VTK/Tutorials/SmartPointers

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One way to create a VTK object is

vtkObject* MyObject = vtkObject::New();

This method, however, can (and likely will) lead to memory management issues at some point or another. You must manually delete the object

MyObject->Delete();

or you will have a memory leak. VTK's solution to this ever-annoying problem is the smart pointer. To use it, you must

#include "vtkSmartPointer.h"

Then you can create an object as follows:

vtkSmartPointer<vtkObject> MyObject = vtkSmartPointer<vtkObject>::New();

The idea behind smart pointers is reference counting. If the object goes out of scope and it is not being used anywhere else, it will be deleted automatically. Pretty 'smart', eh?!

When not allocating memory for an object, you can still use smart pointers. Take this simple example:

vtkSmartPointer<vtkXMLPolyDataReader> Reader = vtkSmartPointer<vtkXMLPolyDataReader>::New();
vtkPolyData* pd = Reader->GetOutput();

vs

vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> pd = Reader->GetOutput();

In the first case, when the reader object goes out of scope, the data is deleted. In the second case, by using a smart pointer we have incremented the data's reference count by 1, so the data will not be deleted until the reader AND the polydata object go out of scope.

Pitfalls

  • If you create an object and then change where it is pointing, the reference count will be incorrect. e.g.
vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> Polydata = vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData>::New();
Polydata = Reader->GetOutput();

In this case, memory is allocated for Polydata, but then we change Polydata to point to the output of Reader rather than the memory we just allocated. Instead, we should have done simply:

vtkPolyData* Polydata = Reader->GetOutput();

It was not necessary to use a smart pointer because we did not actually create any new objects.

Example

Here is an example of equivalent operations with and without smart pointers:

SmartPointers.cpp

#include <vtkFloatArray.h>
#include <vtkSmartPointer.h>

#include <iostream>

void WithSmartPointers();
void WithoutSmartPointers();

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
{
  WithSmartPointers();
  WithoutSmartPointers();
	
	return 0;
}

void WithSmartPointers()
{
  vtkSmartPointer<vtkFloatArray> Distances = vtkSmartPointer<vtkFloatArray>::New();
}

void WithoutSmartPointers()
{
  vtkFloatArray* Distances = vtkFloatArray::New();
  Distances->Delete();
}

CMakeLists.txt

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 2.6)

PROJECT(SmartPointers)

FIND_PACKAGE(VTK REQUIRED)
INCLUDE(${VTK_USE_FILE})

ADD_EXECUTABLE(SmartPointers SmartPointers.cpp)

TARGET_LINK_LIBRARIES(SmartPointers vtkHybrid)