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Michael Heinrichs
Java, Android, JavaFX developer. Interested in agile management and public speaking. Loves his family and cooking.

Using the JavaFX AnimationTimer

In retrospect it was probably not a good idea to give the AnimationTimer its name, because it can be used for much more than just animation: measuring the fps-rate, collision detection, calculating the steps of a simulation, the main loop of a game etc. In fact, most of the time I saw AnimationTimer in action was not related to animation at all. Nevertheless there are cases when you want to consider using an AnimationTimer for your animation. This post will explain the class and show an example where AnimationTimer is used to calculate animations.
The AnimationTimer provides an extremely simple, but very useful and flexible feature. It allows to specify a method, that will be called in every frame. What this method is used for is not limited and, as already mentioned, does not have anything to do with animation. The only requirement is, that it has to return fast, because otherwise it can easily become the bottleneck of a system.
To use it, a developer has to extend AnimationTimer and implement the abstract method handle(). This is the method that will be called in every frame while the AnimationTimer is active. A single parameter is passed to handle(). It contains the current time in nanoseconds, the same as what you would get when calling System.nanoTime().
Why should one use the passed in value instead of calling System.nanoTime() or its little brother System.currentTimeMillis() oneself? There are several reasons, but the most important probably is, that it makes your life a lot easier while debugging. If you ever tried to debug code, that depended on these two methods, you know that you are basically screwed. But the JavaFX runtime goes into a paused state while it is waiting to execute the next step during debugging and the internal clock does not proceed during this pause. In other words no matter if you wait two seconds or two hours before you resume a halted program while debugging, the increment of the parameter will roughly be the same!
AnimationTimer has two methods start() and stop() to activate and deactivate it. If you override them, it is important that you call these methods in the super class.
The Animation API comes with many feature rich classes, that make defining an animation very simple. There are predefined Transition classes, it is possible to define a key-frame based animation using Timeline, and one can even write a custom Transition easily. But in which cases does it make sense to use an AnimationTimer instead? – Almost always you want to use one of the standard classes. But if you want to specify many simple animations, using an AnimationTimer can be the better choice.
The feature richness of the standard animation classes comes with a price. Every single animation requires a whole bunch of variables to be tracked – variables that you often do not need for simple animations. Plus these classes are optimized for speed, not for small memory footprint. Some of the variables are stored twice, once in the format the public API requires and once in a format that helps faster calculation while playing.
Below is a simple example that shows a star field. It animates thousands of rectangles flying from the center to the outer edges. Using an AnimationTimer allows to store only the values that are needed. The calculation is extremely simple compared to the calculation within a Timeline for example, because no advanced features (loops, animation rate, direction etc.) have to be considered.
package fxsandbox;

import java.util.Random;
import javafx.animation.AnimationTimer;
import javafx.application.Application;
import javafx.scene.Group;
import javafx.scene.Node;
import javafx.scene.Scene;
import javafx.scene.paint.Color;
import javafx.scene.shape.Rectangle;
import javafx.stage.Stage;

public class FXSandbox extends Application {
    private static final int STAR_COUNT = 20000;
    private final Rectangle[] nodes = new Rectangle[STAR_COUNT];
    private final double[] angles = new double[STAR_COUNT];
    private final long[] start = new long[STAR_COUNT];
    private final Random random = new Random();

    public void start(final Stage primaryStage) {
        for (int i=0; i<STAR_COUNT; i++) {
            nodes[i] = new Rectangle(1, 1, Color.WHITE);
            angles[i] = 2.0 * Math.PI * random.nextDouble();
            start[i] = random.nextInt(2000000000);
        final Scene scene = new Scene(new Group(nodes), 800, 600, Color.BLACK);
        new AnimationTimer() {
            public void handle(long now) {
                final double width = 0.5 * primaryStage.getWidth();
                final double height = 0.5 * primaryStage.getHeight();
                final double radius = Math.sqrt(2) * Math.max(width, height);
                for (int i=0; i<STAR_COUNT; i++) {
                    final Node node = nodes[i];
                    final double angle = angles[i];
                    final long t = (now - start[i]) % 2000000000;
                    final double d = t * radius / 2000000000.0;
                    node.setTranslateX(Math.cos(angle) * d + width);
                    node.setTranslateY(Math.sin(angle) * d + height);
    public static void main(String[] args) {

Reference: Using the JavaFX AnimationTimer from our JCG partner Michael Heinrichs at the Mike’s Blog blog.

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