1 Introduction

BrowserViz provides the basis for, and a very simple working example of, interactive R/browser visualization. Thus two interactive powerful and complementary environments are linked, creating a powerful hybrid setting for exploratory data analysis.

This work is motivated by our belief that contemporary web browsers, supporting HTML5 and Canvas, and running increasingly powerful Javascript libraries (for example, d3) and cytoscape.js have become the best setting in which to develop interactive graphics for exploratory data analysis. We predict that web browsers, already powerful and easily programmed, will steadily improve in rendiring power and interactivity, and thus remain the optimal setting for interactive R visualization for years to come.

Shiny and htmlwidgets are two very popular packages which provide solutions to this same general problem: how does one use the power of web browser graphics from R?
Both of these package create bindings in R to HTML widgets and Javascript objects. This creates representations for these objects in R: a button, a d3 scatterplot, an interactive geographic map. The two packages provide elegant support for these bindings and a clear path to creating more of them.

The principal different between BrowserViz and these worthy packages is the use of only loose coupling of R and the browser. In slogan form, our approach can be summarized, ``let R be R, and Javascript be Javascript’’. BrowserViz links wwo rich programming environments, but the environments are kept maximally ignorant of each other. Only simple JSON messages pass back and forth, and these are at a high semantic level: no HTML, CSS or Javascript. Rather than creating representations of web objects in R, which would be tight-coupling of the two environments, BrowserViz provides a style of programming in which

BrowserViz provides a very low threshold for those wishing to create R/web browser visualizations. This base package hides the complexity of websocket initiation and message passing. The websocket communication channel is created with a single R function call. Passing messages and handling responses is similarly simple. The intricacy (or simplicity) of the web browser interface is determined by the programmer. A vast collection of easily available books, examples, tutorials, and support websites make web browser programming especially easy to learn. The BrowserViz approach will be of interest to any programmer interested in the visualization of data, and proficient in – or willing to learn – both R and Javascript.

Standalone web sites can be created, but the primary intended audience for this package is the R programmmer exploring and analyzing data in R and using the browser visualization for the indispensable benefits it provides. We hope that many visualization tools will be created. We provide a simple x-y plotter (see BrowserVizDemoto illustrate how to write a BrowserViz subclass application. The Biocondcutor RCyjs package is a full-featured visualization tool for network visualization built upon cytoscape.js and the web browser.

The BrowserViz class, though a base class intended for subclassing, includes a simple demo which performs a few elementary browser manipulations, and queries the browser for some simple state (window size, window title, browser version). The principal goal of the package is to provide the the websocket ``plumbing’’ along with a standard (simple, open-ended) message protocol for communicating between the two environments.

2 Standard Message Format

Just as the ubiquitous and language-neutral websocket protocol provides the BrowserViz communication mechanism, so does JSON provide the message notation. Native data types in R (a named list, for instance) and Javascript (an object, with key:value pairs) are easily converted to and from JSON by libraries standard in each language. R data.frames are a little trickier.

We have adopted a simple, adaptable data structure flexible enough for all of the uses so far encountered. In JSON (and Javascript):

    {{cmd: "setBrowserWindowTitle",
      status: "request",
      payload: "BrowserViz Demo"}}

Websocket servers both send and receive messages. Thus a typical BrowserViz event begins with sending a message from one environment to the other, and often concludes with some sort of a return or callback message.

  msg <- toJSON(list(cmd="setBrowserWindowTitle",
                     payload="BrowserViz demo"))

The callback for this request could be empty, which by convention we encode as the empty string. The calling code, in R, and the receiving code, in Javascript, only need to be consistent. If the caller provides a non-empty callback, the Javascript receiver should craft and send a return message with the canonical four fields specifying cmd=callback and any payload the caller expects, perhaps

    {cmd: "handleResponse",
    status: "success",
    payload: "BrowserViz Demo"}

An empty payload could also be used, in which case the success status of the return command is the only information returned from Javascript to R. All decisions of this sort are left to the programmer. Often the same person writes the R and the Javascript code that talk back and forth over the websocket. If different programmers are involved, then careful communication and documentation is required, of the expectations, contraints and *payload( structure.

3 The Simple BrowserViz ``Application’’

We predict that the principal use of BrowserViz will be as a base class for other rich visualzation packages, and that authors of those derived classes will be be able to proceed without any direct involvement in the nuts and bolts of websocket creation and handling. Nonetheless, BrowserViz is a complete R/browser application, albeit one with only a few features. These features (R methods on the BrowserViz object), few though they be, are automatically available to all BrowserViz subclasses.

The last two of these methods are used in daily tests of this package. Conceptually simple, they also illustrate basic use:

Note that the browserVizBrowserFile mentioned in the second and sixth lines below, and which is included in this package, is a combination of HTML, javascript and css. When you construct a BrowerViz application, you supply this filename; this file is sent to the browser. When received and interpreted in the browser, the HTML is rendered into the page, and the Javascript code executes, requesting a websocket connection right back to the R session’s http/websocket server. After the connection is established, messages can flow back and forth between the two environments, R and the web browser.

browserVizBrowserFile <- system.file(package="BrowserViz", "browserCode",
                                     "dist", "bvDemoApp.html")
PORT_RANGE <- 12111:12120
   bvApp <- BrowserViz(browserFile=browserVizBrowserFile, quiet=TRUE)
   data <- list(lowercase=letters, uppercase=LETTERS)
   json.returned <- roundTripTest(bvApp, data)
   data.returned <- fromJSON(json.returned)
   message(sprintf("    %5d bytes exchanged", nchar(json.returned)))
   stopifnot(data == data.returned)
   html <- sprintf("<h3>round trip of json-encoded data, %d chars</h3>",
   displayHTMLInDiv(bvApp, html, "bvDemoDiv")