Canvas-based displays

The canvas is an alternate method of displaying content and stimuli on the screen. The underlying principle are true to the canvas metaphor: A canvas is a (rectangular) area on which lines, shapes and text can be drawn, to be shown to the user. It is represented in HTML using the <canvas> tag.

As Mark Pilgrim has put it: “A canvas is a rectangle in your page where you can use JavaScript to draw anything you want.”

Introduction to the canvas

Why use a canvas?

You might be wondering: HTML largely deals with showing rectangles and text on screen, so if a canvas basically does the same thing, why, then, is it useful? The primary reason is that browsers are often doing more work for us than is directly visible. In particular, for any HTML content, it is the browser’s responsibility to maintain the layout of the page. Whenever a page’s content changes, browsers need to recalculate the layout, to make sure that any newly inserted text pushes the content below further downward, that all text is wrapped neatly around newly inserted images, and that all style rules are applied. You might imagine this process like continuously trying to layout a newspaper’s front page while new content is added and deleted simultaneously. Naturally, this process takes time, and if we rely on the browser to react very quickly and update the display rapidly in response to our changing the content, the resulting delay might be too long, resulting in lag.

A canvas does away with continuous layout recalculation, and instead provides us with space on which we can happily paint and collage the content ourselves. The browser no longer assumes responsibility for our layout, but leaves us to squiggle at our hearts’ content. If things overlap, no worries – the browser can always paint on top! This simplifies things immensely for the browser, but it requires a bit more thought from our side: We can no longer, for example, ask the browser to kindly center content for us; instead, we need to calculate its position and place it ourselves.

Canvas graphics are raster-based, that is, the browser remembers the color of each pixel across the canvas, rather than the shapes and text that the colored pixels represent. This means that a canvas cannot change its size easily; if it does, the pixels will be warped, resulting in a blurry display. To achieve crisp images, it is our responsibility to redraw content at different sizes depending on the screen resolution. This sets it apart from vector graphics, which represent a display through the shapes visible on it, and can be redrawn at different sizes and resolutions without loss in quality. That being said, we can make sure that we draw content at the appropriate resolution, and adjust sizes depending on the client’s screen to achieve crisp rendering everywhere. As you will see, the canvas.Screen() component contains a few helpers to make this easy.

Resources for learning

It would be impossible to cover the usage of the canvas in detail here, but luckily there are excellent resources available from more knowledgable authors. We have compiled a few in the following:



The canvas.Screen() API, while completely functional, is not entirely settled yet. You are absolutely invited to use it, however please bear in mind that some details might change over time, as everybody gathers experience using it.

In particular, the part that is most likely to change is the handling of animation. This is because this is the aspect of the canvas which the authors have the least experience with. If you are using a canvas to show animated content within an experiment, and would be willing to share thoughts or even code, please be warmly invited to drop us a line.

class canvas.Screen([options])

A canvas.Screen() is a component in an experiment that provides a canvas element to draw on via Javascript. It automatically inserts a canvas into the page when it is run, and adjusts its size to cover the containing element.

When a canvas.Screen() is constructed, it takes options as any other component. It expects either a renderFunction , which is a function responsible for filling the canvas, or an array of shapes as content, which is rendered automatically using a generic render function.

  • options (object) – Options

The render function contains any code that draws on the canvas when the screen is shown. It is called with four arguments:

  • The timestamp contains a timestamp which represents the point in time at which the function is called. It represents the interval since page load, measured in milliseconds.
  • The second argument, canvas, contains a reference to the Canvas object provided by the canvas.Screen().
  • On third place, the ctx argument provides a canvas drawing context. This is used to actually place information on the canvas.
  • Finally, the obj argument provides a reference to the canvas.Screen() that is currently drawing the canvas.

The simplest possible canvas.Screen() might therefore be defined as follows:

// Define a simple render function
const renderFunction = function(ts, canvas, ctx, obj) {
  // The render function draws a simple text on the screen
    'Hello world', // Text to be shown
    canvas.width / 2, // x coordinate
    canvas.height / 2 // y coordinate

// Define a canvas.Screen that uses the render function
const example_screen = new lab.canvas.Screen({
  renderFunction: renderFunction,

// Run the component

Drawing mode: String, defaults to '2d'

Type of canvas context passed to the render function (via the ctx parameter, as described above). By default, the context will be of the 2d variety, which will probably be most commonly used in experiments. However, more types are possible, in particular if the content is three-dimensional or drawn using 3d hardware acceleration. [1]


Shift the origin of the coordinate system to the center of the visible canvas. Boolean, defaults to true

In conjunction with the viewport, this option helps in creating a coordinate system that is replicable across screen sizes.


Size of canvas content: Array, defaults to [800, 600]

Specifies the dimensions of the central canvas content (as tuple of width and height in pixels). In conjunction with viewportScale, this can be used to design a screen at a specific size and then, during the study, automatically scale this area to fit participants’ screen dimensions.


Scale viewport to fit screen: 'auto' (default), or numeric scale factor.

If set to 'auto', translates canvas coordinate system so that the visible area covered by the canvas is assigned a (virtual) width and height corresponding to the viewport size. The aspect ratio is perserved, so that the entirety of the viewport is always shown (empty space may be added at the top and bottom or at the sides, depending on the available space).

For any numeric value, the coordinate system is scaled so that n pixels on the canvas correspond to n * viewportScale browser pixel units.


Draw viewport borders: Boolean, defaults to false


Use native rendering resolution for high-DPI (retina) displays: Boolean, defaults to true

Examples and tricks

Drawing shapes

The most natural use of the canvas is to draw shapes on it. In comparison to using HTML and images, this approach will offer you greater flexibility and likely slightly better timing properties: As noted above, a canvas will provide faster drawing times since it does not need to load images and layout the page. This is particularly important if you are drawing different shapes in rapid succession.

