to grow the complete vertex positions array.

Follow these steps to generate your seed positions:

Test that your seed points appear along this outer right wall by rendering as points and changing your return statement to this:

return {positions: seeds.flatMap(seed => seed.toArray()), triangles};

If that worked, great! If not, let’s talk.

Vertex Positions

The next task is to rotate the seed points all around the cylinder to form the lines of longitude. Follow these steps to produce the full array of vertex positions:

When you render as points, you should see the entire cylinder wall covered in dots.

Side Triangles

Good news. The triangles on the sides of the cylinder and are connected together in the same way as the grid. Start by copying the code for generating the grid’s triangles into this function.

The grid code depends on a variable named nlatitudes. This was passed as a parameter to generateGrid. With a cylinder, this value shouldn’t come in as a parameter, as there are exactly two lines of latitude, always. To make the grid code work in generateCylinder, add a const variable named nlatitudes.

Render the cylinder as a solid mesh. What do you notice?

You should find one wedge of the cylinder missing. This is where the cylinder’s topology is different than the grid’s. We want the final line of longitude to connect back up with the first line of longitude. To make this happen, extend your longitude loop to visit each possible longitude index. When calculating the next line of longitude inside the loop, use wrapped addition.

Cap Triangles

Add triangles to seal off the caps. The triangle-generating code from generateCircle or generateCone can be reused here, but the indices are a little different there are two vertices at each stop along the circular perimeter.

Consider this cylinder with 10 lines of longitude:

The vertices on the bottom cap have indices that are even. We can visit them by visiting each longitude and doubling the index. The vertices on the edge connect up with the bottom cap’s center, whose index is 2 * nlongitudes. These triangles are formed with pseudocode like this:

for each longitude index ilongitude
  iNextLongitude = wrapped increment of i
  add triangle with indices 2 * ilongitude, 2 * iNextLongitude, 2 * nlongitudes

The vertices on the top cap have indices that are odd. They connect up with the top cap’s center, whose index is 2 * nlongitudes + 1. These triangles are formed with pseudocode like this:

for each longitude index ilongitude
  iNextLongitude = wrapped increment of i
  add triangles with indices 2 * ilongitude + 1, 2 * nlongitudes + 1, 2 * iNextLongitude + 1


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