A simple example, which shows a square, a circle and a triangle on screen, might be realized as follows:

const renderFunction = function(ts, canvas, ctx, obj) {
  // Draw a *square* ------------------------------------
  // (let's start easy!)
  ctx.fillStyle = '#164f86'
    canvas.width * 0.2 - 25,  // x coordinate
    canvas.height * 0.5 - 25, // y coordinate
    50, // width
    50  // height

  // Draw a *circle* ------------------------------------
  // Start a new path
    canvas.width * 0.4,  // x center
    canvas.height * 0.5, // y center
    27.5,                // radius
    0,                   // start angle
    2 * Math.PI          // end angle (in radians)
  // Fill the newly defined shape
  ctx.fillStyle = '#861001'

  // Draw a *triangle* ----------------------------------
  // (this is slightly more involved, as we
  // need to draw all the edges manually)
  let center_x = canvas.width * 0.6
  let center_y = canvas.height * 0.5 + 8 // (moved downward slightly)
  let r = 32 // radius


  // Move to the apex
    center_x + r * Math.cos((0/3 - 0.5) * Math.PI), // center + displacement
    center_y + r * Math.sin((0/3 - 0.5) * Math.PI)
  // First edge
    center_x + r * Math.cos((2/3 - 0.5) * Math.PI),
    center_y + r * Math.sin((2/3 - 0.5) * Math.PI)
  // Second edge
    center_x + r * Math.cos((4/3 - 0.5) * Math.PI),
    center_y + r * Math.sin((4/3 - 0.5) * Math.PI)
  // Fill the shape
  ctx.fillStyle = '#bd5b0c'

  // Draw a *polygon* -----------------------------------
  // (this uses the same principles as the
  // triangle above, but generalized and
  // written as a loop)
  center_x = canvas.width * 0.8
  center_y = canvas.height * 0.5
  r = 30
  let edges = 5


  // Draw the edges sequentially
  for (let i = 0; i <= edges; i += 1) {
    // Use trigonometry to calculate
    // the position of each vertex
    let x = center_x + r * Math.cos(i * 2 * Math.PI / edges - 0.5 * Math.PI)
    let y = center_y + r * Math.sin(i * 2 * Math.PI / edges - 0.5 * Math.PI)

    if (i === 0) {
      // For the first point, merely move the drawing cursor
      ctx.moveTo(x, y)
    } else {
      // Draw a line to each subsequent vertex
      ctx.lineTo(x, y)

  // Fill the shape spanned by the vertices
  ctx.fillStyle = '#0b5d18'

Sharp lines

When you draw lines on a canvas, you might notice that vertical and horizontal lines are not as sharp as you might have expected, namely if these lines have integer coordinates in both dimensions (or, to be exact, in that dimension in which the line does not extend).

The reason for this behavior is that the canvas coordinate system does not place points into the center of pixels, but rather at their edge. This means that any given point with integer coordinates is placed at the point at which the four surrounding pixels meet. Therefore, a vertical or horizontal line with integer coordinates in one dimension will always follow the edge between two adjacent pixels, and the browser will attempt to do this situation justice by drawing a slightly coloring both of the pixels in a slightly lighter shade than the line would otherwise have been.

To achieve crisp rendering and draw lines along the coordinate system (for lines where the width is an odd integer number), you’ll need offset the coordinates by half a pixel. You could shift the x and y coordinates of each drawing command by 0.5, or alternatively you might apply a global shift using ctx.translate(0.5, 0.5).

Advanced text placement

If you run the example above, you will notice that the text is not actually centered, but rather placed to right of the center of the screen, and slightly above the vertical center. This is is because, by default, the coordinates define the leftmost point at the baseline of the text (the baseline is the bottom of letters without descenders, such as all letters in this set of brackets) This placement is not typically the most helpful when putting together a screen. Instead, it is often easier to define the (vertical and horizontal) center of a given text. A ‘corrected’ render function might look as follows:

const renderFunction = function(ts, canvas, ctx, obj) {
  // Set a font size and family
  ctx.font = '40px Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif'

  // Center the text horizontally
  // around the specified coordinates
  ctx.textAlign = 'center'
  // Center the text vertically
  // around the center of lowercase letters
  ctx.textBaseline = 'middle'

  // Draw the text as before
    'Hello world',
    canvas.width / 2, // x
    canvas.height / 2 // y

Saving and resetting drawing options

In the last example, the code set several options for drawing on the canvas, such as the font size and type, and the positioning of text. The above code changes these attributes for the entire context, meaning that any later calls of the fillText method use the same alignment and font, until the respective options are changed. This behavior, however, is often not desirable. Often, options are used only once, and should be reverted to a sensible default after their application. This is possible through the and .restore() methods provided by a 2d drawing context. Invoking these methods saves the state of the current settings to an internal stack, to be restored at any later point.

Again extending the above render function, this might be used as follows:

const renderFunction = function(ts, canvas, ctx, obj) {
  // Set a font size and family as default
  ctx.font = '24px Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif'

  // Center the text horizontally and vertically
  ctx.textAlign = 'center'
  ctx.textBaseline = 'middle'

  // Save the context state

  // Draw some larger text
  ctx.font = '36px Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif'
    canvas.width / 2, // x
    canvas.height * 0.4 // y

  // Restore the previous state

  // Draw text using the initially defined size
    'Thank you for participating in this experiment',
    canvas.width / 2,
    canvas.height * 0.6

Using external libraries for drawing

If you find yourself building very complex interactive graphics using a canvas, consider enlisting a helper library to simplify drawing, such as three.js .

[1]If you ever do this, please let us know, we will award you the coveted lab.js brave soul award.